Examining our appetite for shock and awe in the Internet age.
In the last five years a major shift has occurred, allowing anyone with a camera, a Tumblr, or a YouTube account to become their own media baron, resulting in a great influx of imagery that had previously been considered taboo. The safety net has been removed from our media platforms and the terrors made visible through them are intensifying beyond the control of corporate media curators.
Earlier this week, the media safety net was breached in a stunning way when two Englishmen killed a returned soldier in the small town of Woolwich, England. Cell phone footage of the moments immediately following the attack were published, showing an nightmarishly lucid speech from one of the attackers, hands covered in fresh blood, dirtied knife still in-hand.
"A major shift has occurred, allowing anyone with a camera, a Tumblr, or a YouTube account to become their own media baron, resulting in a great influx of imagery that had previously been considered taboo."
"The only reasons we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily," the man said. "This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We apologize that women had to see this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don't care about you."
Initial media reports described the attackers as "crazed" but the footage is unnervingly calm and apologetic, containing a rationale for the horrific act that mirrors that logic of the US military's approach to combat, and its definition of any military-age male in a strike zone as a "combatant."
The last half century has seen various configurations of Western military partnerships engage in warfare around the world, culminating with the post-9/11 declaration of open-ended war on people who make us experience "terror," an undertaking so broad it starts with the guarantee of its own impossibility. There will never be a time when we aren't susceptible to terror, and so there will never be a time when we aren't at war.
In portraying the insanity of this outlook news reports, film, television, and Facebook arguments have often been scrubbed of the worst evidence of violence, creating a vacuum where debates about drone strikes, midnight raids, and military atrocities occur in the most abstract terms. We argue about the moral basis for actions that the media never shows, creating a culture where people have opinions about the rightness or wrongness of a military strategy without ever having to see what its human consequences are.
The handful of controversial military events in the last few years—gruesome beheading videos, photographs of the torture at Abu Ghraib, footage of the 2007 Baghdad helicopter attacks that made WikiLeaks famous—have all been so powerful not just for what they show, but for how unlike the everyday media depictions of combat and warfare they were.
The vulgarization of media publishing tools have made it so that we no longer have to live inside the cautiously curated spheres of corporate media. In Woolwich, we see all the strange new speak of our War on Terror rhetoric joined to an act of horror that reminds us all of the moral and ethical chess games we've played in the safely distant suburbs of the west are ultimately still about killing other people, and that when committed to a political agenda of killing people, for good or bad reasons, those people can sometimes kill back.
While we argue in abstract about the virtues of waging war against terrorists, we live in communities that value peaceful conflict resolution above everything. This distinction is captured in the Woolwich video, the confrontation between two worlds—the attackers acting out to an extreme, while the on-lookers avoid any kind of action at all, and the one brave woman who does approach peacefully reasons with the man. She does not attack or incite others to join her, but acknowledges that there is a larger social system that will do that on the town's behalf, that they will only fight as an absolute last case option.
The video captures the moral hypocrisy of our culture at large, we cling to peaceful ideals on the individual level and easily slip into violent barbarism when drawn into abstract media debates. When the old censorious checks on what is allowable for broadcast are gone, we discover the horror of this duality, and the extent to which our thoughtless arguments justify things we could never tolerate in person.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.