"Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up — he had judged. 'The horror!'" --Marlow, speaking of Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Like most people who prefer to keep nightmares caged in the subconscious, the better to dissolve upon waking, I've so far avoided the offerings of Al Hayat, the self-described "media arm" of the self-described Islamic State, aka ISIS. Who in his right mind would want to bring this stuff into the daylight? What emotionally healthy person would choose to bring the image of a decapitation into his or her thoughts? For once you've done that, of course, it is liable to intrude at the most inconvenient times. You've "peeped over the edge," to quote Conrad, and what is down there can no longer be denied.
Now, the reason for this avoidance of the awful is, to put it plainly, fear, and fear is of itself nothing to be ashamed of. It's what keeps us alive, and sane. More precisely, I think, it's abhorrence that keeps us from clicking on that hyperlink to hell. Watching an ISIS video strikes us as being like putting a plate of steaming shit on the dinner table. There, right next to the rump roast, is a noxious reminder of what it will soon enough become. And again, there are good reasons not to invite revulsion. But because fear is associated with timidity and weakness, we feel a need to back it up, and like most people, I've rationalized my refusal to watch Jihadi John commit murder for the camera as a kind of moral strength. "Not giving in." Denying ISIS its bloody fifteen minutes of fame. And lurking behind this wall of moral fortitude is the sense that if we did in fact watch the cursed thing, we might in some way be complicit. Voyeurs. Peeping Toms. Or worse, like someone watching a snuff film. We fear that the smell of evil would stick to us.
Earlier today, A Facebook post on the subject of the latest ISIS video read, "I don't need to see child pornography to know it happens." But in fact, sometimes we do need to see it. God knows that the FBI and Interpol need to see it, otherwise they'd be busting kiddie porn rings based solely on second-hand reports. Likewise, agencies of government and the military are obliged to verify these grisly ISIS "propaganda videos" precisely because the internet has made the line between fact and simulacrum so easy to blur. Same thing with the media: the press has a duty to report based on events, not staged reenactments.
But these people, my Facebook poster might argue, have a job to do. They have no choice but to watch. What, he might ask, is my job? What critical "interest" do I have that justifies even a moment's attendance to this horror show? Here's the best answer I can give you right now: my job as a moral being is to know the absolute worst that my fellow humans can do, and to know it viscerally, so that the next time I consider watching a movie, say, from the Saw franchise, I consider the implications.
I cannot stomach any kind of brutality. The only time I ever punched a kid was when I saw him tearing the wings off a black swallowtail. And casual brutality--the sort enacted with a swagger or even a smirk--is the worst. And so when I sat down in front of the computer at 3 am yesterday morning and said to myself, "All right, you are going to witness this thing for yourself," my stomach was in knots. As the video's "prelude" commenced: slickly-done English subtitles and voiceover, ominously liturgical music bed, "golden hour" lighting, and trendy rip cuts speeding the procession of the 21 condemned men along the shore at Sirte, each with his own personal executioner, my pulse began to race and my heart pound my windpipe. I forced myself not to look away from the faces of these good men, these Copts with wives and children just across the border, as they dropped to their knees in the wet sand. Each one knew that he was thinking his last thoughts--there is no mistaking that look--and remarkably, almost all were able to gain some courage from those thoughts. I suspect that most of them took the form of prayer. Only one man's mouth was twisted up in that muscle reflex we know has only one function: to suppress sobbing. He broke my heart, but he didn't break. As the narrator spoke of the blood that would color the sea from Tripoli to Rome, the faces of the condemned were brought to the sand. A hand on the back of the neck was all it took. They had been prepared, perhaps even rehearsed.
In case you haven't come across this information elsewhere, you should know that an ISIS decapitation is not a clean cut. No Mme. Guillotine, no single fall of the axe. The head is pulled back by the hair and sawed off, much in the way a turkey leg is separated from the thigh. It's fast, because the knives are sharp, but there is effort involved, and there is--in those few seconds--a history of dying told on each man's face. One face in particular seemed to have caught the director's attention, because he lingered on it, even as the digital strands were assembled in Final Cut Pro, and I will not forget it as long as I live. The face bore a look that was far more than pain--though we'd delude ourselves to think that pain wasn't part of it. The look said, "God help me. It's all going away." And then it was gone.
I know that man now. I have imagined a life for him. A dusty bordertown not far from Sollum and the curve of its gulf--not far from where, seventy-five years ago, the British fought the 62 Infantry Division Marmarica of the Italian fascists, and two-thousand years before that, Rome kept its port of Baranis. I have imagined a wife, and seen her weeping. And I have imagined children not yet old enough to understand, but nonetheless aware that something is terribly, terribly wrong. If in my imagining, I have come even a sidereal blink closer to knowing this man, or in my witnessing his death, to knowing where evil lives, then my troubled sleep is a price worth paying.