ISIL? Torture porn? Dashcam crashes? Failblog? We are what we internet

In late August, an unknown, shadowy group reportedly kidnapped seven fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Their plan was to torture and kill them, and livestream the act over a hidden part of the Internet known as the “Dark Web.” While this all turned out to be a hoax, the excitement it caused speaks broadly to our fascination with the morbid, and a desire to see our enemies suffer. While technology itself may be amoral, the actions facilitated through it plainly are not. We are becoming what we are fighting, and technology is helping.

Fictionalized horror enthralls us. According to IMDB, 157 horror films were released in 2000. By 2014, that number swelled to 922 films, a 487% increase. Nearly 70 “torture porn” movies, like Saw and Human Centipede, were released between 2003 and 2010. Clearly, many of us delight in the onscreen depiction of pain and torment. Indeed, we like to see people in agony.

We are afflicted with what Edgar Allen Poe calls the “imp of the perverse”—the desire to do or see something we know is wrong or harmful. Fictional or not, all of us have gawked at the peril and misfortune of others. Growing up, I remember viewing a film called Faces of Death, a movie that captured the unfortunate deaths of real people. One scene revealed a young man parachuting into what turned out to be an alligator-infested swamp. Once he landed, he was eaten alive. I was riveted with anxiety. I knew what was going to happen, I knew he was going to die, and I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t help myself.

Poe asks us to imagine standing on the edge of a cliff:

We peer into the abyss–we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably, we remain. By slow degrees, our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape … one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height.

The delight in the horror—we’ve all been there. Who hasn’t enjoyed a few YouTube videos of fathers hit in the crotch by wiffle ball bats, skateboarders crashing headlong into concrete pylons, or folks thumped in the face with a kickball. Likewise, many of us can’t drive past an automobile accident without slowing down and staring, hoping to see something disturbing. A mangled limb. Flowing blood. Something.

But watching the deliberate torture and killing of a living thing is different. And perhaps the excitement of viewing the murder of an ISIL fighter is a function of the communities where the rumored torture was first reported: 4chan and Reddit. Some media reports suggest that several Redditors were more eager to confirm the existence of “red rooms” (torture chambers on the Dark Web) than watching an Islamic State fighter suffer and die. Or, more simply, maybe we just want to see justice served, online and live.

Whatever the intent of the viewers, it’s evident that technology nurtures what author Eric Wilson in his book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck calls the “buffer,” that “mental power that preserves the intensity of terror, but keeps it from consuming us, that enables us to find meaning in the suffering, insight in the danger.”

Late this summer, Vester Lee Flanagan murdered two people on live television. Within minutes, he posted the video of the killings on Twitter and Facebook. An examination of the footage confirms that Flanagan took it from his point of view. And, like most of us who capture video with our phones, he doesn’t look at the scene he’s filming. He watches his misdeeds through the screen on his phone. In doing so, he mediates his experience of the shootings through his device. He creates Wilson’s “buffer,” separating himself from the fullness of his actions, from the intensity of the terror.

Similarly, hopeful spectators of this made-up torture chamber buffered their experience. It felt like a movie, fictitious and unreal. Because it was watched through a computer screen over the anonymous web, would-be viewers mediated their involvement. They separated themselves from the act. And the explanation that it was an exercise in proving the existence of red rooms isn’t sufficient. The cruel spectacle planned by the supposed kidnappers gave us an outlet. We are wont to see misery. Like rubbernecking at an accident, we delight in the discomfort. Especially when it’s visited upon an enemy.

But, in creating theater out of terror, in reducing torture and murder to a performance, we reflect the brutality of ISIL. In our eagerness to satisfy our perverse imps, we risk amplifying the cruelty of technology-mediated suffering. ISIL is no show. It’s not theater. They are technically savvy and have proven time and again their adroitness at marketing. Their videos are choreographed and produced in an exacting, premeditated way to maximize the display of real violence. And they have no limits. When ISIL decides to intensify their viciousness, when they decide to brutally murder more people, when they decide to livestream it direct into your home, will you watch?

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