Web Amplifies Message of Primitive Executions
Terrorists are reaching into homes around the world with images of
beheadings in Mideast.
Date: June 30, 2004
Section: Main News
The first time she felt numb. The second time she cried. Lillian
Glass, a Beverly Hills psychologist, was stunned at the barbarity of
terrorists beheading their hostages, right there on her computer
screen. Equally surprising was how easily she found the video online.
"You can't imagine anything worse," she says.
"Right now, they're coming into your home. It's like they're
using technology as a vehicle for war."
Ritual beheading is as primitive as war gets. But 21st century
technology is making the grisly details of such killings visible to
millions around the world.In what has become a war of images, the
slayings of businessman Nicholas Berg, engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr.
and South Korean interpreter Kim Sun Il have been publicized through
both conventional media channels and the raw, unfiltered chambers of
It is impossible to say how many people have watched the videos
over the Internet. But "Nick Berg" was the second most
popular search request on Google in May, following "American
Idol." Last week, the most popular search was for "Paul
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kenneth McGuire, who oversees the
cyber-crime squad in Los Angeles, says that disseminating video of
such violent acts over the Internet is a new form of cyber-terrorism
-- one proving difficult to contain.
Some Internet services have tried to shut down sites that host
such videos, but the images continue to flow. Over the weekend there
were new kidnappings and threats of beheading, and with them, the
possibility of more videos to come.
Publicizing their atrocities has always been part of the strategy
for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, says Josh Devon, an analyst
at the SITE Institute in Washington, which tracks terrorist
"The point of terrorism is to strike fear and cause havoc --
and that doesn't happen unless you have media to support that action
and show it to as many people as they can," Devon says.
Terrorists used to circulate propaganda via publications and audio-
or videotapes, but the Internet has supplanted those methods.
"Suddenly, it's not only text, but pictures and video and audio
clips which are attacking all the senses at once," he says.
In the United States, news executives who traditionally draw the
line at depicting the most graphic war violence now face a media
landscape where millions get unfiltered images on the Internet almost
instantaneously. By posting digital video or photos on the Web,
terrorist groups make it almost certain that the news media will air
at least some of the images.
Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the
Study of Popular Culture, says that poses complicated questions. Do
media outlets limit themselves, knowing the videos are widely
available? Or do they show everything and run the risk of doing
exactly what the terrorists wanted?
"In essence, the terrorists are directing a movie for the
world to see," Thompson says, "yet the media has to cover
it, and the world does in fact see it."
Many networks and news sites obtained the full video of Berg's
killing from the website of a militant Islamic group but used only a
fraction of it. Most opted for footage of victims kneeling in front
of captors before the executions. Last week, such images popped up
repeatedly as teasers to TV news programs and on Internet news sites.
"If people can't watch, we've lost our ability to convey
information," says Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News.
Yet the overwhelming online interest in such images belies the
notion of viewer squeamishness. For reasons that may include a simple
desire to keep up with the news, morbid curiosity or salaciousness,
people are digging past the mainstream news sites to find the raw
Any news stories containing graphic violence -- including the
abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and the attacks on four
American civilians in Fallouja -- prompt an "astronomical"
spike in photo and video viewing online, says Michael Sims, news
director for cbsnews.com.
In recent months, he says, "we've really been forced to sit
down and talk through the issues and decide for ourselves where the
lines are. To tell the story, not sugarcoat it, but not be
Almost anyone with a digital camera and a laptop can upload
images, Devon says. Terrorists in many cases are using U.S.
technology and Web hosting services for these digital attacks, he
says, noting that Microsoft's Windows XP operating system comes with
video editing software. The point of origin for files uploaded to a
Web page is "virtually untraceable," he says.
The websites don't last long -- they often are shut down within 24
hours because of user complaints. A GeoCities page with photos of
Johnson's beheading in Saudi Arabia collapsed within three hours. But
in this case the reason was that the site was overwhelmed by the
number of users trying to access the communique and photos, Devon
By that time, the images had been downloaded, copied and passed
on. Now they easily can be found along with the other beheadings via
any Web search engine.
Not everyone buys the explanation, posted by one website, that it
aims to "discourage" terrorists by showing how evil they
are. Tom Kunkel, president of American Journalism Review, called the
justification a "fig leaf."
"Any news outlet -- or any private individual, for that
matter -- who makes available footage of the actual beheadings is, to
my mind, an accessory to the crime itself," says Kunkel, dean of
journalism at the University of Maryland. "Those are the
individuals who are essentially finishing the work of the terrorists,
by delivering their grisly 'message.' "
Some viewers have been hit hard. Psychologists say they're getting
responses that vary from depression and feelings of vulnerability to
outrage and the desire for revenge.
"I'm hearing colleagues saying they should go and cut [the
terrorists'] heads off," says Anie Kalayjian, a Fordham
University psychology professor who specializes in disasters and mass
trauma. Some Vietnam veterans she counsels -- both perpetrators and
victims of brutality -- are experiencing nightmares and flashbacks,
symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.
Beheading is a powerfully brutal act that taps into very primal
human fears, Kalayjian says. Watching video -- on TV or the Internet
-- can trigger symptoms in the same way seeing the act in person can.
"Now we're not just reading it in the newspaper. We're seeing
the process, hearing the outcries, the suffering, pain and
terror," she says.
Some regret their decision to look. Writing in New York magazine,
forensic pathologist Jonathan Hayes said he clicked on a link to
video of the beheading of Berg out of a desire to see the true nature
of the war and a sense of "professional curiosity."
Not only did the video unleash feelings of fury, despair and
revenge, it also left him unable to detach himself from his work,
which had involved recovering bodies from the World Trade Center
after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "I wish I hadn't made that
choice: to look at something I have managed to avoid seeing, while
looking at it every day," he wrote.
Glass also sought out the Internet videos because she thought they
were an important part of the news. She says she will be haunted by
the images forever. But still, she says, she's glad she watched.
"At least I'm more informed, and I know what these people are
capable of. We're seeing how primitive, how demented, how inhumane
this behavior is."
Worse, in some ways, was hearing Kim's gut-wrenching pleas for his
life -- screams she already knew were useless -- over the radio.
Glass says they came repeatedly, and each time unexpectedly, every
time ABC Radio talk show host Sean Hannity cut for a commercial.
A spokesman for the show said warnings were given upfront that the
material might be disturbing.
To Glass, that type of broadcast went too far. "It sickened
me. You felt his fear. It was chilling to every part of your