Sunday, February 26, 2006


Killing for the Camera

Let's forget for a minute the decades old debate and curiosity as to whether commercial snuff films actually exist (the kind of film where an "actor" or "actress" is paid to actually be killed on screen, and the film is sold for monetary gain). In the wake of war in the Middle East, an entirely new kind of snuff film industry has risen to take its place, not for monetary gain, but for political leverage. In the Middle East, where public beheadings are commonplace, the stark impact of the executions (mostly beheadings) of American and European hostages caused a chill throughout the globe, yet they have changed little. (See, we understand how to punish the behavior of American soldiers at Abu Ghra prison, but these beheadings and suicide bombings seem beyond our comprehension. We can't truly get our brain around them. So, we report them, not knowing what to do or say.) These acts illustrate a completely different kind of mindset, with perhaps even less value for human life than the perpetrators of conventional western warfare possess. The grizzly images have become all too familiar -- hooded executers (with guns and blunt swords), standing behind their kneeling shackled victim. Absorbing the utter helplessness of the situation can make some nauseous (myself included). But then, the state sanctioned executions of North American criminals in movies such as Dancer in the Dark, I Want to Live, The Green Mile, and Dead Man Walking, also make me shutter. While the search for commercial snuff films has become sort of an ongoing guilty curiosity into cinematic urban legend for some, the death films from the Middle East are the real deal -- modern-day human sacrifices. Man's inhumanities to man is as old as the race itself, I grant you, but there's something about capturing these moments on film which crystallize the gruesome, hyper-animalistic nature of our species in ways most of us would rather not recognize. Perhaps that's why most of these films are not televised in the U.S. And yet, one has to wonder, "Why not?" Does watching these final painful moments in a human life play into the terroists' hands or does it weaken it, and strenghten the resolve of good people to stop it? It's one thing to see executions in fictional films, convincingly shown with state-of-the-art special effects and superior acting, but I have always argued that broadcasting "actual" state-sanctioned executions (much like the death films coming out of the Middle East) would make most good Americans sick to their stomach, and lead to an end of the death penalty.

I would like to be able to agree that seeing a live feed of an execution would somehow make us sick and rise up against them. Unfortunately, I think many would find it as a form of entertainment. When people were hung from the public square masses watched. Why? Did that cause any of them to rise up to oppose the executions? It was sport. People would not oppose such a thing. They would merely become numb to it.

Doesn't it bother you when there is an incredibly violent scene, perhaps even a death in a film (not meant as a comedy) and the crowd laughs and cheers? Some would argue that we laugh when we are uncomfortable with what we are witnessing. But it seems to me that if we as humans don't even show appropriate affect when someone is killed on screen I think we would be hard pressed to be impacted by live executions.
I agree with Ohio Girl. There have been public executions throughout huge swaths of recorded history right up to the present. To this day, both civil and religious authorities kill, torture and maim people publically in some countries. Those in charge have traditionally benefitted by instilling fear in their subjects while many people enjoy the thrill of watching someone else suffer and die. Schadenfreude and cruelty is part of what it is to be a human being. It's in our DNA. If someone had the rights to a PPV execution--especially of someone easy to despise like, say Scott Peterson or Paris Hilton--they would clean up.
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