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February 18, 2008


Prurience? Propaganda? Or the proper outlet for outrage?

Fox News is reporting that there is some recycled footage, now on the Internet, that supposedly shows yet another gruesome video from the al-Qaeda archive: Iraqi prisoners allegedly being drenched in flammable fluid and then set on fire. The tape is extremely graphic and unsettling.

Among the questions the clip raises: By carrying the footage are Web sites perpetuating the al-Qaeda propaganda cause through the pure prurience of yet another snuff film? Or is the tape, as it purports to be, part of a counter-al-Qaeda effort? Do the violent scenes help to recruit or to incriminate?

As it happens, this same dichotomy is addressed by Virginia Heffernan in a piece in today’s New York Times that deals ostensibly with violent images on so-called “gross-out” Web sites. Quoth Heffernan, in a manner reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others:

“Let’s not be naïve: the motives of journalists, human rights workers, documentarians and doctors who draw attention to nauseating images are not always pure. In his terrific book about nonfiction writing called Follow the Story, James B. Stewart argues that ‘writers cannot count on anyone to read their work out of a sense of obligation, moral duty or abstract dedication to “being informed.” ’ Instead, he says, the best stories in journalism engage an amoral quality in the reader: curiosity. Stories that are strange work best; we want to see what’s weird, what’s unexpected, what we’re not supposed to see.

“We look at the Abu Ghraib photos, or skateboard wipeouts, or even dermoid cysts, because we’re curious. Curiosity powers every Internet vision quest. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But we shouldn’t call it courage either.”

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