The MW files: The pornography of violence

(First published in Man’s World, April 2002)

There used to be a website called www.rotten.com, which was often cited as the representative of everything that was disgusting about the Internet. The good souls at www.rotten.com put up images of all the stuff you devoutly hope your kids are protected from: a penis wrapped in the US flag, maggots on a corpse, close-ups of a botched abortion. No matter how hardheaded or blase the viewer, www.rotten.com was guaranteed to have found at least one image that made you want to puke. But to avoid it was easy enough–no one was forcing you to type in the URL.

I first checked out www.rotten.com in the Dark Ages of Internet access in India–when it took much patience and a litany of prayers to VSNL to send a simple text file across the Net. For most Net users in India, that medieval age is long since over. Images, audiofiles and streaming video files fly back and forth across the cyberwaves now. It’s still not easy to send, say, an entire two-hour video file, but it isn’t impossible by any means, and should only get easier as we upgrade to better computers and more bandwidth.

Among the first images that started coming into my inbox were three photographs accompanying an unsolicited email sent by a Hindu right-wing group in the wake of the murder of Graham Staines and his two children. It trod the familiar path of yes-the-murder-was-wrong-but-you-must-realise-we-have-been-provoked-too. It offered three images that purported to be of Hindus who had been killed by unnamed fanatics. The email popped up in my Yahoo account, which automatically opens images for you as you read: two of the images were of the Nellie massacre, one was blurred. The Hindutva chaps who sent this on its rounds had figured that most of their recipients wouldn’t be able to tell one massacre from another–all that was needed was pictures of dead bodies.

The World Trade Centre bombing triggered off another wave of images–some touching, some fraudulent (like the video clip from a tourist’s camera that did the rounds like wildfire), some wildly satirical, like the one of George Bush in Ayatollah garb. And soon I began to get used to it. War in Bosnia? Send images. Tension among the Israelis and the Palestinians again? The video files, audio interviews (some so blatantly edited that even a novice could see they’d been doctored), JPG files came streaming in. Most were deleted in the same way as spam–all those moving, jerky clips of strangers pleading for their lives, all those stark photographs of starving children, all those audio files set against a background of machine-gun fire.

In my mind, I could no longer figure out what reeked more of apathy. Was it more heartless to open those files, look at those images, and move on seamlessly to the poem a friend had sent, a cartoon a colleague thought you’d enjoy? Or was it worse to dismiss them indifferently, not even bothering to give the genuine victims of warfare and persecution a chance to have their wounds recorded for history?

It was the medium–the informality of the inbox–that set up these questions at all. Most of us born and brought up in the blue glow of the idiot box don’t think twice about switching Bosnia off, about registering a bomb blast in Ireland and going straight on to the soaps on Star Plus, about tuning out the Gujarat pogrom in order to catch Friends. I could see a pattern here. Just as, in the first years of email, many of my friends had first responded enthusiastically to email petitions from Amnesty, Greenpeace, the UN, we had eventually switched off. There were too many petitions, and too many of them circulated endlessly, coming back to you to be signed when you had already signed it some six months previously. Did anyone at all read them? Did they ever end up on the desk of someone who might make a difference? I shifted gear on this after the massacres in Gujarat, signing as many petitions as were sent to me, feeling the need to register a protest. Last week, some of them started coming back again. By next month, I’ll probably hit Delete without thinking too hard about it.

Just as I’d decided I was a mugwump about the whole issue–a mugwump being a professional fencesitter, and me, in the words of an old friend, having got used to my mug being on one side of the question, my wump on the other, an MPEG file changed everything.

Perhaps it’s popped up in your mailbox too. Perhaps you’ve opened it yourself, perhaps you saved it on your hard drive. Perhaps you winced and deleted it. Perhaps you never thought very hard about it at all. It’s a small MPEG file, a clip from the video of Daniel Pearl’s last moments. The networks never aired the actual execution of Danny Pearl. His parents and family elected not to see their son being killed for being a reporter in the wrong place at the wrong time. A day or two after the Pearl murder, the video was briefly up in all its brutal savagery on Yahoo!, but someone quietly removed it after a while. It’s available on the Net, incidentally, very easily available. It must be; in the last few weeks, about eight different people have sent me what I assume is the same MPEG file of Pearl’s execution.

I couldn’t bring myself to view the file, though I know that many friends did. Many of the people who sent me the file were reacting in shock, horror and outrage–two of them mentioned that hard as it was to watch, they felt they owed it to the memory of Pearl not to turn away. One of the people who sent it on to me encapsulated his sense of voyeurism in the subject heading: “Danny Pearl video: contemporary cult classic?” he wrote. Two sent it in a spirit of more or less idle voyeurism: have you seen this, everyone at office was talking about it. One was angry and deeply upset: how can people do this to each other, this person wrote in genuine anguish after viewing the file.

Perhaps it is hypocritical not to watch the video clipping. If I could look at pictures of a Vietnamese man being executed, or of cars burning in Gujarat, entire families reduced to skeletons inside, is it logical to feel that to watch Pearl’s last moments is the act of a voyeur, an invasion of human privacy?

Logical or not, something deep inside of me is shocked at the idea of downloading the compressed, digitised rendering of a video made by his killers of the man they slaughtered. To click on the helpful lines–download this file? Save to disk?–makes me in some way complicit with this new pornography of violence.

On some filesharing websites, the Danny Pearl MPEG file is one of the most popular downloads. Right up there with excerpts from Lord of the Rings and A Beautiful Mind, just another entertainment capsule for our viewing pleasure. Squeamish or not, illogical or not, I know I’ll keep deleting that MPEG file every time it comes around. It’s not the RIP that Danny Pearl deserved, god knows.

Nilanjana S Roy

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