A man suspected of taking part in the Crocus Hall attack (TATYANA MAKEYEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

March 27, 2024   5 mins

On Friday evening, an X personality called Ian Miles Cheong posted a video of Isis terrorists marauding through the entrance of a concert hall in Moscow, calmly shooting to death scores of civilians in their path. I don’t follow Cheong, although I’m aware of his “work”. And that particular tweet, like so many others on X these days, came to me unbidden. I clicked on the video anyway, and was transfixed by the grainy horror and cold ruthlessness of the killers who, by the end of their rampage, had murdered at least 133 people. Other videos of the attack have since surfaced on X, but I went out of my way to find those ones.

As someone who researches and writes about terrorism for a living, I could say that I had a professional interest in watching this type of murder porn, but that would be only half-true; I wanted to watch. I had no good reason to, unless writing this article justifies watching a terrorist repeatedly slash a man’s throat with a knife, as was shown in a minute-and-a-half video released on Saturday by Isis’s Amaq News Agency and further amplified on X by a Right-wing British activist called Tommy Robinson. I’m not so sure about the soundness of that justification.

These videos are defiling. No one has the right to watch a video of someone getting murdered or their stricken body mutilated by a group of killers. To do so is to violate their privacy and dignity. And it’s nothing less than an abomination that someone like Cheong, who is handsomely paid via Twitter ad revenue, should receive a financial reward for circulating these videos to his nearly one million followers. Cheong later tweeted on Friday that he would not be posting any more videos or images of the Crocus City Hall attack, “as it does not serve anyone’s interest to see the lifeless, and bloody bodies of so many innocent people”. However, this thought didn’t seem to have crossed his mind a few hours earlier that very evening.

When the American journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded on camera in 2002, the Islamist militants behind it set a grim precedent, launching an era of the terrorist snuff film that continues unabated to this day. Terrorism, as Brian Jenkins pointed out some 50 years ago, is a form of theatre, “aimed at the people watching”. But Pearl’s beheading signalled something new in the history of political violence: the use of the camera as a weapon of terror and radicalisation.

Prior to this, terrorists parasitically used the international media to disseminate the news of their atrocities, just as that media was in turn parasitic on them for news stories. But now with access to cheaper and better cameras, they could become auteurs of terror, with total creative control over their own spectacles of violence. This development reached its apogee with the rise of Isis in 2014 when, within the space of four chaotic years of expansion and contraction, the group presided over the murder of over 2,400 people on camera. Many of these murders were carefully staged, but others were recorded on GoPro cameras from the POV of the killer-assassins.

Just as Isis was about to lose its last sliver of territory in Syria in March 2019, Brenton Tarrant launched a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 Muslims. He had livestreamed part of the attack on Facebook. Tarrant, a far-Right terrorist, had assiduously followed the Isis playbook, using maximum savagery to generate maximum exposure. But not even Isis had livestreamed their atrocities, a further innovation that has since been copied: in May 2022, another far-Right terrorist called Payton Gendron murdered 10 African-Americans at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, broadcasting his shooting spree on Twitch, an online gaming platform.

At the same time, the victims of terrorism have become auteurs of their own terror: thanks to the ubiquity of the smartphone, we can now see terrorism from the point of view of the victims and in real time. This, too, is a new and significant development in the history of terrorist communication and, as with any new technological innovation, the ethics around watching and disseminating these videos have yet to be fully worked out.

“The victims of terrorism have become auteurs of their own terror.”

Many of the videos of last week’s attack in Moscow were recorded by those who were on the receiving end, desperately fleeing or hiding from the gunmen. These videos are not as shocking as the footage produced by the killers, but they are nonetheless horribly visceral, taking the viewer into the foreground of the horror as it’s unfolding. Should you watch?

There are two contrasting ways of thinking about this. One is that, by recording their “lived” death or near-death experiences, the victims of terrorism want us to watch and to witness their private trauma and suffering as a form of recognising some public truth: This happened to us. The implicit assumption is that the viewer should witness both the horror of their experience and the inhumanity of those who are inflicting it on them: that we should not feel complacent or indifferent to their suffering. As Susan Sontag put it in Regarding the Pain of Others: “Let the atrocious images haunt us”; let us not shy away from “what human beings are capable of doing — may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously”.

Perhaps this is why so many of the partygoers who were attacked by Hamas at the Nova music festival in Israel on October 7 filmed it on their smartphones: they wanted to document and certify the unthinkable horror that was happening to them, just as they had filmed every other significant event in their all-too-short lives. The Israeli government, for its part, publicly released attack footage from both Hamas fighters, who filmed some of their atrocities on GoPro cameras, and terrified Israeli victims as they hid and sought refuge moments before their death. In one tweet, the Israeli government posted footage of Hamas fighters shooting a dog, explaining: “We wish we didn’t have to share these videos, but we can’t stop. We need you all to know.”

The opposing viewpoint is that watching spectacles of terror is fraught with moral risk and should be avoided. This is for two reasons: first, watching directly colludes with the terrorists who want people to watch their acts of terror, regardless of whose perspective the horrifying footage is recorded from. Second, there is the possibility that, in repeatedly watching images of terror, we become desensitised to them, leading to passivity or even a perverse kind of voyeurism that, like pornography, creates an insatiable desire for ever more extreme content. This was Sontag’s original concern in On Photography, published in 1977, before changing her mind in Regarding the Pain of Others, which appeared in 2003. Atrocity images, she then worried, can “transfix” and “anesthetise” after repeated exposure.

Given the rise of the smartphone and a social media driven by outrage and excess, Sontag’s later position looks less and less convincing by the day. We should, of course, know about the suffering of others, but the sheer volume of haunting images that now assail us, bidden or otherwise, fundamentally changes the calculus. We have surely now gone beyond a saturation point, and although it’s hard to completely avoid gratuitous online atrocity footage, one quick and easy way of seeing markedly less of it is to unfollow or block those shameless content-curators who make a career out of exploiting our most base impulses.

Yet this is easier said than done. “There is a demand for crazy on the internet that we have to grapple with,” former President Barack Obama said in April 2002. And I am just as susceptible to that demand as everyone else hooked on social media. Perhaps this explains why I so loathe the curators of online atrocity porn: they show you disgusting things and arouse your curiosity, and then you feel no small measure of self-disgust for watching. This is, of course, less than ideal — but it’s at least better than feeling nothing at all.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.