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Should you watch footage of terrorist attacks? Whether from Israel or Russia, these spectacles will defile you

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

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.


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Bret Larson
Bret Larson
2 months ago

Have never watched any of the snuff video’s. Course I’m not on social media. But you don’t have to watch the stuff. There is no reason to and plenty of reason not to. Why help terrorist agendas? And the regular media has their hand in the same market.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 months ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Quite so. The author says he’s susceptible to the stuff because he’s hooked on social media, without making the obvious inference. Come off X, tick tock etc, not just so as not to help terrorist agendas, but also for your own moral and mental welfare.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Where is his personal responsibility? Is he a sheep? Just because these things are available, doesnt mean, as an adult, you have to watch them.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

Fully agree. But if you insist on living in a sewer, don’t be surprised if floods of effluent come your way

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
2 months ago

Simple: Choose not to watch. Be better than the loser barbarians that creat this trash. Just be better than these losers
 (this is coming from someone who will be happy to learn that the Russians properly retaliated on these barbarians so long as they get only the actual guilty parties). I just won’t demean myself by watching. Though if it were my duty I would have no problem pulling the trigger on the perpetrators


Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 months ago

I’ve not watched any of it willingly, just the few clips of Nova that came on the news. Of course it’s brutalising – it’s meant to be. It’s a main tool of Hamas, whose ‘content creators’ even use actors.

I have a nephew who follows various ‘pro-Palestinian’ influencers on X. He’s so far down the rabbit hole it’s terrifying. He also manages to be a Putin fan-boy.

Social media feeds its users ‘more of the same’ so that, eventually, they are funnelled into cess pits of propaganda.

I gave this nephew one of my digital subscriptions and regularly link him to informative articles by recognised experts in geopolitics. He frequently reacts angrily after reading a few sentences – ‘that guy just can’t stand Putin’


He links me to a post on X. I look up the source, and tell him he’s following Kremlin (or IS) propaganda.

It’s exhausting.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

My condolences for your situation. Some kids are more susceptible to nonsense than others. Hopefully it’s a phase. If he’s somewhere between fourteen and twenty-five, it’s not surprising. Lots of kids have an idealistic phase where they become very passionate about some cause or another. They usually moderate as they get older and accumulate experience, realizing that the world isn’t black and white. I personally never had an idealistic phase. I was always the kid that had to question the why of everything and do things my own way. I was jaded and cynical by the time I was in high school. Trust me when I say that comes with it’s own set of problems as well.

Edward H
Edward H
2 months ago

I think it depends on context, not just of the videos/images and how they came to be made, but also the identity/personality of the viewer. Anecdotally, I know people who have changed their opinions when confronted with this kind of evidence. It can be epistemologically valuable for people who tend not to believe media and prefer to see raw evidence.

Terry M
Terry M
2 months ago
Reply to  Edward H

After all, we have Holocaust deniers. Actual footage of terror keeps it from being easily denied. When denial is attempted – see Hamas sympathizer comments – these people are outed as liars, not to be trusted.
I believe it is worthwhile to see an occasional terror incident to remind me of just how horrible the terrorists are. I can’t take watching this stuff too often, however, because it sickens me a bit each time.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
2 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

But the problem seems to be the use of AI to show pretty children as the victims of Israel. The “sheep” who want a free Palestine do not seem intelligent enough to separate truth from fiction and believe that Hamas are the victims not the perpetrators.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

I was thinking about the Holocaust as well. Back then, it was deemed critically important that the truth of the horrors be preserved so future generations would know what happened and it wouldn’t be lost in history. I think that’s the right idea. The best evidence, photos, videos or whatever, should be preserved and kept and taught. It shouldn’t be something we see often, lest we become too familiar, but suppressing it is a far greater risk, for the world needs to remember what happened. Each of us should know the depths of human depravity lest they fail to recognize it if they see it personally. It falls to each of us to properly moderate.

brian millar
brian millar
2 months ago

Do images of terrorism inspire terror, or just loathing for the perpetrators?
I recall how the BBC showed extremely graphic images of Northern Ireland in the 1970s (an image of somebody’s viscera being shovelled up off a pavement has haunted me since I saw it as a kid). By the 1980s, the reports were confined to smoke billowing from a building and phrases like ‘critically ill in hospital’, or ‘seriously injured’. If you don’t know what those phrases actually refer to, you have no understanding of what actually happened. It was much easier to sympathise with a cause when the reality of their actions was made abstract.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 months ago

I’m physically incapable of watching this stuff, but also think that Hamas-supporters should be made to.

D Glover
D Glover
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Should they be made to watch it even if they then enjoy it, or only if they don’t?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Robot chicken style.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
2 months ago

It is important to put all the evidence of terrorist atrocities online. There are still many deniers of the Hamas attack on October 7th, 2023, just as there are many deniers of the Holocaust.

In this matter, personal privacy is less important than justice and truth.

ralph bell
ralph bell
2 months ago

I once watch a beheading video back in the early 2000’s and it just made me physically and mentally sick and disturbed, I have not watched once since.

I can see the Pro Hamas deniers of atrocities still make excuses even after watching the reality…

Jim M
Jim M
2 months ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Yeah, it’s really gross if they use a small knife and it takes a long time. Saudi Arabia uses swords, so it’s quick.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 months ago

Thank you for the hand-wringing. I played While My Guitar Gently Weeps as I read. These are hard times and weakness is exploited by evil people. The Russians who forced one of the terrorists to eat an ear know how to deal with such people. Yes, terrorize the terrorists is just the ticket.

Jim M
Jim M
2 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

I’m of two minds on that. It makes the Russians easier to hate if you are jihadist, but it shows that the Russians don’t care about Western opinion and will eliminate their enemies, unlike the West, where we are supposed to understand and love them.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

I was utterly disgusted by the FSB, or whoever they were, not only behaving like orcs but being proud to release the footage. It makes me despair to think that Russia could be so uncivilised. I know Putrid is a vain and repulsive creature, but surely this can’t be acceptable to most Russians.

Paul T
Paul T
2 months ago

No you shouldn’t watch them. They want you to watch them. Brutalising yourself to “bear witness” is false. You aren’t bearing witness, you are acting as a voyeur.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 months ago

I would sooner the material be available than be censored. Once the Powers That Be deploy censorship there will be nothing but cat videos on social media.
I choose not to view such material but I like to be aware that it exists – just as I choose not to rubberneck at traffic accidents but do slow down in case there are stray pedestrians, animals, or wreckage in my lane.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
2 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

But that again is part of the problem, not that it is censored, but that it is manipulated to show whayever the people releasing the films want them to show. Not the actual truth but the truth as they want everyone to believe it to be. Just look at Hamas/Iran propaganda… Footage that is 10 years old. Snips of a film made in the Lebanon to show how bad Israel is. Pictures of the dead in Syria. But it works, how many calls have there been for a ceasefire? And after the ceasefire, when does the next 7 Oct take place?

Tim Dilke
Tim Dilke
2 months ago

I have deliberately avoided watching ISIS decapitation films, I don’t think I would ever overcome the mental image. Yet, somehow, I’m ‘happy’ to watch Russian canon fodder looking up as a drone aims for them. I have tried to rationalise this. One a victim who didn’t deserve it, the other an aggressor who did? Both end the same way. An Islamist would feel that the individual murdered by ISIS deserved it. Both in the end remind me that I’m lucky to be able to sit in my comfortable little bubble of what remains of the ‘civilised’ world.

Jim M
Jim M
2 months ago

In the United States, we do have a right to watch murder porn because we are not children and have the First Amendment. You are not my parent and I can watch what I want, in reality, not your world where you control everything on the internet.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim M

Not knocking your first amendment, but if children are watching murder porn maybe keep them away from guns?

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 months ago

There is no turning the clock back. This is a new world, strange, and we can but learn to deal with it. It will, and does, throw up many questions and finally if we must indulge in (justifiable for once) navel gazing, then so be it. We develop awareness of ourselves and grow as people. It will be a process not without pain and angst. It will take a long time for many people have more ground to cover than others.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
2 months ago

The problem with suppressing this stuff is that if you do, supporters of the terrorists will take it as an excuse to claim that the act didn’t happen in the first place. The “it never happened” claim has been made about the October 7 attack too, but you can’t refute footage of the event taken by the terrorists themselves.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
2 months ago

Speaking as someone who used to watch snuff videos and ch__ p__n for a living, my advice is that if you have a choice, and if it is a matter of idle curiosity or ‘recreation’, you don’t watch these kinds of thing.