Private Worlds 1: Death Junkies

Death Junkies
Death Junkies

Notional demolition
Until late 2005 year hostage execution videos made in Iraq were still frequent news items. This was video terrorism, not in the moralistic sense ‘terrorism’ has acquired recently, but in the conventional strategic sense: images created with the intention of achieving a social or political end by means of fear. Obviously not all hostage videos had this terroristic aim. Some videos shot in a less staged and more incidental manner showed aid workers or journalists eating, resting or speaking. These were videos looking to barter the wellbeing of hostages for political influence, international coverage, or simply money.

But the typical terror videos have a certain stamp and constitute an undeniable sub-genre. They show intimidation through costume and set-design, the frequent orange jumpsuits obviously echoing American detainee garb, or the notorious cages in the Ken Bigley videos recalling Guantanamo detainee conditions (there was even speculation that the cages were props, only used for the filmmaking). The mise-en-scène goes beyond this. The executed kneel, small and weak. Sometimes they plead and weep. Their executors tower over them, powerful, armed, possibly even cast for their muscle-bulk. Standing before a banner announcing their Jihadist political affiliation, they read in booming voices from a script, their faces cowled. Something between an SM porn cabaret and a pre-renaissance crucifixion: choreographed humiliation. The victims often die like animals, dehumanised, their throats cut as if goats or sheep.

The camera usually films the hostages and their executioners straight-on and without camera movement where possible in order to enhance the heavy symbolism. That static camera position makes the scenes more ‘real’. The more the camera moves or becomes decentred, the more you are aware it is a camera and what you are seeing is a film. Terror videos aim at providing not an image but a window onto an event. The camera and its operator are elided to make room for the viewer. The victim is bang in the middle of the screen, setting up an unsettling subject-object alternation: the viewer is invited to come in and become the victim.

Narrative is often important. First of all, it doesn’t matter that Western news programmes rarely if ever showed the actual execution images. It is normally enough for the viewer to be convinced that the video is ‘real’ and it shows at some point the death of a hostage. This conviction contaminates the ‘before’/’after’ images actually broadcast and makes them horrific even in their contentless banality. (The same sort of temporal/sequential cross-contamination of images is relevant to discussion of sequences of images in pornography.)

Narratively also, the execution is often the culmination of an intimidatory process of pre-announcement through a sort of mini-series. If a video proclaims that its subject will inevitably die in ten days or in twenty four hours, what is the target enemy viewer supposed to feel? Empty and hopeless is the probable answer. These videos aimed at a notional demolition of the arc of redemption constructed Hollywood-style by Western pro-war rhetoric, with its avengers pushing on through the combat smoke-clouded ‘dark’ moments to the bright sunlight of liberation.

In the present situation, midway through 2006, this rhetoric has died away, but in 2004-5 it was very much alive. The deprivation of redemption and hope in hostage execution videos is therefore also the ultimate antidote to contemporary war movies such as Behind Enemy Lines. Nobody will save the real hostage. He will not karate chop his way out of the room. He will not eat insects and drink dew from his rain cape for thirty days until he suddenly bursts out of a hedgerow in a suburb of Vienna, having discovered within himself undreamt of resources of courage and optimism. He will die in a squalid, brutal way in a dirty room in a country far away from home at the hands of people he doesn’t know or like, and for reasons he doesn’t understand. End of story. Ideally, the viewer feels not only empty and hopeless, but also abandoned, isolated, like the hostage in the middle of the screen.

Isn’t it a sin?
Another form of terror video is arguably the extensive capture and mass media distribution of images from military offensives such as the Shock and Awe bombing operation which initiated the US-led assault on Iraq. These images are also ‘created with the intention of achieving a social or political end by means of fear’ (hence the operation’s name). It could even be argued that the value of such operations lies as much if not more in the effect of their filmed representation as in their actual military effectiveness. If this is the case, both Jihadist execution videos and footage released by the US military or embedded reporters could be seen as evidence of a change of emphasis: there is a shift away from an incidentally filmed event or action happening for an operational or strategic reason and towards an event or action which occurs primarily to be filmed.

A target enemy audience has been mentioned for Jihadist execution videos, but there is also a target friendly audience. Shock and Awe video coverage portrayed the notorious ‘technological humiliation’ of the Moslem world by the West. Showing (at least from a graphic-symbolic point of view) dominant powerful Moslems and weakened cowed Westerners, the execution videos probably aimed to counter not only the effect of Shock and Awe, but also the effect of images of humiliation emerging from Abu Graib or Guantanamo. The execution videos might thus provide an emblematic form of victory meant to bolster the morale of fellow Jihadists.

In a strange and involuntary case of spectatorship studies, Italian secret service tapes recorded an actual viewing of the video of American hostage Nick Berg’s execution. In the published audio transcripts, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, an Egyptian radical looking to recruit suicide bombers for the Iraq war, played the VHS to a potential recruit in his Milan flat, providing an enthusiastic commentary. The man got excited and loud as the video reached its bloody climax, finally cheering and shouting to his shocked guest that all enemies of Islam should die in this manner. As a recruitment ploy, however, the video backfired. Transcripts show the recruit, a devout youth, as clearly horrified, asking repeatedly, ‘Isn’t it a sin?’ [1]

Hooked on death
In the event, the largest audience for the complete versions of these videos has little to do with the strategies or aims of their makers. The killing of Briton Kenneth Bigley on video, online, was downloaded by more than two million people, most of whom were Americans, in the ten days following his death. To put this figure in perspective, had the video killing been a big screen release, it would have taken in excess of 15 million euros in ticket sales inside a week, more successful than any home-grown Irish film in history, and more successful than almost all home-grown Irish films summed. A huge audience. Ten million had by that point watched the killing of American Nick Berg. Individuals who had downloaded the videos sometimes admitted to watching them several times. [2]

The videos were accessed on sites specialising in ‘real death’ images and video footage. These sites also typically offer pictures or videos of injury of every type. On you can watch hostage beheadings, or see photos from crash sites or crimescenes, including ‘Zebra hit by plane’, ‘Various head traumas’, or ‘Mangled forearm of kid’. On the one hand the urge to submerge oneself in actual death and injury footage, to sit through real executions repeatedly, can seem baffling. I remember seeing the real death film The Killing of America a couple of years ago as the second half of a documentary double bill at Dublin’s annual Horrorthon and eventually walking out. Not so much in disgust as in boredom. I’d watched thirty minutes and could see no advantage to be gained from watching two hours, or maybe two years, of the stuff. It was all just people dying.

The fascination exercised by such material is in another way obvious, though. As the owner of one site puts it, every person has ‘some kind of morbid curiosity hidden within them’. The father of murdered hostage Daniel Pearl could understandably ask what sort of ‘depraved person’ might want to watch his son’s death online.[3] But it could equally be asked why broadsheets in Britain frequently provide thousands of words of detail on horrific crimes. Is the retired Home Counties reader taking a break from Gardener’s Choice and submerging themselves passively in an extended (albeit textual) narrative of sexual torture or death distinguishing themselves significantly from the cyberghoul? It’s ironic that the conservative sectors of the press which most frequently denounce the effects of online pornography or violent video games often seem to have least inhibitions when providing apparently gratuitous written narratives of extreme criminal behaviour.

In so far as there is press coverage of the phenomenon, execution video ‘addicts’ are typically presented as vulnerable creatures who have strayed and been hooked in a fallen world. One such addict, a quiet, inoffensive and well-spoken family man interviewed by the Sunday Telegraph, cites the ‘thrill of quasi-participation’ as a reason for his dependency (maybe confirming what was said above about composition and camera work), while admitting his wife would be ‘horrified’ if she knew. [4] A brief visit to the forums of provide us with a glimpse of considerably more robust individuals, evincing little shame and a considerable thirst for ‘extreme’ material of most kinds. Given the nature of our visual culture, and its wholehearted devotion to graphic violence, this is hardly surprising in itself. Whatever the reason for real-death video viewing, most people engaging in it aren’t doing so by accident.

Although there has been some attention to the phenomenon, ‘real death’ video isn’t regarded by either the media or legislators as on a par with extreme pornography. In the UK in 2005 legislative proposals were drafted banning violent or extreme pornography and making its possession an offence, partly in reaction to the Jane Longhurst killing of 2003. The familiar ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’/ Clockwork Orange logic applied in the proposed legislation – which argues that extreme pornography can lead to actual violence against persons by those accessing it – is strangely absent from most considerations of ‘real death’ material. It could be argued that the latter already exists whereas violent porn needs to be produced, sometimes involving actual serious harm to persons during its production. But this argument is contradicted by the fact that the driving force behind the proposed UK legislation and almost all pornography prohibitionism is not so much injury caused during production as the supposed negative effects of such material on the individual accessing it. One conclusion might be that our culture has no profound aversion to viewed violence provided it contains no sexual ingredient. [5]

Possibly adopting practices understandably introduced when outlawing child pornography, the said legislative proposals refuse to distinguish between material portraying explicit actual scenes and realistically ‘acted’ scenes. But it doesn’t seem to provide for Ogrish-style material showing photos of the bodies of ‘actual’ murder victims who have been sexually abused or mutilated. Despite the incidental provenance of these pictures, shouldn’t they be potentially more harmful than well-acted but fake porn?

The Chechen case
Legislative proposals aside, there is a spectator perception of a very significant difference between the accessing of ‘real death’ images of events motivated by causes extraneous to viewing and extreme pornography or ‘snuff’ material produced to be viewed. A real death spectator can justify their own interest as by-standerism, morbid curiosity, online rubbernecking. The snuff freak (hardly a mainstream constituency) would presumably take a more implicated and militant stance: the important thing is that death comes about specifically for the purposes of being filmed and consumed. This would explain why Dmitri Vladimirovich Kuznetsov, the Russian purveyor of snuff videos arrested in September 2000, had little trouble finding Italian customers willing to pay in excess of 5000 euros for his snuff tapes. Provided they were real. [6]

At the height of the Russian-Chechen war there was a media furore over a ‘snuff’ trade taking place within ‘freed’ Chechnya (given the absence of a prohibiting authority). Videos featuring footage of the death of Russian hostages and P.O.W.s. were sold openly at ‘local bazaars’. As the war peaked and declined, the story goes, the trade abated.[7]

Such films could be regarded as ‘snuff’ if they were made for viewer enjoyment. But from actual verifiable evidence, there seems little to distinguish them from many Jihadist terror videos more recently produced and disseminated. A central figure in the Chechen snuff story, Salautdin Temirbulatov, a.k.a. Traktorist (he was a former tractor driver), was a notorious if minor Chechen military leader. He was put on trial in Russia on the basis of a video showing him killing Russian prisoners using a pistol and knife in 1996 near the settlement of Komsomolskoe. But there is a significant detail here: the video shows Temirbulatov first reading a death sentence from a document drafted in Chechen and then performing the prescribed execution. This would seem to make the video quite obviously not snuff per se but the documentation of a summary process of some sort, however dubious, for propagandistic or terrorist purposes. [8]

The video was later broadcast on Russian TV and circulated by Moscow to its Western allies to underline the depravity of the Chechen enemy. That it was considered snuff at all and that the notion of a Chechen ‘snuff trade’ was widespread can be attributed to three elements. First, the Russian discounting of a political motivation or justification for the action and its video capture, coupled with insistence that Chechens could only be motivated by savagery. Second, the relative novelty of video as a form of terrorism. Third, the fascination that the infinitely tiresome debate on snuff continues to have for the media and a sector of the public.

That’s not to say that the such videos were not made and sold in Chechnya. Rather that it would be difficult to establish an essential difference between them and execution and post-mortem abuse videos reportedly currently sold underground in Islamabad by Sunni Jihadists for morale-boosting, recruiting and propagandistic ends. [9] There is no doubt that the ‘Traktorist’ video was not an isolated work. The BBC’s Ben Brown, reporting from the Chechen border in 1999, wrote: ‘A particularly gruesome video is doing the rounds in Moscow at the moment. It shows one kidnap victim having his finger shot off, another being beheaded. A snuff movie, the way only the Chechens can make them.’ [10] But a stronger argument would be that such material was a prelude to later use of video in Jihadist terrorist (again in the classical sense) tactics. Chechnya might even be seen as a training ground not just for Jihadists, but for Jihadist video terror.

The Chechen snuff story claims such videos went underground but are still available from P2P sources. However has a current and quite openly posted item showing the killing of a Russian officer. Tellingly, the passage of time has allowed the site to classify the video as ‘Chechnya propaganda footage’ .

The images of the 9/11 attacks on New York probably constitute the most potent terror video ever made. It’s hard to know the extent to which those planning the attacks took their incidental filming into account. But they can hardly have failed to notice the effect of the broadcast images. It’s even possible that Jihadist video terror developed partly as a result of the wave of reaction to the televised material.

It could also be argued that the images of 9/11 are also the most viewed real death footage ever shot. The striking thing about viewing of execution videos by real death enthusiasts is that they mostly watch the material emptied of its principle meaning. It’s a sort of passive, ‘fascinated’ viewing that probably requires repeated playing for its best effect. A similar sort of fascination has been exercised by the screening of the 9/11 attacks. Although the images have been relayed infinitely, I have yet to see anybody look a way from the screen as the spectacle unfolds of the shining aircraft sliding gently (they don’t crash) into the huge pillars of glass, orange expanses of fire then blossoming against the bright blue of the sky. These are the ultimate real death images because they can never be properly filled with meaning. The images loom above and beyond any words or any forms of connotation. The spectacle is larger than any attempt to ascribe a significance to it, and therefore traumatic in a real sense.

This was one of the reasons why the US had to attack Afghanistan so rapidly, and why, once the attack was underway, the word ‘closure’ was used so often: the spinning of a narrative web, if it couldn’t erase the the 9/11 images, could at least hope to entangle and stabilise them. [11] That this didn’t happen sufficiently required the embedded/cockpit filming of the Shock and Awe production, the effects of which quickly faded before the complex miasma of the war and its powerful A/V products, from Jihadist executions to Abu Graib. Fallujah often seemed another attempt to create some kind of anchoring stability in the unravelling narrative of war. It’s telling that military commanders were very unwilling to proceed with the battle, while US political leaders yearned for the simplicity it promised: a name and a place at least, a battle to be won. Captured by a video reporter, the battle’s most famous filmed sequence shows a marine executing a wounded prisoner in a dusty room in the city, sun shafting through the windows like HMI lighting. Those images transcended the denunciatory story attached to them when broadcast world-wide, the marine’s ‘he’s fuckin [dead] now’ line in some ways book ending 9/11 Hollywood style.

Video terror and video war are increasingly used forms of expression. We have arrived at a situation where we may be fighting battles, or killing people, primarily for the film production opportunities offered by these events. But at the other end of the process, where the shot footage is viewed, lines are also blurring. Although news gives us the impression we are watching death and destruction for its importance in some kind of political narrative, it may be that more and more of us are simply fascinated by, and progressively addicted to, visual spectacles of real death.

1. The New York Times, November 18, 2005.
2. The Washington Times online, October 19. 2004, reproducing a Sunday Telegraph article.
3. (ibid.)
4. (ibid.) The same article also cites a ‘stark warning’ of the dangers of availability of such online execution videos to children. An East London primary school teacher tells of her horror at seeing two ten-year-old boys ‘re-enacting a beheading’. Presumably had they been playing Cowboys and Indians this would have been quite acceptable.
5. See ‘Kneejerking off over violent porn’ by Brendan O’Neill and ‘Indecent proposals’ by Sandy Starr on
6. The Observer online, October 1, 2000.
7. See Wikipedia article on Snuff films.
8. Caucasus Reporting Service, January 19, 2001
9. Reuters AlertNet, April 30, 2006
10. BBC News Online, 15 November 1999.
11. See Film Ireland, 85, Editorial.


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