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This week, Facebook and British Prime Minister David Cameron have been facing off over the online sharing of decapitation videos. Although it initially cited freedom of speech and the right to document reality, the Social-Networking giant has since relented and many such videos have now been removed.

I have never watched a beheading video. My curiosity in this regard is tightly restrained by my squeamishness. There is also (I imagine) a moral discomfort in watching a man perish in this way from the comfort of a swing-chair.

The closest I’ve ever come to breaching this self-prohibition was in my freshman year at University. I was drunk one evening and (for no sensible reason) typed the words ‘Eugene Armstrong’ into Google Videos. With a click, the search returned about twenty duplicates of the same upload, each with the same thumbnail image (Mr Armstrong kneeled and bound, his face staring down the barrel of a fixed camera. Five heartless goons standing behind him). At this point, I snapped the laptop shut and went to bed. Call me cowardly, but I don’t want that kind of process imprinted on my psyche.

Although decapitation might not be (strictly-speaking) the ‘worst’ way to die, there is surely nothing more gruesome in appearance. Symbolically and actually, it is the greatest indignity to (and violation of) the body one can imagine.

In the years following the invasion of Iraq, people in the West quickly got used to the same nightmarish sequence. First, a Western aid worker went missing; then a video of the captive (clad in Guantanomo orange) reading a statement was released; then either Tony Blair or George Bush said in a press conferance “We don’t negotiate with terrorists…” – and then finally (a few days later ) another video….

Kenneth (Ken) Bigley was perhaps the most famous case of this kind in Britain. A Liverpudlian contract worker (and loving father), Bigley was controversially shown on the Six O’ Clock news pleading tearfully for Tony Blair to intervene and satisfy the demands of his captors. No such help came of course, and a final, gruesome tape was inevitably put out a few days later. A New York Times reporter describes its contents thus –

“Mr. Bigley pleads for his life, saying, ‘I’m a simple man, I want to live, I want my government’s help,’…. One of the masked men then reads a statement in Arabic accusing Mr. Blair of failing to free female prisoners before pulling out a large knife and cutting off Mr. Bigley’s head. The killer then holds the bloody head up in front of the camera.”

If the recourse of our enemies to the mutilation of civilians says anything at all, it is this: That they inhabit a completely alien moral universe. It is one we’d do well to keep alien too. 

We demean ourselves by consuming the record of these crimes. It’s better to reflect on them and what they mean.