I’ve chosen not to see the video of Nicholas Berg’s beheading.
I made the same decision two years ago when a clip of Islamic terrorists decapitating a reporter named Daniel Pearl surfaced online. My reasoning is the same now as it was then. There’s something obscene about watching from a desk chair as a man’s head is sawed off for your … what? Benefit? Entertainment?
I decline to be manipulated by the animals who killed these men.
So perhaps you can understand why I find reprehensible and incomprehensible an Associated Press story that surfaced last week out of the University of California at San Diego. It seems the school has blocked a student, Daniel Watts, from airing the video of Berg’s murder on the university’s closed-circuit television network. Actually, “re-airing” would be the more accurate term, since Watts, a junior who hosts a political talk show, aired the video once before without administrators’ knowledge.
And here, I should note that the school’s network, in addition to being available on campus, can also be seen at a nearby elementary school. Do I even have to explain why grade school children shouldn’t be exposed to decapitation videos?
Still, that’s not what offends me most about this episode. No, that distinction goes to something Watts said. “I wanted to show the media is blowing it out of proportion,” he told a reporter. “It’s not that big of a deal. People show stuff this violent and horrible all the time.”
Lord, have mercy.
I’ve made several attempts to get Watts on the telephone, but could not locate him. Which is unfortunate, because I thought he deserved a chance to defend or explain himself. Taken at face value, his remarks are among the coldest and most contemptible I’ve seen in a very long time.
Two things offend me in particular. The first is this notion that the calculated butchery of an innocent human being — or the image thereof — is an incidental thing, a trifle inflated beyond its importance by that all-purpose villain, “the media.” That’s an indecent suggestion.
But I am, I think, offended even more by the offhand suggestion that “people” show things as awful as this all the time. One wonders what people Watts could be referring to. Certainly not those who report the news in mainstream print and broadcast outlets. For all our lapses in judgment, news media have not yet made decapitation imagery routine.
So it seems as if the only “people” he can be talking about are the ones in entertainment media, the ones who make movies, videos and video games where, indeed, slaughter of the sort that befell Nicholas Berg is commonplace.
Frankly, the idea that this is what Watts is referring to chills me like ice. Because it suggests not simply that some of us have become numb to violence, but that some of us have lost the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is only make believe. Having absorbed so much computer-generated carnage, maybe authentic carnage has little effect on them. Having grown up in manufactured realities, perhaps real reality doesn’t move them as it ought.
So I feel the need to explain something to Daniel Watts. Namely, that Nicholas Berg was not a stunt man on a movie set. Nor was he an image made of pixels. He was a real person who really suffered, really bled and really died. He will not return to life after “Game Over” flashes on the screen. He will not show up in another role in a new video next week.
He is dead. Forever dead.
And the fact and manner of his death are deserving of respect at the very least. The inability to give that respect is not a sign of courageous irreverence as Watts seems to think, but rather, of callous puerility and plain ignorance.
Speaking of things people show all the time.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: