The Terrorist Channel

The writer-director David Cronenberg is often decades ahead of his peers in dramatizing the psychic perils of contemporary life, and never more so than in Videodrome, his wicked 1983 satire of McLuhanesque techno-bliss.

The plot concerns a sleazy cable-television executive named Max Renn (played all too convincingly by James Woods), who is constantly in search of exotic programming for his easily jaded audience. Late one night at the station, grousing that his soft-porn shows have lost their edge, Renn is turned on to a new channel by his technical assistant. With a signal that is rumored to originate “somewhere in the Third World,” the channel broadcasts images unlike any Renn has ever seen: shadowy scenarios of torture from inside a prison.

He watches, enthralled, as a blindfolded woman is whipped into unconsciousness. Some sequences imply that murders were (are?) being committed and filmed. The trouble for Renn is -- and here Cronenberg's B-movie aspires to the literary paranoia of William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon -- that the channel is actually the spearhead of a sinister experiment called “Videodrome,” which mutates the brain waves of anyone who views it. The assistant was a plant who lured his boss into tuning in. A profiteer of sex and violence, Renn becomes its victim.

As smart as it is kinky, Videodrome argues for the freedom to view anything we wish. The images projected are disturbing and R-rated. (As Renn hallucinates under the influence of the cathode rays, his stomach develops a vaginal cavity like the slot on a VCR.) And yet the film is also deeply skeptical about the idea, popular among First Amendment liberals, that graphic content doesn't really affect behavior. Our eyes are never divorced from other organs in Cronenberg's films. We are what we watch.

Reconsidering Videodrome seems increasingly apt as we await the next dispatch of hideous images from the Middle East, either more digital photos of pornographic humiliation taken last year in the prisons of Iraq or a new snuff film courtesy of masked Islamic fanatics. It is as though in the last few weeks we have been plugged into the Torture Channel. With programs that feature sadism and murder, and originating from an unknown source, these news reports may be altering our minds in ways we don't -- or can't -- yet recognize.

The video of Nicolas Berg's execution was proof that, whatever else the present conflict may be, it's also a war of images. His captors announced that the filming of his death was retaliation for the photographing of Iraqi prisoners, and in much of the Muslim world -- a large sector of the video's intended audience -- it was likely interpreted as recompense. Condemned as anathema to Islam by several Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, the act nonetheless must have been interpreted in the region as a form of ancient, eye-for-an-eye justice.

Berg's sacrifice might even be seen as a perverse result of the Defense Department's failure to reveal the costs of the war. Among the long list of catastrophic errors in winning hearts and minds, one of the gravest was surely the unwillingness to enumerate Iraqi losses. Even though a conservative estimate of those killed (civilian noncombatants and Baath loyalists and Shiite militia) would be 10,000 to 20,000, it's as though the United States were telling the people it claims to be liberating, “Your dead don't count.” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his gang of masked criminals may have won sympathy among those mourning their relatives, largely faceless and nameless in the eyes of the Pentagon and the American networks, by asking us, “How do you like seeing one of yours put to the sword?” The video certainly puts a face on a war whose horrors for Iraqis have largely been sanitized -- and on the boasts of “mission accomplished.”

Of course, any group that would cut off the head of an unarmed civilian and proudly broadcast the act for worldwide distribution does not need the excuse of Abu Ghraib to justify its butchery. If you're a political extremist, any reason to advance the cause will do. In the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, his being a Jew was, according to his kidnappers, grounds enough for his on-camera slaughter.

The recording eye of the camera allows the jihadists to torture Pearl and Berg in real time, and later torture anyone who at any time watches the murder. It may be irrational to cringe at the sight of horrifying acts that occurred in the past and over which we can exert no control. Downloading pictures of men being killed won't degrade them any more than their murderers have already.

But each of us has a threshold of pain in viewing images, a point at which, for whatever reason, we can no longer bear to watch. Photography and film encourage the illusion that we are living through events we never witnessed, and the effect of exposure to these fragments of captured light can be overwhelming. As Cronenberg suggests in Videodrome, consumers of images (more than creators) are often the ones putting themselves most in danger.

Those who snuffed Pearl and Berg have found my breaking point. As often as I tell myself about the need to confront the reality of terrorism -- “never look away” is the rallying cry of the war photographer -- I don't want to risk having my brain waves altered by the sounds of Berg's screams, or be haunted by the look in the eyes of someone who realizes his windpipe has just been severed. I can't decide whether I'm a hopeless coward, or whether in the age of the Internet, when “success” is measured by the number of eyeballs that go to a page, a refusal to look is the humane response and the best tactic to deter copycat crimes.

The execution videos are, like the video confessions of suicide bombers, declarations of nerve on the part of the jihadists, proud testaments of their willingness to kill and to be killed. The tapes are also further attempts to use our own technology against us. The jihadists did not invent photography or television networks or the Internet or jet airliners. They probably have never heard of Marshall McLuhan. But they are cunning guerrilla fighters who understand all too well how these devices -- and hundreds of other products of scientific know-how, from chemical fertilizers to crop dusters -- can be retooled into insidious weapons.

In the current war of images, our enemies know how vulnerable we are to
attack. Bin Laden noted in an early addresses to his followers how quickly U.S. troops vacated Somalia when pictures of a single dead soldier were reproduced in the American
media. Photographs of atrocities, real or staged, have been used as propaganda by
one side or another in conflicts since the Paris Commune. During the recent
Balkan wars an international audience could sample pictures of human suffering
within minutes of events. To persuade the wired world that a recent American
raid near the Syrian border was an attack on a wedding party -- and not, as CENTCOM claimed, a 3 a.m. meeting of a terrorist cell -- the Iraqi insurgents had children in burial shrouds and grieving widows ready for the television cameras.

But viewer reaction to an image is seldom uniform or predictable. Berg's on-camera execution has only stiffened the resolve of those who argue that the only response to barbarians is to destroy them before they destroy us. Al-Zarqawi now has a $25 million price on his head to rival bin Laden's. By linking the killing of Berg to the Abu Ghraib torture, the terrorists make it far more dangerous for journalists to dig for and publish more photographs from prisons.

Who is willing to claim a necessity to disclose more evidence of humiliation if public release of these documents will lead to more retaliatory snuff films? What if someone should discover shots of an actual killing? The decision of which image should go on the front page or a broadcast has perhaps never been so fraught.

It is inevitable nonetheless that more photographs will leak out as they are passed by computer from one set of privileged eyes to the next. We like to watch for many reasons, legitimate and unsavory, and the medium -- which can render events in astonishing detail and offer visual proof of things we never dreamed existed, from massive galaxies to abuse in cell block 1A -- creates an unslakable hunger to learn more.

If something can be photographed, chances are it will be; and if something ugly or novel is being unveiled, an audience somewhere will want to view it. That's the nature of our visual technology and our mental wiring. The war of images now being waged in newspapers, television, and over the Internet -- a continuation by our enemies of terrorism by other means -- is a reminder that, as Videodrome predicts, consequences are in store for our brains in being so curious to look.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York City.