From the archive

Ghoulishness, gawking and vile gratification

24 August 2014

James Foley’s family has begged people not to share images of him being beheaded. The Met has warned that watching and disseminating the film of the murder could constitute an offence under terrorism laws. The Spectator of 1886 would have approved of the ISIS media blackout hashtag.

A General Order was issued last week to the Army in India, announcing that the Viceroy had been satisfied that the charges brought against Colonel Hooper, late Provost-Marshal at Mandelay, of photographing condemned criminals at the moment of execution, and of causing a prisoner to confess under threat of death, had been established, and that such conduct reflects discredit upon the British Army…The former offence is more one against good feeling and taste than against any more substantial principle; but it revolts so much against good feeling and taste, that we rather wonder that any officer of distinction should have sanctioned it. To extract its secrets from the anguish of death, so far as that is possible, and to extract them so that they may be recorded permanently, implies surely a sort of moral pruriency from which instinctive reverence naturally shrinks.

A deeply sarcastic article from one of the first few issues of the magazine took exception to ghoulishness of another sort. The notorious William Corder had just been tried for murdering a young woman, and the so-called Red Barn Murder had caught the public’s imagination. Corder had advertised for a wife, received dozens of replies, picked one and arranged a meeting. Maria Marten’s body was found much later at the rendez-vous and Corder was hanged. The papers followed every turn in story:

We hope the public feel the better for the fine lessons which its best possible instructors the Newspapers have extracted from the life, crimes, conversation, manners, habits, death, and dissection of Corder. As a turtle is said to contain within itself every kind of meat, so this case, in the hands of the journalists, may be said to have comprehended every conceivable sort of instruction – history, morals, divinity, law, and metaphysics, nor, strange to add, and great glory to the artist, has even fun been wanting to relieve the sombreness of the grave lessons.

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After roundly mocking all The Spectator’s rivals, the article concludes very strictly:

The Press ought to be ashamed of giving, and the people of receiving this vile sort of gratification. The title of Public Instructor is a satire on the Press while it consents to play the pander to the idlest curiosity. But it is not simply the pander, it excites the morbid appetite it gratifies.

When Teresa Howard visited Auschwitz in 2005 she was distressed by the circus it had become, warning visitors to prepare themselves for crowds of tourists, “who have a few hours to spare between Krakow and the mountains of Zakopane”.

‘This afternoon the Concentration Camp of Auschwitz,’ announces the Contiki website, ‘a visit never to be forgotten’, beside which is a message board describing wild bouts of drinking and dreams of endless bonking….One of the hardest places to visit was the windowless gas chamber. Not just because it was the site of thousands of deaths, but because the already claustrophobic space had to be shared with endless camera flashes and a vociferous Italian tour guide who ignored the sign requesting a respectful silence.

Most of the visitors have no personal connection with Auschwitz, which makes me wonder why go? Why spend your holidays walking round a former concentration camp? Is it that so many of us have such bland lives we have to touch horror in order to feel alive? Do we get a ghoulish pleasure from the thought of other people’s suffering, or is our interest just in the history of our race? Perhaps we are wary of all the conflicting interpretations of the past, and want to work out for ourselves what went on there? The more I look into the appeal of Auschwitz, the more I think that it’s not something you can really work out. People have an instinct to return to the scenes of disasters…We treat the sites of death as sacred. We build memorials, erect gravestones, bring flowers. We go to grieve, but perhaps places like Auschwitz also help us to believe that death and wickedness are real.

The entire internet sometimes feels like this kind of circus – disaster junkies peddling cheap morality. The Islamic State is so nihilistic that death means victory and psychopathic violence is an advertisement – and they’re busy exploiting technology to harness the magnetic force of tragedy and violence.


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Show comments
  • Gwangi

    So the Met say that watching a video widely available online is an offence? Really. Welcome to 1984.

    The Met and the police generally are utterly corrupt, and always boost arrest stats by arresting plenty of non-criminals who commit such ‘crimes’ as sending emails or texts or Twitter/Facebook messages. That would not happen in the USA and should not happen here. A lot of it is REVENGE ARRESTS – which happen when women claim to be ‘alarmed and distressed’ (maybe someone should teach them how to block and delete on emails and Twitter eh?) The evidence is on a laptop to no need for any real policing to charge someone there. As for fighting mugging and street crime. HA! The plods don’t even bother any more! Far easier to arrest someone for name-calling in Twitter.

    I would never watch the James Foley video. 1) I am squeamish in me old age; 2) I have seen similar before. But I may have watched for curiosity when younger. It is NOT a crime to watch such things online, The Met – the utterly corrupt Met which still covers up corruption and murders it has committed (eg of Daniel Morgan )
    The police (and our government, pc councils, education system) have been utterly negligent and complacent in turning a blind eye to Muslim extremism for 3 decades. They are not just trying to muddy the water to hide their own wilful blindness and incompetence which has allowed Islamism to thrive in the UK. Useless Plod.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    One of the hardest places to visit was the windowless gas chamber. Not just because it was the site of thousands of deaths

    But perhaps because it was a fake reconstruction in which no one died, part of the Disneyfication of the site.

    • Gwangi

      He said ‘the site’.
      Many places are reconstructions – the whole of Budapest’s old town, for example. Did that city never exist or happen either then?

  • Augustus

    The Arab nations subjected to threats by radical Islamic groups are both responsible for the rise of these movements, and also the first to suffer from their effects. The engine that drives the rise of radical Islam is fueled by the same poison. All these groups aspire to enter the political arena, realizing that it’s the only way for them to instate Islam as the religion of the state and legally impose Shariah law on a population. To them, this end justifies the use of violence not as a defence, but in its cruelest and most disturbed form. They must sanctify violence and terrorism in order to achieve the objectives of their radical movements. It is not a war that must be fought, it is a war for the sake of war, and this war will not end even if the groups waging it manage to gain power in every country in the Middle East. The rise of radical Islam is a product of the weaknesses of Arab states, and also the weakness of Western states that back them, both politically and militarily, especially the United States. And as time progresses the world is beginning to realize that these groups are becoming more and more ruthless and deadly towards anyone who doesn’t fit their particular version of the Islamic prototype. In their videos, just like those video games for kids manufactured in China or America, there is always the next level of violence, killing and bloodshed to be reached.

    • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

      I suppose scientifically, or perhaps technically – the methods being used by all these merchants of death/exclusion are and may only ever be about force and exaction – as opposed to the only true peacemaking ways and means..which are always concerned about compassion and mercy.

      • Augustus

        One can never expect peace, compassion and mercy from those who preach faith in Allah, yet are godless.

    • Augustus

      Update: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on shocking and disgusting content.”

  • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    Inscribed in the twin towers memorial there is a quote of one woman telling us how felt as she watched people jumping from the twin towers – It says you felt compelled to watch out of respect for those people who had no choice other than death – and it would have been wrong to turn away from them.

    For me, I don’t need to watch the video of James Foleys’ death, but I’m glad his colleagues have described how the man seemed to die so clearly in words. He did not pull away and apparently his face was concentrated on the camera. That gives me hope, personally. So building on that-

    I pray the man saw Jesus before death – and as a Christian I just know that is true.

  • anyfool

    The Met has warned that watching and disseminating the film of the murder could constitute an offence under terrorism laws
    Watching has become a crime under terrorism laws, are they on firm ground here, still that would be about right for this useless ex police force, lets chase the prurient, it is so much easier than catching the perpetrators of these actions, after all it would be anti Islamic to expect them to obey English law as opposed to Sharia law.

    • Ricky Strong

      My thoughts exactly. You can’t watch a beheading online but you can stand on Oxford street promoting ISIS.

      • Gwangi

        Yep and you can force your 12 year old daughter into marriage with a paedo 50 something uncle in Pakistan – but woe betide you if you touched a teenagers knee in 1973…

        • Damaris Tighe

          I do wonder whether there’s an agenda to neutralise the news about muslim paedophile gangs by hunting down supposedly native equivalents.

          • Gwangi

            Possibly an agenda there. But more likely just the police wanting to get headline-grabbing cases to try and convince the public they are doing a good job fighting real crime, which we all know is utter nonsense!

    • Roger Hudson

      Our terror laws are an attack on everybody while not properly catching the few. When taking a photo of Buckingham Palace can get you arrested you know there’s a big problem.

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