Mexican beheading: how to deal with real violence on the internet

Shying away and blocking out violence, however, is never a permanent solution. We have become the intimate witnesses of real horror. 

Daniel Zylbersztajn
6 November 2013

I have seen a sequence of images recording the execution of that unfortunate woman in Mexico who was beheaded on camera allegedly on the grounds of having had an affair.

 It has made me resolute that we must initiate a new process of education. The execution filmed live on camera mimics earlier footage of beheading carried out by groups affiliated to Al-Quaeda.

 However in the Mexican case this was carried out in a different country and on a different continent and without any reference to Islam. Mexico is a country ruled by gang violence, but not by the war between Islam and the west.

 The fact that the video is so similar to the filmed executions in Iraq means that the globalisation of the internet has resulted in the setting of examples and precedents that circulate in people's minds very much like the wildfires of Gangnam Style. They gave a blue-print of how to kill to the most remote regions of our globe, as long as they have internet access or can play DVDs.

 Since we cannot change or control this access, it is important that we have a public discourse about degrees of violence and what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and raise questions regarding appropriate and inappropriate penalties, human rights, patriarchal systems, women's rights and the course of justice amongst many others. In neither the Al-Quaeda case nor the Mexican one was the execution remotely just, fair or proportionate. In both cases a human being was brazenly slaughtered before the world. There was no fair judicial process in either case.

This is not something that can be learned in sciences, mathematics or literacy, nor are these issues sufficiently examined in religious education (not the least because many of the holy books still talk about death penalties for all sorts of reasons that to most are unacceptable today), but mainly constitutes the fundamental basis for well-rounded citizenship education and ethics. These are subjects under-nourished in the education of most young people throughout the world, and also below any measurable impact compared to the power of the internet and You Tube as trendsetters and yardsticks of new forms of what is acceptable.

 Just as much as we must debate sex and pornography and what is acceptable there (like the exploitation and risks involved in the sex industry, and the difference between pornography and real inter-human relations), we have, by virtue of the internet reached the stage where we must also talk specifically and more elaborately about violence. Namely that violence is a feature of human behaviour and that we must come to terms with what is acceptable and not acceptable. We must be clear that there is just as much violence out there on the worldwide web as there is hardcore sex, and we must be clear that we have to teach young people, as well as adults, what to do with this information.

We must also protect all those who need protection, such as children, from seeing it.

 This is not easily done. In the same week that the Mexican beheading became a topic of conversation around the world due to Facebook first allowing its screening and then disallowing it, there were plenty of other virulent videos and photos for people to see had they wished to do so. An elephant with a sawn off face, possibly still alive, tortured in that way for the ivory trade, came up on Facebook, and was nearly seen by my little daughter. A donkey pushed alive off a cliff could be seen in one click, and a Matador could be similarly observed in his punctured state, speared and lifted by a bull, itself bleeding through the multiple incisions made by the human before him, who was all set to kill the beast in front of eager crowds. Here is a good example how violence can become acceptable spectacle. It is precisely this that we must prevent.

We have grown out of the public executions that still existed in many countries less than 100 years ago, haven’t we? A day out with the family to see criminals hang, or dark fruits hanging on the poplar tree.

 The plethora of the unusually strong images of blood, death and destruction of all kinds suggests that we are in fact fascinated by it. What is it like to kill, how does it feel to be killed? The answer to the first, surprisingly easy, the answer to the second, terrifying. But we are not doing the killing, we would not, we think, and we are not going to be the person or animal being killed. But the spectacle on the screen leaves us powerless, and in fact can traumatise and make us despair. We cannot do more than leave a little “like” or maybe a comment. At the same time this slowly changes our acceptance levels of violence and teaches some, as in the Mexican beheading case, which looks so like an Al-Quaeda beheading or like the bull fights in some areas of the world, to want to see more of the forbidden spectacle.

 It is important that we are aware that freedom of access on the internet means freedom to view humans as they are. In their genius and in their highest degree of destruction, often unnecessarily and usually disproportionately violent. Here is where the debate must start to create a better humanity, which accepts the bad and grows beyond it and knows where to categorize this violence, namely on the shelf of unacceptable behaviour.

 Protection is very important to children and young persons: they cannot yet contemplate and contextualize such occurances. But at the same time, I believe, just as 16 year olds get to deal with the Shoah, the Transatlantic Slave trade, Vietnam, or the horrors of Iraq, to name but a few of the darkest episodes, when the time is right we must teach our young that the internet likewise reflects that reality of humanity, and a very current one at that.

This allows the minds to contextualise its visual experiences as both shocking and abnormal and part of a line of possible human horrors. In that same spirit, we must follow this by giving people the tools to do something about it. An example of this is the elaborate citizenship and democratic education carried out in Germany as an inheritance of facing up to its violent past.

 Shying away and blocking out violence, however, is never a permanent solution. These are not fantasy horror moves shown on YouTube. We have become the intimate witnesses of real horror.

 Nobody should stumble upon violence involuntarily, and nobody who is too young to understand should be exposed to it, but there is a time when we must take the veil off, and there is no better way of doing so, than in a structured informed open way amongst others as part of a curriculum on human rights, justice, morality, and social action to defend the integrity of all these. 

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