Plain Text: Inside the Dark Corners of the Net

This week, Iraqi insurgents led by Al Qaeda extremist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi added two more tragic casualties in the war in Iraq--and two more grainy, home-made videos to the collection of gruesome terror testimonials on the Internet.

On Monday, Zarqawi and his gang beheaded Eugene "Jack" Armstrong of Hillsdale, Mich. Yesterday, they executed Armstrong's housemate, Jack Hensley, from Atlanta. Both men, who leave behind devastated families, worked for a United Arab Emirates construction company.

The terrorists sent reports of the deaths--and grisly footage of the beheadings--to Islamic web sites. In another, less connected age, the videos might only have circulated among the terrorists' supporters. But the Internet bridges space and time, bringing news of events, even the horrific ones, to people around the world in an instant. Those videos quickly migrated to Internet nodes more trafficked by Westerners--peer-to-peer sites like Kazaa and Grokster, where anyone can post or download videos anonymously, but also to the so-called "shock sites." These are Web pages, several run by Americans, that aim to disgust, titillate and horrify their willing visitors with adult fare that they can't find on even the raunchiest midnight cable-TV show.

The mainstream media has decided not to air the videos, just as they decided not to show close-up photos of American soldiers killed in combat or repeatedly replay footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on September 11.

After the video-recorded death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, several media outlets, including CBS, broadcast snippets of the tape. Pearl's widow called the decision "heartless." "It is beyond our comprehension," she said at the time, "that any mother, wife, father or sister should have to relive this horrific tragedy." After this protest, videos of subsequent decapitations of Americans in the Middle East, while widely described in reports, have been banished to the dark corner of the Net.

The shock sites, occupying that dark corner, wrap themselves in the mantle of free speech to defend their propagation of the videos. Dan Klinker, who runs a shock site called Ogrish (it's motto: "Can You Handle Life?") said in an e-mail interview from his home in The Netherlands, that everyone has a right to see what really goes on in the world in its uncensored form. "We feel that only by showing the uncensored footage can we get the full picture and realize that the threat of terrorism and evil in this world is real. We don't force anyone to visit, we simply provide people with the opportunity." Klinker also posted the Pearl video, then withdrew it temporarily from his site after the FBI threatened prosecution, though he says the agency didn't have a case. His lawyer, Lawrence Walters, a Florida First Amendment attorney, says that posting these films "is the essence of First Amendment-protected communications. I can't think of anything that deserves it more." Both admit to getting a lot of hate mail.

Visitors to another shock site, Consumption Junction, have posted the beheading videos in its chat forums. Site "editor grande" Paul Dinin rejects the charge that publishing the videos furthers terrorist goals of humiliating the victims and spreading intimidation and fear. "[We] don't further that goal any more than ... other mainstream media organizations running round-the-clock stories about the latest hostage execution. [We] are just one Web site; mainstream media throws infinitely more fuel into the terrorist's fire." Dinin admits that line of argument sounds a bit like the old saw, "Everyone else is doing it, so why can't I?" But he says there's hidden value to the videos; in his case, watching makes him mad, and "even more dedicated to the cause of eliminating terrorism."

It's worth noting that there's more than legal and political activism at work here: the shock sites also profit from posting these videos. They sell ad space to other lurid entertainers on the Net, and, perversely, the beheadings seem to enlarge their audiences. Klinker of Ogrish, for instance, claims that visits to his site jumped to 750,000 a day last week from a 150,000 average--though he claims all revenues are reinvested in the site.

Some folks, it seems, are drawn to this kind of spectacle. Not being one of them, I can only guess at their motivation. Some want unfiltered access to an important news event and a better grasp of the horror of the war. Others, no doubt, find cheap titillation in these crimes. I can't understand that inclination, but respect the impulse for unfettered access to events that affect our country. The law does and should protect it.

My personal bottom line is this: I won't watch. I discovered way back in 1987 that I don't have the constitution for it. I was 16 when scandal-dogged Pennsylvania state representative Budd Dwyer called a press conference in Harrisburg then shot himself in the mouth before TV cameras. My local newscast in Ohio played the footage after a solemn warning to those of sensitive disposition. I ignored the note of caution and the gruesome spectacle is still singed in my brain. No matter how drenched we are with stylized Hollywood violence, the real thing remains traumatic. Nothing prepares you for it. Watching feels disrespectful to the deceased and their mourning families.

So while I'll defend the right of the shock sites to post these horrible videos, I'll cherish our right to tune them out.