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What Islamic State Beheadings Tell Us About Our Humanity

The notorious Islamic State group has apparently beheaded yet another journalist. The Japanese journalist Kenji Goto whom the group had taken hostage, and demanded $200 million from the Japanese government for, has it seems shared the same dire fate of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, among others, who the Islamic group has previously beheaded. As with those two cases, Goto has appeared on video humiliatingly forced to his knees in an orange jumpsuit with a desert background. A somewhat surreal serene setting for such grotesque and sadistic executions. Many such murders have videoed by these groups who take glee in documenting their various crimes against humanity, making them available, uncensored, on the internet for anyone to view.

When the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran led to a series of street protests across the country, a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan was shot dead in the streets of Tehran during the ensuing crackdown. What was notable about her death at the time was the fact that, shortly after it, grainy mobile phone video footage captured by bystanders showing her lying frozen bleeding to death on the street was circulated on the internet on social media sites like Twitter. TIME Magazine later summarized it as follows, “Agha-Soltan’s bloody, panicked last moments, captured by a mobile-phone camera uploaded to the Internet, turned into probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.”

Obviously I’m not comparing her killing, horrible as it was, to the types of executions Islamic State have carried out. But with regard to its coverage across social media it is considerably comparable. At the time, that video of Neda’s death seemed somewhat unprecedented. Since then, amateur footage of turmoil, war and terror throughout the world has been uploaded to the internet by ordinary people, particularly in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring and the subsequent ongoing tumult throughout that region. In a relatively short space of time it has become so much easier and much more common to see firsthand the abject horrors people endure in war.

Obviously one could insist that we have in a sense always seen the horrors of war to an extent. Footage, for example, of that little burnt girl fleeing in terror from a napalm attack in Vietnam is still quite nauseating to re-watch decades after the fact. But compared to today, those days of war coverage are nothing compared to how today anyone with a camera and the most basic of internet connections can readily document and show to the world what they are witnessing.

Given this and what it enables ordinary people to easily and readily see one could get the impression that the world is becoming increasingly less civilized and savage. After all, the shooting dead of a young girl in the street or the vicious beheading of journalists are extremely unsettling things to watch. And seeing them in rapid succession of each other (Foley and Sotloff were beheaded in little over a fortnight of each other) can desensitise one to an extent that one feels like one is living in an increasingly more uncivilized and chaotic world.

But the thing is, when you see these excesses online that obviously does not mean that such atrocities and crimes haven’t been happening for a very long time. Just because we can now see them so vividly and upfront doesn’t mean much has changed. Indeed one should take into account the international condemnations in gauging how civilized most of the world community is today. Remember that among the highest regarded and civilized countries in the world today are Germany and Japan, who were of course the dreaded Axis Powers who subjected millions of innocent people to torture and massacre throughout the Second World War. Just under 80 years ago, Japan was beheading its enemies–now Japan’s state and society deplores such barbarity. Salient realities like these in and of themselves shows how large swaths of the world have become much more civilized and much more humane than they were in the past.

It is therefore important that a very violent vocal minority of uncivilized brutes are not successfully able to, through their grisly deeds, give to ordinary humane people the world over the impression that the world is becoming increasingly less civilized–especially when the contrary is clearly the case.

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