Oh, how Adam Smith would have shuddered to know that the “invisible hand,” which he described as the guiding force of markets, can be seen most often these days cutting the necks of videotaped hostages in Iraq and Saudi Arabia – and that this, too, is guiding a new and exotic market, that of execution CDs. In September, the passion to film atrocities was evident in Beslan, South Ossetia, where Chechen gunmen shot footage of the booby trapped gymnasium where they were holding hundreds of captive schoolchildren, though the exact reason why they filmed remains unclear. Perhaps it was to warn off Russian security forces by showing them the surfeit of explosives in the room; perhaps it was to record the event for posterity or for propaganda purposes. That said, few experiences are more ghastly than watching similarly reasoned videotapes from the Chechen war, where rebels filmed themselves cutting the throats of pleading Russian prisoners.
Everywhere, it seems, militant Islamists, or self-described “freedom fighters,” have been transformed into ghoulish Irving Thalbergs, producing what was hitherto an urban legend: snuff films. And where there is sensationalism, there is supply and demand: According to a Reuters reporter in Iraq: “The hottest-selling item at Baghdad’s video CD market is not a movie or a music video –it’s an ordinary Egyptian whose beheading was filmed by his Muslim militant captors.” And how big a market is that? “We see about 300 to 400 clips a week,” said one shopkeeper, who didn’t have the nerve to watch what he was selling. At about 70 cents a CD, that’s (for Iraq) a respectable $210 to $280 a week. The paradox of the execution CD sales, much like that of al-Qaeda’s ability to use new computer technology or to decipher and exploit the Byzantine ways of international financial transfers, is that utterly illiberal gentlemen are at ease in the ways of the free market. The market is, in theory, amoral, so that whichever product finds an aficionado should also find a price for its purchase. In fact, that rule is repeatedly broken, for example in the sale of child pornography or the distribution of drugs. But where do the execution CDs take their place?
The answer would appear simple: in the dustbin. But that’s clearly not where Iraqi shopkeepers are storing them, or where avid spectators are watching them. Why? Because somehow death has been hitched to things regarded as legitimate: anti-Americanism, the alleged apostasy or guilt of the filmed victims, perceived resistance, and the like. More easily illustrating this trait, another of the big CD sellers in Iraq show images of the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr edited in with war scenes showing people lying in their own blood. Watching exhibitionist violence becomes eminently acceptable if viewers regard it as part of a justifiable experience, a fact splendidly exploited by Al-Jazeera, which has embraced, if not largely propelled, the market of videotaped captive-taking.
In that context, for example, Iraqi viewers may watch CDs with images from Abu Ghraib (with spliced-in scenes from a Hungarian pornographic film showing alleged American soldiers raping Arab women) because he or she feels it is a duty to confirm the evil nature of the American occupation. NBC correspondent Hanson Hosein recently quoted a shopkeeper: “The Abu Ghraib scandal CDs are very popular … people are angry at what the American soldiers are doing.” Of course, one cannot underestimate the brute titillation some members of the public feel while watching someone being butchered. It’s apparently not all stern duty. And one suspects that not a few Al-Jazeera viewers (or those of Al-Arabiya, which is less beloved by the chop-chop set) watch the edited murders much as they would a spectral scene from Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE. What is the moral of the atrocity CDs or videos making the rounds in Baghdad or Riyadh? That even those who wish to carry the world backwards to some vague time immemorial will adopt the most modern techniques to do so; that even the most outrageous of human actions can produce a market of sorts, proving that free minds and free markets need not invariably be one; that human beings will readily watch other humans being killed for various reasons, and will usually seek to justify this on moral or political grounds; and that even the most ardent defenders of freedom, in particular the freedom to broadcast and watch atrocity tapes, can define it truly only as the right to be free without harming others.