The Personalist Project

The other day I shared a message urging people not to watch the ISIS video of the beheading of the Christian Copts—so as not to play into the hands of the terrorists—but instead to share the martyrs’ names and pray for them and their families.

As I expected, nobody objected to the names and the praying, but my friend Lisa’s response took me aback. Lisa is one of the most generous and thoughtful people I know. She has a lot of credibility with me. Here’s what she said:

While I personally don't have the courage nor the heart to watch this I can't help but remember the Germans of WWII who refused to look and refused to see. I believe the Holocaust happened, on the scale it did, in part, because the people looked away. I believe there is a resurgence of Nazism because people have forgotten what we should never forget. Although it is heartbreaking and soul sickening we must never forget that evil is real as we love the Christ who looked over the city and wept and had compassion on them because "the people were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

She added:

My heart and mind go back to those old WWII liberation of the concentration camps films where the liberators force the German people to tour the camps for the 1st time. …One of the most striking things about these films is how the Germans initially approach the camps laughing and talking "just as if they were on a picnic", the narrator intones. But that all changes when they are forced to see what they have looked away from in their own backyards. You see, when only the military had to be involved and aware of their doings, nothing changed. But when the German people could not look away any longer, were forced to open their eyes, they came face to face with what their blissful ignorance had purchased.


So now I wonder whether those videos should be dismissed as “death porn.” ISIS differs from the Nazis in some respects, of course, but in others, not at all. I’m still thinking it out, but here are some aspects I’m considering:

  • We might turn away out of squeamishness, yes—a selfish insistence on remaining in blissful ignorance. Who wants to be faced with such things? But then again, we might turn away out of respect for the martyrs. We might choose not to spread the images so as to avoid using the persons in them as a tool for obtaining a certain military or political response. Even if it’s a desirable response, is it right to use their images as a means to it?
  • Some would say, yes, sharing the images does precisely that: it honors them. Similarly painful questions have been confronted by pro-life people who object to graphic photos of aborted babies, or to indiscriminate dissemination of them.
  • I certainly don’t accuse anyone I know of this, but it is possible to share such images to generate clicks and publicity for oneself. This is horrible to think about, but maybe one could blind oneself to the horror by focusing on what a good cause it serves.

  • There could be a place for these videos and images, but maybe it’s not on my Facebook feed. I have some very young “friends,” for one thing, but even if I didn’t, each of my 479 “friends” could share the images with others who are total strangers to me. Different viewers will react in different ways, and especially in the case of complete strangers, how can I possibly judge whether I’m doing good or harm?
  • One reason that sharing images of horrible evil could seem not only justified but praiseworthy: most of the media are bent on avoiding certain truths like the plague. The administration refuses to call the victims “Christians” or “Jews.” They opt for vague phrases like “Egyptian citizens” (though the monsters who killed them more candidly said “the people of the Cross”). The President speaks of a “random bunch of folks”—“folks” who happened to be at a Jewish delicatessen. If the Chief Executive and the communications media won’t communicate, somebody has to—and probably soon, before the “gatekeepers” of the internet descend in earnest to prevent it.

  • Another question to ask: will seeing these images, and especially watching these videos, impel us to prayer and action, or just harden us? Or maybe both? I remember an army recruiter remarking that in pre-video-game days, the military had to overcome a certain natural resistance in new soldiers to pulling a trigger and killing a human being. But they've found that resistance has disappeared. Kids accustomed to virtual killing found that real killing didn't faze them. Of course I don’t mean that all soldiers, or all gamers, are heartless. But this was an empirically verified difference one man had noticed.
  • I think I may be more hardened now than the first time a bodiless head appeared, unasked for, on my news feed. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” says T. S. Elliot. I know I can’t. Let’s make sure we really are praying for the victims, and for the perpetrators, if we can bring ourselves to, rather than being content with having the right convictions and watching in fascinated horror.

  • On the other hand, blissful ignorance is a dangerously appealing state--especially for us Americans who have grown up soft in unprecedented comfort and prosperity,

immersed in a culture of therapeutic relativism. Even if we believe in absolute good and evil, there’s no growing up unscathed in a culture that denies the truth in a million ways with a million mouthpieces. And the therapeutic aspect teaches us that there’s no such thing as evil, just diagnosable disorders. Besides, you owe it to yourself to feel good. Watching unpleasant and horrific realities don’t make you feel good. Ergo…

So, I still won't watch or spread the images arbitrarily. But my conclusion is not very rousing or very certain. It comes down to “There’s a lot more to this than I thought.”

Maybe we can all agree to pray, though. Here are their names as recorded by the meme that started this train of though:

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Comments (6)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Feb 22, 2015 7:33am

Some years back, in the midst of the Maciel scandal, I learned that for the victims of clerical sex abuse, the fact that no one believed them was almost worse than the original abuse.

I began to notice how many people refused to hear about sex abuse, because it was too horrible to think such thoughts. This, of course, served the abusers very well.

I realized that I had been doing it too. I had (God forgive me!) felt virtuous about practically shunning anyone who spoke about the problem of sexual abuse among priests. I'd think they were messed up people who needed prayers, not a listening ear.

In penance, I made myself read the grand jury indictment of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. It was horrible. But it was right (for me) to do it. It helped me shed some childish illusions and become more aware and more open to abuse victims. It forced me to grow in maturity and self-standing in relation to the Church.

I wonder if, in discerning whether to watch those videos ourselves (I haven't yet), it would be good to ask ourselves not what ISIS wants, but what the victims want.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Feb 22, 2015 7:36am

It seems to me many of the victims of the violence now being perpetrated all over the world against Christians and Jews by Islamic jihadis have expressed a lot of pain and bewilderment over the indifference of the only people with the power and resources to do something about their plight.

I don't recall having heard any of them say anything like, "Please don't pay attention; that's exactly what our tormentors want." They seem rather to be saying, "Why is the world closing its eyes to what is happening to us?"

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Feb 22, 2015 7:54am

Wow. Good post Devra. Thanks for sharing Lisa's response. Her comparison with the concentration camps is really vivid.

Devra Torres

#4, Feb 22, 2015 5:21pm

My initial decision not to look at the videos seemed like the obvious one for several reasons: because of the violence and graphic nature of it, because it seemed to trivialize the martyrs' death to watch it and then continue scrolling down my feed, and because the video was made and desseminated by ISISi itself--unlike the ones Lisa talks about, which were made by our side. From the still shots I've seen, though, what I'm struck by is not how much I should fear ISIS, but by the dignity and heroism of these strong, calm men, kneeling by the ocean, waiting to be sent to God. 

Rhett Segall

#5, Feb 22, 2015 7:29pm

Hi Devra, Katie and Jules;

Lillian Hellman was aghast when,as a child, she saw the poor in Egypt scrounging in the garbage.

"It saddens me" she told her friends grandparents.

"Don't look at them" they said.

 A friend said to me that it becomes tiresome to constantly hear about and see the atrocities of the Holocaust. "Enough already."

But I glance up at the crucifixes on the walls of my home; I note the crosses friend and stranger wear, I frequently participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, pray the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, note the stations of the cross in our churches, and enter into the passion of Christ during the season of Lent.  I know why we do such things-to keep before our minds and heart what sin does and how God redeems.



Devra Torres

#6, Feb 24, 2015 3:20pm

Yes, whatever the answer is, it can't possibly be limited to "Don't look at them"! As a convert, one of the things I find unique about Catholicism is the way it doesn't try to explain away suffering and evil.

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