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From the archive

Ghoulishness, gawking and vile gratification

24 August 2014

10:21 AM

24 August 2014

10:21 AM

James Foley’s family has begged people not to share images of him being beheaded. The Met has warned that watching and disseminating the film of the murder could constitute an offence under terrorism laws. The Spectator of 1886 would have approved of the ISIS media blackout hashtag.

A General Order was issued last week to the Army in India, announcing that the Viceroy had been satisfied that the charges brought against Colonel Hooper, late Provost-Marshal at Mandelay, of photographing condemned criminals at the moment of execution, and of causing a prisoner to confess under threat of death, had been established, and that such conduct reflects discredit upon the British Army…The former offence is more one against good feeling and taste than against any more substantial principle; but it revolts so much against good feeling and taste, that we rather wonder that any officer of distinction should have sanctioned it. To extract its secrets from the anguish of death, so far as that is possible, and to extract them so that they may be recorded permanently, implies surely a sort of moral pruriency from which instinctive reverence naturally shrinks.

A deeply sarcastic article from one of the first few issues of the magazine took exception to ghoulishness of another sort. The notorious William Corder had just been tried for murdering a young woman, and the so-called Red Barn Murder had caught the public’s imagination. Corder had advertised for a wife, received dozens of replies, picked one and arranged a meeting. Maria Marten’s body was found much later at the rendez-vous and Corder was hanged. The papers followed every turn in story:

We hope the public feel the better for the fine lessons which its best possible instructors the Newspapers have extracted from the life, crimes, conversation, manners, habits, death, and dissection of Corder. As a turtle is said to contain within itself every kind of meat, so this case, in the hands of the journalists, may be said to have comprehended every conceivable sort of instruction – history, morals, divinity, law, and metaphysics, nor, strange to add, and great glory to the artist, has even fun been wanting to relieve the sombreness of the grave lessons.

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After roundly mocking all The Spectator’s rivals, the article concludes very strictly:

The Press ought to be ashamed of giving, and the people of receiving this vile sort of gratification. The title of Public Instructor is a satire on the Press while it consents to play the pander to the idlest curiosity. But it is not simply the pander, it excites the morbid appetite it gratifies.

When Teresa Howard visited Auschwitz in 2005 she was distressed by the circus it had become, warning visitors to prepare themselves for crowds of tourists, “who have a few hours to spare between Krakow and the mountains of Zakopane”.

‘This afternoon the Concentration Camp of Auschwitz,’ announces the Contiki website, ‘a visit never to be forgotten’, beside which is a message board describing wild bouts of drinking and dreams of endless bonking….One of the hardest places to visit was the windowless gas chamber. Not just because it was the site of thousands of deaths, but because the already claustrophobic space had to be shared with endless camera flashes and a vociferous Italian tour guide who ignored the sign requesting a respectful silence.

Most of the visitors have no personal connection with Auschwitz, which makes me wonder why go? Why spend your holidays walking round a former concentration camp? Is it that so many of us have such bland lives we have to touch horror in order to feel alive? Do we get a ghoulish pleasure from the thought of other people’s suffering, or is our interest just in the history of our race? Perhaps we are wary of all the conflicting interpretations of the past, and want to work out for ourselves what went on there? The more I look into the appeal of Auschwitz, the more I think that it’s not something you can really work out. People have an instinct to return to the scenes of disasters…We treat the sites of death as sacred. We build memorials, erect gravestones, bring flowers. We go to grieve, but perhaps places like Auschwitz also help us to believe that death and wickedness are real.

The entire internet sometimes feels like this kind of circus – disaster junkies peddling cheap morality. The Islamic State is so nihilistic that death means victory and psychopathic violence is an advertisement – and they’re busy exploiting technology to harness the magnetic force of tragedy and violence.

 

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