The Pearl Video— Yes or No?

The Pearl Video— Yes or No?

Angela Gunn

Q: What the hell is wrong with the people who put the Daniel Pearl video online?

A: The argument made by those who feel the grisly footage (which includes his beheading) ought to be seen is as follows: This happened, video exists, and Americans ought to see it to understand what kind of animals we’re up against.

I’m all for understanding. Confronting genuine, industrial-strength evil is a rare act even for those of us who think a lot about ethics. Kidnapping and killing people for their parentage was evil when white Americans lynched black Americans, and it’s evil still. (Ethicists don’t normally use words like “evil”—we save them for our friends the moralists—but it’s applicable here.)

But to those who argue that we must see the Pearl video to understand: No. Images are powerful, of course. Photographs of lynchings and of Vietnam atrocities were mighty forces for positive change. But “to understand” in this case means to inspire our sense of duty and empathy, and anyone old enough to gain understanding from this video is old enough to be moved by words alone. Add to this that the Pearl family, which has a bigger stake in this than any of us (and therefore is entitled to the lion’s share of whatever empathy the video generates), doesn’t want the video broadcast, and you have a pretty strong case against seeking it out and viewing it.

Folks have to try to understand the Pearl murder, but in this case they have to do so by building a mental picture. Nobody owes anyone a show-and-tell of this man’s death, and I question the intelligence of anyone willing to accept the editorial judgment of the guy behind that camera. Don’t forget, this is not raw footage; it’s an edited propaganda film—more Triumph of the Will than The Sorrow and the Pity. The people who created it put the Pearl footage in so that you will watch it. When you do, you also air their hateful message.

By now, a lot of people have seen this thing—the CIA, journalists, and so on—and can describe the events moment by moment. For those seeking facts rather than morbid titillation, their retellings should suffice. A well-written account may well be even more effective than the video, balancing our need (and right) to know with our ethical obligations to Daniel Pearl and his survivors. As we learned too well from the Rodney King trial and from the World Trade Center footage, video images can replay (in your mind or outside it) until they don’t mean anything. The last thing we want is for those images to become just one more piece of debris in our memory banks.

Q: I’ve been getting some weird crushed-out mail from a friend of a friend, including a long poem with distinctly sexual overtones. She seems harmless, but I jokingly mentioned the situation to some friends of mine and now everyone’s asking to see the messages. Will I go to hell for showing them?

A: Yeah. You’d think that after the damage wreaked by embarrassing e-mail forwards from Claire Swire (who explicitly complimented a guy after services rendered) and Peter Chung (who e-mailed all his friends, on company time, about his exploits on the Seoul bar scene), people would know that e-mail gets passed along all the time, often ending up far beyond its original targets. (The Swire and Chung e-mails were even reprinted by the news media.) Of course people shouldn’t send it. But they do. So don’t you. The e-mail may be entertaining, but the more entertaining it is, the greater its chance of being forwarded to a zillion people and ending up in The National Enquirer. And that’s just not a nice thing to do to someone. Unless you’re feeling threatened by this mail—in which case you should talk to a lawyer or a cop—keep your friends out of it. If it’s any consolation, we’re sure that if your correspondent knew you were the kind of boy who’d do such a thing, she’d stop writing mash notes. We would.

Copyright © 2002 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Yahoo! Internet Life.