I’m sorry I have to show you the next video

On February 1, 2002, jihadists filmed the beheading of US journalist Daniel Pearl. The film was black and white and grainy. Upon its release, the video went viral. Not since the days of the Greeks and Romans, had so many members of the public chosen to view a beheading. I couldn’t understand why anyone would.

And yet, when Daniel Pearl’s snuff video first went viral, my friend Eline watched it. She wanted to know how it would make her feel. She must have had her suspicions because she disabled the audio first. When I asked her what it was like, she said it wasn’t any different from watching a movie or a video game. She sounded disappointed.

What you are about to hear has not been made public before.

systematic desensitization
Clochette. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral therapy to treat phobias. The treatment is based on classical conditioning, also known as Pavlov’s response. Classical conditioning teaches a subject – say, a dog – to associate two stimuli in order to produce a learned response – say, to salivate at the sound of a bell. Systematic desensitization seeks

to remove the fear response of a phobia, and substitute a relaxation response to the conditional stimulus gradually using counter conditioning.

Systematic desensitization, Simply Psychology [accessed 11 Feb 2021]

In the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, Delegate Stacy Plaskett, Impeachment Manager, enters video and audio recordings into evidence. The recordings show rioters surge up the Capitol steps, scale the walls and break inside.

The insurgents shot some of the video clips themselves on the day the US Capitol was attacked. The images are out of focus and badly lit. They have been circulating for weeks on social media, widely viewed by both supporters and detractors of Trump.

The security footage of the Capitol is new to the general public though its quality is also not great. Taken from a fixed angle and without an audio feed, the videos show a strangely skewed impression of the events of January 6.

The audio recordings of the Capitol Police and the District of Columbia Police are also new. The fear of these police officers rises over the course of that afternoon as does the pitch of their voices. They cannot believe they’re under attack. Neither can I.

Rocks bottles pieces of flag and metal pole bear spray

Audio recording, Capitol Police, 6 January 2021

We’ve lost the line

Systematic desensitization uses exposure to the phobic stimulus to alleviate fear. Therapists recommend four to six sessions. Or, in the case of severe phobia, twelve. In vitro exposure asks the patient to imagine the phobic stimulus. In vivo entails actual exposure, say, to spiders, salivating dogs or a knife-wielding terrorist. Research shows that in vivo exposure produces the best response.

This security footage, which does not have sound, shows a close-up of Trump’s mob as they move toward the second floor of the House chamber to stop the counting of votes.

Representative Eric Swalwell, Impeachment Manager, Trial of Donald J. Trump, 10 Feb 2021.

Representative Swalwell repeatedly warns the viewer. He tells us, the following images will be graphic. We see Ashli Babbitt climb over her fellow insurrectionists. She’s poised to jump into the House lobby. An officer shoots. I hear a pop and see her fall. The crowd takes a breath. I think: I’ve seen better acting on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Goats and sheep

Today, the term beheading video merits its own Wikipedia page. Between 2015 and early 2018, IS executed 2,000 people. While most of them were locals, it is the video footage of foreigners that attracts social media attention. You can watch them on YouTube just like Eline did in 2002.

IS beheading videos have an effect on various actors; not only on IS sympathizers or other terrorists, but on criminals as well, and on the youth. IS, it seems, has successfully mainstreamed beheadings and provided a source from which many could be inspired or copy practices.

Ariel Koch, Jihadi Beheading Videos and their Non-Jihadi Echoes, Perspectives on Terrorism Vol 12, Issue 3 (June 2018)

The Orlando Pulse killer watched Islamic State beheading videos for two years before carrying out his attack. Children in Israel and Japan learn how to behead a human being by watching IS videos and practicing on goats whereas IS members prefer sheep.

When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I expected a degradation of American civil society. I never thought it would come to this.

I’m sorry I have to show you the next video.

Impeachment Manager Representative Eric Swalwell, Trial of Donald J. Trump, 10 Feb 2021
Storming of the US Capitol 6 Jan 2021. Image source: Commons Wikimedia