Jewish World Review June 25, 2002 / 15 Tamuz, 5762

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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My Head And Heart Are At Odds - I Can't Watch Video Of Pearl's Beheading | I haven't watched the Daniel Pearl video yet. And I'm wondering if I'm a hypocrite because of that.

I have, after all, frequently argued that informed citizens must, whenever possible, see with their own eyes the awful handiwork of history. A few years ago, I wrote a column about "Without Sanctuary," a book of lynching pictures. Argued vociferously, though unsuccessfully, for the Miami Herald to run a photograph from the book to accompany my essay. Still think I was right. A year or so before that, I chided a colleague who refused to see the movie "Saving Private Ryan" because she thought the gruesome realism of the D-Day battle sequences would be too tough to take. Our fathers had to live it, I told her. All you're asked to do is see it. Still think I was right about that, too.

Holocaust photos, the famous picture of the woman screaming over the corpse at Kent State, the people diving from the skyscrapers on Sept. 11, the naked little Vietnamese girl crying in pain as she flees a napalm attack ... wrenching, heart-gripping images that are, I would say, necessary for people to see and to know.

But I've chosen not to see the video of Daniel Pearl's beheading.

That tape, made by the terrorists who kidnapped and slaughtered The Wall Street Journal reporter, has stirred quite the brouhaha in journalistic circles. In May, CBS News aired an excerpt of it that did not include the murder. This month, an alternative newspaper in Boston posted a link to the entire video on its Web site.

The firestorm of controversy centers on issues of decency and sensitivity toward Pearl's family. Then the FBI entered the fray, reportedly pressuring the owners of the Web site to take the video down. That added questions of free speech to the mix. The pundits have been going at it ever since.

And here I sit, still unable to watch the thing. Tried twice, but couldn't do it. Both times, I clicked the stop button well before I saw the man murdered.

What makes my failure worse is the fact that I consider most of the arguments against release of the video to be faulty.

Decency? Well, yes, but murder is by definition indecent. And a compelling case can be made that viewing this video is one of the few ways for the average American to truly understand what we're up against. There are, I'm sure, emotions you can't feel and things you can't know until you've seen what they did to Daniel Pearl.

As for sensitivity toward his family, well who among us wants to increase their inconsolable pain? Still, it's fair to wonder whether this would even be an issue for us in media if we were not dealing here with one of our own.

And don't even get me started on the FBI. In America, the government does not get to censor Web sites. Period.

We have a right to see this video. Maybe even a need. And yet, I haven't been able to. Maybe I'll do it tomorrow. Maybe I never will.

It's not seeing him dead that I can't handle. It's the idea of watching it happen. The idea of bearing witness, of being there in the instant life becomes death and knowing that it's real, that it's happening before my eyes, that it was STAGED for my eyes and worse, that the tape is a recruitment tool by which detestable animals hope to find others just like them. There's something pornographic about it, something base, raw and filthy in ways sex videos could not begin to approach.

And the idea of watching it feels like voyeurism, like peeking out upon an intimate horror from behind some alley wall. It feels like being an accomplice somehow.

My head and heart are at war here.

The one tells me that seeing this video is an obligation and not seeing it, an act of hypocrisy and even cowardice.

The other says it's just trying to protect the few remaining patches of my soul that have not yet been brutalized by humanity's bottomless capacity for evil.

The hell of it is that both, I fear, are right.

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