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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Who watches murder videos?
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Footage of Ken Bigley's murder is widely available on the internet, along with that of other hostages killed in Iraq. Who is watching the videos and why?

It was a short video released to Arab TV and posted on a radical website which confirmed the worst for Ken Bigley's family on Friday - he had become the latest hostage to be killed in Iraq.

Ken Bigley
A video showed Ken Bigley shortly before he was killed

But as the 62-year-old Briton's brother Paul told journalists that he would never watch the footage of the murder himself, it quickly became freely available on the internet to anyone who cared to look.

It is not only the harrowing scenes of Mr Bigley's final moments that have been posted on the web. Scores of sites also offer footage of the deaths of other hostages, including Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, the Americans kidnapped with Mr Bigley and murdered first.

Asked to watch the five minute video showing Mr Bigley's death as part of his work, Reuters cameraman Maher Nazih said "it was awful". So why would others freely chose to see the images?


One viewer, who asked not to be named, says he watches the footage mostly out of curiosity.

"You almost can't believe that a group of people could be so pitiless as to carry out something so cruel and bestial, and you need to have it confirmed," he says.

"Watching them evokes a mixture of emotions - mainly distress at the obvious fear and suffering of the victim, but also revulsion at the gore, and anger against the perpetrators."

For many such casual viewers, the footage is found on sites which appear to host the images as a form of macabre entertainment.

Some carry the videos alongside that of other, entirely unrelated murder victims and "bizarre" deaths.


Other sites claim a higher purpose in showing the videos, arguing that to understand the world you need to know what is going on.

The majority of the people in the US and the UK do not know how vile and vicious these people are
Douglas Hagmann

One organisation in the US, for example, says it shows the videos because it is dedicated to the fight against terrorism.

Introducing the footage of Mr Bigley's death it warns that it is "violent and horrific", that it is not suitable for children and will be disturbing for many adults.

But it continues: "In accordance with our policy that the American people need to know the tactics of our enemy, we are making the video available."

'Vile and vicious'

Douglas Hagmann, the director of the organisation, says it decided to go ahead because the media was sanitising the issue.

"All too frequently, we hear the mainstream news talk about a hostage being 'beheaded' by 'militants', 'insurgents' or other innocuous sounding descriptive terms," he says.

"It is my belief that the majority of the people in the US and the UK do not know how vile and vicious these people are, and how horrific these acts are, especially when they are described in such mild terms.

"These are acts of pure evil and savagery that must not be minimised by such references in the press."

'Vicious nature'

Whatever the purpose of the sites, demand to see the images appears to be high.

American Jack Hensley
American Jack Hensley was also killed in Iraq

Mr Hagmann reports that the videos have been downloaded from his site on more than one million occasions, with most of the visitors apparently coming from the US, Canada and the UK.

He also says he has received more than 3,000 e-mails from people who have seen them.

"About 95% of these e-mails have been positive in nature, in response to us showing the vicious nature of the enemy we face," he reports.

But why do people watch them when they know it will be gruesome?

Dr Guy Cumberbatch, a chartered psychologist and expert in media violence, says the desire to watch the videos is similar to that which makes people watch horror videos.

"A lot of it's to do with the taboo of seeing stuff we're not supposed to," he says.

People are motivated by curiosity about the human body, just as they are when they drive past the scene of a car crash. The response is a normal one and not reprehensible, he suggests.

"The police have always been wrong to talk of the ghouls that go to watch, but it's more of a feeling of 'there, but for the grace of God, go I."

A desire to see such things is a "fairly healthy, normal function" of many people, he says, and there's little evidence to suggest that seeing gruesome images desensitises people to death or suffering.

'Moral judgement'

Despite Mr Hagmann's arguments for making the footage available, many people believe it is in poor taste.

The UK-based Internet Watch Foundation, which monitors internet content, says it believes it could be illegal under the Obscene Publications Act if it was hosted by sites based in Britain.

A spokeswoman says: "We're aware of them, but we suspect 99% of them are hosted in the US. We would say it's pretty unlikely any ISP [internet service provider] in the UK would host that content."

Preventing sites outside the UK from carrying the videos is unlikely to happen, the IWF says. International agreement may exist on how to tackle sites showing child abuse images, but this is a very different case.

Whether or not to carry the images, or indeed look at them, remains "a moral judgement".

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Seeking out and viewing these clips is generating demand for them. If a group threatening to murder someone perceives that there is an audience out there hungry to see their film and become aware of their 'cause', wouldn't they be more likely to go through with it? I think they would. Please people, think twice before watching any more.
Rich, Reading, UK

It's awful but we have no option but to watch because it's happening.
Sichipolo Gas, Lusaka, Zambia

Publicising a kidnapping and execution just raises the profile of the terrorist and/or organisation they support. I think that we should not report these things, to lower the impact and not give these terrorist what the want which is publicity.
Tim, Oxfordshire

I think the fact that most of the downloads come from the UK, USA and Canada is important. A puritanical official attitude towards such imagery exists. The media self censors images because 'we might find them offensive'. Other countries manage not to descend into moral turpitude when such images are shown in their media. The upshot of all this is that we have developed a morbid curiosity towards this material.
Iain Buchanan, Cumbernauld, Scotland

I've seen many videos of this ilk. It makes you feel sick, yet sometimes it's hard to not look for them. It makes you realise just how sick life can be. I don't think you can be angry about people watching the videos out of curiosity, it is after all, real life.
Mark, Leeds

I confess that I have watched a couple beheading videos. I had a couple reasons for doing so. First, the news footage we get from Iraq is so sanitized and bloodless, one might assume that nobody is actually getting hurt over there. Sure, they say on the news that twelve were killed here, five were killed there, but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. I feel a responsibility as an American citizen to make an effort see the results of my country's foreign policy. I feel a need to get all the information I can so that as an informed citizen I can make responsible choices at the voting booth. The other reason why I watched the videos I did was that I was morbidly curious. I'm not proud of it, but I was. I'm a big fan of horror movies, so I figured I could take it. In truth, it was much worse than any horror movie if for no other reason than I knew it was real, a real human was being murdered.
Edward Hammerbeck, Louisville, Kentucky, US

I watched one of these videos out of curiosity. You hear time and time again on the news that someone has been beheaded. I couldn't believe that people can be so brutal so curiosity got the better of me, I wish it hadn't! I was close to being sick and the images are still clear in my head today, time & time again I think about what the poor man went through and how the family have to deal with knowing a loved one died in such a horrific way, it does get me upset. No words can describe the people that do such things!
Craig, Manchester

If viewing pornography (child or otherwise) is deemed as you "making" that image, because its downloaded onto your computer and then you can do as you please with the image, so isn't watching these videos seen in the same legal light. If torture and such like, are illegal in this country should it not be illegal to possess images/videos of torture? The war is officially over in Iraq, and these acts can't be acts of war - just acts of terror, barbarism, so should the possession of these videos not be illegal?
Jon, Deeside

I downloaded and watch the Bigley video, and so should everyone else. The press make the whole event to be clinical and explainable. It was not. Watching the video filled me with absolute repulsion at what men can do to each other. These were not freedom fighters on a religious crusade, but power hungry sadists, who released a video that shows exactly what they are. I only hope the relatives never see this video; but the public should.
Simon Naracott, London

I think a lot of it does have to do with curiosity. I haven't seen the videos, nor do I want to. However, I have in the past seen pictures of gruesome accidents/bodies on the net. I found them by accident (misleading Google search), then couldn't take my eyes away!
Sarah, Brussels, Belgium

I had no intention of seeing this inhumane act of murder. I did watch it firstly out of curiosity, and secondly because it was easily available. On this note - I didn't think I would actually see the graphic detail that I did. I advise people not to watch this. It is very distressing and I wish I hadn't now. But I know my comments will just make people more curious.
Sanjay Hunjan, Basingstoke

The justification put forth by many for watching these executions, such as "it is good to see what we are really up against", may have worked when viewing the execution video of the first hostage who was beheaded in Iraq. However, the point should have come across clear enough in this first viewing: any subsequent viewings of the murders of additional hostages will only be for entertainment's sake, and this is vile and disrespectful to a high degree.
Josh McInnis, Raleigh, NC United States

I have an active enough imagination as to what happened to these poor men, & do not need to have it on view. Someone I know watched one of the videos - out of curiosity - and described in detail what he saw. I did not want to hear it, & can not get rid of the awful images created in my head. The perpetrators are not stupid, they know how we will react, which is why they 'publicise' their barbaric actions.
Jane, Cheshire

By watching the executions all you are doing is fuelling the terrorists and making them more popular - if no-one watched, there would be no more executions. You must be a very sorry excuse for a human being if you have to watch this.
Gail, South Africa

I have watched an American and Korean execution and feel that it is an important part of what is happening in the world. Although foul, we cannot shy away from real events happening to real people. It is just as important to watch the hostage takers in these videos and listen to what they say as most describe in great detail the reasons for the execution.
anon, anon

I regularly watch the execution videos on the Internet. I don't enjoy them. I watch them to get a glimpse of reality. I try to imagine myself in his position, to imagine his fear, so I can understand that killing is wrong. So tell me, why should we blame the people who watch execution videos, when we elect (and re-elect) those that drop bombs and kill thousands of people in more gruesome ways? The hypocrisy is obscene.
Adam, Yokohama, Japan

I would not wish to view Mr Bigley's execution video; firstly as a mark of respect to the torment and fate he has suffered, though secondly, intentionally watching such footage for entertainment is an immoral and sick act. However, it must be said, we are all curious. Few of us have witnessed a killing or a death (natural or not). What did curiosity do to the cat?
John Galantini, Southampton, United Kingdom

There is nothing, "fairly healthy or normal" about watching people suffer and die. Don't give me the excuse that you're curious and you want to come to a better understanding of how "horrible" these (and who are "these")people are. Don't even say that it helps you understand terrorism better. Go read a history book about the Salem witch trials, the camps in Germany, the Tower of London if you will - but don't excuse your own sick and violent tendencies by saying that it's something that needs to be watched to be understood. I'm just as frightened of the people who indulge in such things as I am the terrorists.
Chase, Gablesville, PA, US

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