Lessons from Khashoggi's screams
Someone forwards you an audio clip of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi screaming as his fingers were chopped. Would you listen?
Three weeks ago, a friend of mine, an Indian living in Thailand, forwarded me an audio file. It contained, purportedly, the screams of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi as torturers cut his fingers off at the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Everyone knows the rest of the story: he was beheaded, and his body chopped to pieces shortly afterwards and then dissolved. The cold-blooded, savage assassination sent shock waves through the world as evidence from the Turkish government directly implicated Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the young, newly anointed ruler of Saudi Arabia, in the detailed planning and direction of the killing. So this audio arrives. You only have to touch that 'Play' triangle on your smartphone and you would start hearing the screams of a man being dismembered part by part while he was conscious.
Would you? A word to those who say no: the odds are heavily stacked against you. It is a well documented and researched fact that human beings have been endlessly entertained by torture, pain, agony, blood and brutality. Just as long as someone else was at the receiving end of it. The German language has a special word, schadenfreude, for pleasure derived from someone else's pain. The vast majority of people receiving an audio file of a man's screams while being chopped up will most likely instantly listen to it, and in the next instant, share it on Facebook. I reached out, too, to press Play — but I don't know what made me pull back. Perhaps a single question: why? Why should anyone need to listen to Jamal Khashoggi's screams, even if their curiosity made them itch to? What would be added to any person's life by listening to the sounds of someone else's pain?
Would listening to the heart-rending sounds of cruelty awake the amygdala in my brain and somehow make me more empathetic? Institutionalised officially-sanctioned public cruelty invariably involving gruesome bodily torture was normal until well into the 19th century in Western Europe, and resurgent more recently in the USA's Guantanamo and the terrorist caliphate of ISIS. Though the original purpose may have been cautionary — "This is what will happen if you don't follow our rules" — it has been its entertainment value that has kept pain and cruelty viral and thrilling in our societies. Brutal TV series like 24 show torture as the only way to extract vital information when the clock is ticking towards global annihilation.
The naked truth is — even the kindest amongst us are riveted by cruelty, when it is towards someone else. Even more chilling are psychology experiments that show how much cruelty each of us is capable of inflicting, as long as we are assured that (a) the person being punished somehow deserves it; (b) that others are also doing it; and (c) that you won't go to jail for it. The most spine-curdling instances of cruelty in India have been linked with rape, often gang rape. I still remember my state of mind when I heard of Nirbhaya — livid at the savagery of five neanderthal juveniles towards a woman they did not know even a little; and morbid fascination and revulsion with the rape details as they emerged.
You shouldn't be surprised that in August last year, a Times of India investigation found a vast trove of rape videos freely available across Uttar Pradesh for less than R100 each. "Porn is out," a shopkeeper told the newspaper. "These crime videos are the rage." Social activist Sunitha Krishnan started the #ShameTheRapist campaign after stumbling upon several viral rape videos on WhatsApp and social media, leading to the Supreme Court taking up the issue suo moto. Witnesses of violence are victims too. Younger folks, lacking the self-soothing skills that come with adulthood, are specially vulnerable to negative influences and impulses arising from witnessing cruelty. Their brains carry mirror neurons which mimic the emotions and feelings they detect vicariously, making them feel real. There's no guarantee that a person listening to Khashoggi's screams would empathise with him; some might empathise with the killers.
Suddenly, extreme violence becomes acceptable and repeatable. I couldn't bring myself to listen to Khashoggi's screams. For three weeks, I struggled with fear of being frightened, disturbed, fascinated, shaken. I could see no practical value to seeing it or sharing it. But today, there was relief. My friend told me why he had forwarded that audio file — and finally I was able to listen to it. The sounds of Khashoggi's torture and death are not yet public or viral — and hopefully will never be. Khashoggi's scream was, fortunately, a parody. It consisted of a minute of a white-hot heavy metal guitar riff, with a long, sustained rock singer's scream. Extracted from Pink Floyd's song Careful with that axe, Eugene.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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