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Watching people die is making us more like ancient Rome
The rise of the "snuff clip" genre
As the horrific images poured in over the last few days following Hamas’ attack on Israel, resulting in videos of bodies lying in the streets with bullet holes, pleading people being kidnapped, and the parading of tortured corpses for display, it has been difficult for many of us to look away. On X (formerly Twitter) most of the timeline consisted of short videos of war crimes, outdated barbarism from the Bronze Age.
Honestly, I can barely look at a lot of this stuff. I don’t want to see someone’s head shoveled off with a sickening dull thunk. It’s too much. Especially anything involving kids. My brain short circuits when I see stuff like a little Israeli boy crying that he “didn’t want his sister to die” as he’s filmed by men with guns. Or a toddler in a car that had been strafed with bullets, crumpled up next to his father. Such things are now burned into my retinas.
Eventually, however, I noticed that beyond the shocking videos there was almost nothing else on my timeline. No substantive news articles about the invasion. No journalists I recognized or accounts I could trust to tell me what the facts on the ground were, or the geopolitical ramifications. Elon Musk suggested (in a now-deleted post) to follow two accounts for real-time information, but one of these accounts turned out to a biased rumor-monger. So the app contained death, and little else.
Additionally, I couldn’t help but notice how often the worst videos, the most viral ones, were proudly taken by the very people committing the atrocities. In a way, their virality was a victory for the perpetrators of these crimes; it’s even rumored that the relatives of the victims are reporting them and trying to get them taken down (understandably so).
Which brings me to the point of this essay, which is the growing comfortableness of highly graphic videos being the focal point for politics and culture. It’s important to note that this trend predates the horrors of this particular Hamas attack. What I’m really talking about here is actually something that’s been going for much longer. Specifically, social media corporations (especially the new X) have over the last several years let the algorithm be dominated by viral clips of real people really dying. In war, yes, but also in plenty of other situations. And these clips get a lot clicks, shares, and views. In the past few days, it’s been clips from the incursion into Israel, but it is now common to see what is effectively a short snuff film every day online, even when there is no war, no invasion, and without looking for them.
Call them “snuff clips.” Someone stabbed on the street in New York. Or shot in the back of the head at a crosswalk in Chicago. Or a soldier pleading with a hovering drone in the Ukrainian war. If you log on, you will be shown. And consequently many of the political debates that have dominated our culture over the past years have been based on graphic videos, even just domestically.
So my question is: Just how familiar should a polity be with death?
Let’s start with a problematic and uncomfortable truth: bloodsport is probably the most entertaining of all sports. We humans, we apes, are most interested in violence, in its drama and potential and stakes. Now-a-days it is common to think, because of our screens and our phones and our technology, that we have beaten boredom, and that we are the most entertained any civilization has ever been. Wrong. Imagine the setting sun over the colosseum as two men fight to the death in the sand. You and your friends are drinking wine and eating bread, candies, nuts. Every thrust, every exhausted recovery, is so filled with meaning you cannot look away. Spectating a football game is incomparable. It turns out sitting in the stands drunk watching people die was popular, and has always been popular, because it really is titillating, thrilling, dramatic, an infinite jest, to watch other people in life and death situations. Left to our own devices, bloodsport is a global minimum we humans fall into unless some specific ideology or religion acts as a barrier for our fall.
Regardless of what exactly the barrier was—maybe it was our liberal order, maybe the greater cultural relevancy of religion, maybe just the idea of America as representing historical progress—in the world I grew up in, by which I mean America in the 1990s and early 2000s, watching death openly was frowned upon. It was beneath us as a culture. Consider, again, the Roman Empire. For do we not always judge ourselves against such times? Recently even the question “How often do you think about the Roman Empire?” went viral:
Even within Rome’s eternal stranglehold on (apparently) husbands’ thoughts everywhere, it’s worth noting the Roman Empire possessed a significant dark side. First, due to all the actual leftover Bronze Age stuff that the ancient Romans did, from their crucifixions to their atrocities in war (the kind of things the Hamas videos call to mind). But there were also more insidious things, like how the Roman Empire used death as entertainment. And this reliance on death as entertainment marked its cultural corruption from top to bottom.
Ironic then, that we have returned so quickly and easily, with almost no remark at all by anyone, to being a civilization where real death gets lots of views. It is sold, as it were, for clicks. If this sounds overly dramatic, it’s only because everything depends on how you frame it. And one frame, certainly not the only, but a real one, is that over the past few years—again, I’m talking about a long-term trend—billionaires and companies have been making money selling ads to a huge audience while showing them knife attacks, public executions, and corpse parades. CCTV footage. Body cam footage. He shouldn’t have run. He should have run. Why’d he walk left? He should have walked right. He should have concealed carry. But then he’d be in jail. No city is safe. The country isn’t safe either. And so on.
Personally, I think watching snuff clips takes a little bit of our soul, individually but also culturally. I think it shifts us toward some sort of naturalism, maybe one could even call it a kind of paganism, which treats humans as just another animal. Look at that one. He sure wasn’t paying attention! Look at that one. She’s all strung up.
Under the erosion from snuff clips over the last several years we’ve become more casual about death: it used to be that when a political figure died, it was officially “thoughts and prayers” to their family, even if this was said through gritted teeth. The few departures from this, like Gore Vidal’s celebration of William Buckley’s death, were enough for entire news articles just back in 2008. Now, the debate has degenerated to: Why not celebrate? Why not rejoice? Why not dance on a grave?
Both America’s political parties—and nations at large, and ideologies—now make hay of death, because the death is autoplaying, it’s right there, it’s in the timeline. It has made us more like the ancient Romans. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
I’m not a prude. There are no pearls I’m clutching when I watch a snuff clip on X, even as they’ve become more common over the years. I am often horrified, or shocked, or angry. Especially at the latest ones—images from a historic act of evil—I am angry. And here I am torn. For not only am I generally pro free speech, I also get that for certain political causes, people just have to see it for it to be real. Regardless of your opinion of the situations, it’s just fundamentally different to read about someone who died yelling “I can’t breathe” compared to watching it. It’s just fundamentally different to read about a vague “migrant crisis” vs. watching a host of young men chaotically ford a river. It’s just fundamentally different to read about a body dragged through the streets vs. seeing the dragging. It’s obvious how potent this stuff is.
Perhaps one could even argue that the rise of the snuff clip genre is a visual corrective to something normally abstracted, which is death itself. Maybe we shouldn’t think that violence unfolds like the movies where one guys beats up three, or where women regularly throw some big dude using judo, or whatever. Where you can do something, anything, against someone with a gun. The truth is none of that happens in real life. It all occurs really fast. The people most likely to react in such situations are usually aggressive young men, often to their own demise. But most people just stand there, and then they’re dead.
One time in college I shadowed on an ambulance, and the EMTs told me that the majority of people on a trauma call just stare at the dying. They don’t even call 911. “The stare of life” was their gallows humor term for it.
The stare of life.
Yet, the problem with thinking the rise of snuff clips is a “necessary corrective” is that it’s pretty close to arguing the Roman arena didn’t really represent the cultural corruption we think it did. It’s close to saying that the stakes are only revealed in their true heightened form when we actually see the blood in the sands. And I agree that the impact is real, because I’m feeling it. But does the hyperreality of snuff clips actually lead to good outcomes? I, having seen recent videos from Hamas, do not feel I am in a state to make reasoned moral judgements about what should happen next. And that probably generalizes.
Even if you think that the return of death realism over the last few years has an upside, it’s impossible for me personally to be sanguine about snuff clips. It reminds me too much of that old moribund empire. But this time with smartphones and the moral fig-leaf of the arena being only virtual, the seats of the amphitheater distributed across a myriad of distant screens. And someone, somewhere, counting bloody coins.
So anyway, to answer the question.
How often do you think about the Roman Empire?
Well, more than I used to.