Terrorist Porn

Time magazine's Boston Marathon coverage shown above. http://nation.time.com/2013/04/15/boston-marathon-explosion-gallery/

Time magazine’s Boston Marathon coverage shown above. http://nation.time.com/2013/04/15/boston-marathon-explosion-gallery/

“Warning- Horrific Images From Boston Marathon Blast” screams just one of the 1.6 million results from a routine YouTube search on the Boston Marathon attacks. Graphic. Disturbing. Chilling. Bloody. These words pepper the coverage of the bombing, enticing our reptilian brains that are wired to respond to sex and death. Gruesome photos of runners with legs blown off and tendons dangling like jellyfish are all over news sites, along with photos of victims lying in pools of blood as bystanders helplessly look on. While publishing some horrific images is necessary to convey the magnitude of this tragedy, these photos aren’t just serving to inform the public or to bring the community together. They are fulfilling our sadistic urges.

This disaster coverage frequently devolves into “terrorist porn,” as On The Media referred to it in their most recent podcast. Terrorist porn is news that is stops informing and instead fills our screens with never-ending loops of destruction.  It happened after 9/11 with repeated images of planes slamming into buildings, and also during the tsunami, with TV news obsessively airing the crashing waves. But unlike run-of-the-mill pornography, terrorist porn is splashed across the front pages of CNN, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post, under the rubric of informing the public. This sadistic impulse is sanctioned by American culture, becoming so routine as to be quotidian, which begs the question: why are we so comfortable displaying unjustified images of death and violence in our news media and so uncomfortable with sexual imagery?

The phrase “terrorist porn” is apt, because the similarities to sexual porn are numerous. Both are disseminated and consumed in a similar way. The images frequently consist of decontextualized, graphic close-ups of body parts covered in bodily fluids, which are shown in endless loops. There’s usually no narrative, or if there is one, it’s merely an afterthought, a means to delay satisfaction, to increase the payoff when the desired images are finally shown. The CNN Slideshow: Deadly Attack at Boston is a prime example, as it intersperses wide shots of the explosions with close-ups of things like people’s feet covered in blood.

But there’s a big difference between the two types. Sexual porn is never featured on the front pages, while terrorist porn always is, because images of two human beings copulating are considered more offensive than photos of a man with half his leg blown off. Sexual and terrorist pornography both promote obsessive viewing by consumers, who go from website to website trying to find the most arousing or gruesome pictures, fearing that they’ve missed out on the most extreme imagery.

I am not proposing that we should necessarily put sexual pictures on the splash page of CNN, nor am I saying we shouldn’t. We need to have a serious discussion about why we promote violent imagery and vilify sexual imagery in American culture. What does this say about us as a people?

People will always seek out violent and sexual images, but our ghettoizing of one and not the other sends a message that it’s normal to spend hours looking at images of bloody suffering, but abnormal to spend even 15 minutes perusing YouPorn. Violent imagery shouldn’t be banned, but we shouldn’t go out of our way to showcase it either. Parents would be pilloried for purchasing a porn website subscription for their teenagers, but many think nothing of buying them violent video games.

Because extreme imagery is so normalized, people feel no shame in obsessively watching news coverage of gory scenes. In fact, they can pretend that they’re doing their civic duty. That is what makes terrorist porn (and its cousin disaster porn) so insidious: it enables people to unabashedly fulfill their reptilian yearnings for violence without societal reprobation. While the viewers of sexual porn squirrel away in their homes, embarrassed to admit their enjoyment of watching two hot, horny teens get it on, others download pictures of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev “bloodied and on his back,” and nobody blinks an eye.  –Hallie Lieberman

 

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