Invitation to a beheading: the day I filmed an execution

Yesterday the demented nutcases who call themselves ISIS killed Alan Henning, a taxi driver from Salford who fell into their clutches while taking aid to Syria. ‘The brutal murder… . . . shows just how barbaric these terrorists are,’ tweeted the UK prime minister. It’s hard to disagree with him. This ‘theatre of cruelty’, the use of beheading and the framing of murder as spectacle, forces an intimate emotional identification with the victim – a fact which ISIS well understand and exploit to maximum effect. Four people have now been killed in this way, symbolic sacrifices in a long-running war which has claimed few victims from amongst the civilian populations of ‘the West’.

In April 1999 I returned from Baghdad and telephoned Channel 4 News to offer them, uncut, what I thought was a sensational interview. The previous year Dennis Halliday, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq, had resigned from his post accusing the UN Security Council – and Britain and America in particular – of committing deliberate genocide against the Iraqi people. In our tape the official who had replaced him, Hans Von Sponeck, had gone on record for the first time to echo these claims. ‘Hmm,’ said the Channel 4 apparatchik I spoke to. ‘But did you film any state executions?’ Like ISIS, she understood the value of good propaganda. The question was so idiotic I didn’t have the wit to say yes.

Our journalists routinely film the starving, the bombed, the sick and the traumatised of the Middle East and Africa. But the story of the genocide of Iraq’s civilians was never told in the West. In the Muslim and Arab world it made the headlines every day. It, too, was brutal, barbaric and terrifying. By April 1999 over a million people had died as a direct result of Allied bombing and sanctions. They included the two thousand children who had died every week of every month for nine years – and would continue to die until after the invasion in 2003. One of them was a little boy in a nearly empty ward of a Baghdad hospital. The ward was empty because the hospital had run out of medicines and people had stopped bothering to come there. It had run out of sheets, too, and the boy, who was about 8 years old, was lying on a plastic mattress. Stupidly, we hoped that someone, somewhere, might want to broadcast what was happening in Iraq. The fate of this little boy was typical. Alone and terrified he was slowly suffocating from asthma because there was no medicine and no oxygen to give him. And so, to my abiding shame, we filmed him.

What did he think, this frightened little boy, when he saw these foreigners setting up their camera by his deathbed? What do all the victims of our wars, our economic pillaging and our indifference think as we shove our cameras into their faces, taking liberties with their privacy and dignity that we would never venture with our own citizens? How do they feel about having their suffering and humiliation filmed and paraded as part of the ‘infotainment’ we call news? The ISIS beheading of these Western civilians is, for us, a shocking inversion of a state of affairs we otherwise consider quite normal: the televising of sundry executions, all brutal, all barbaric, all terrifying.

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