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  • For the last year,

  • everyone's been watching the same show,

  • and I'm not talking about "Game of Thrones,"

  • but a horrifying, real-life drama

  • that's proved too fascinating to turn off.

  • It's a show produced by murderers

  • and shared around the world via the Internet.

  • Their names have become familiar:

  • James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig,

  • Haruna Yukawa, Kenji Goto Jogo.

  • Their beheadings by the Islamic State

  • were barbaric,

  • but if we think they were archaic,

  • from a remote, obscure age,

  • then we're wrong.

  • They were uniquely modern,

  • because the murderers acted knowing well

  • that millions of people would tune in to watch.

  • The headlines called them savages and barbarians,

  • because the image of one man overpowering another,

  • killing him with a knife to the throat,

  • conforms to our idea of ancient, primitive practices,

  • the polar opposite of our urban, civilized ways.

  • We don't do things like that.

  • But that's the irony.

  • We think a beheading has nothing to do with us,

  • even as we click on the screen to watch.

  • But it is to do with us.

  • The Islamic State beheadings

  • are not ancient or remote.

  • They're a global, 21st century event,

  • a 21st century event that takes place in our living rooms, at our desks,

  • on our computer screens.

  • They're entirely dependent on the power of technology to connect us.

  • And whether we like it or not,

  • everyone who watches is a part of the show.

  • And lots of people watch.

  • We don't know exactly how many.

  • Obviously, it's difficult to calculate.

  • But a poll taken in the UK, for example, in August 2014,

  • estimated that 1.2 million people

  • had watched the beheading of James Foley

  • in the few days after it was released.

  • And that's just the first few days,

  • and just Britain.

  • A similar poll taken in the United States

  • in November 2014

  • found that nine percent of those surveyed

  • had watched beheading videos,

  • and a further 23 percent

  • had watched the videos but had stopped just before the death was shown.

  • Nine percent may be a small minority of all the people who could watch,

  • but it's still a very large crowd.

  • And of course that crowd is growing all the time,

  • because every week, every month,

  • more people will keep downloading and keep watching.

  • If we go back 11 years,

  • before sites like YouTube and Facebook were born,

  • it was a similar story.

  • When innocent civilians like Daniel Pearl,

  • Nick Berg, Paul Johnson, were beheaded,

  • those videos were shown during the Iraq War.

  • Nick Berg's beheading

  • quickly became one of the most searched for items on the Internet.

  • Within a day, it was the top search term

  • across search engines like Google, Lycos, Yahoo.

  • In the week after Nick Berg's beheading,

  • these were the top 10 search terms in the United States.

  • The Berg beheading video remained the most popular search term for a week,

  • and it was the second most popular search term for the whole month of May,

  • runner-up only to "American Idol."

  • The al-Qaeda-linked website that first showed Nick Berg's beheading

  • had to close down within a couple of days due to overwhelming traffic to the site.

  • One Dutch website owner said that his daily viewing figures

  • rose from 300,000 to 750,000

  • every time a beheading in Iraq was shown.

  • He told reporters 18 months later

  • that it had been downloaded many millions of times,

  • and that's just one website.

  • A similar pattern was seen again and again

  • when videos of beheadings were released during the Iraq War.

  • Social media sites have made these images more accessible than ever before,

  • but if we take another step back in history,

  • we'll see that it was the camera that first created a new kind of crowd

  • in our history of beheadings as public spectacle.

  • As soon as the camera appeared on the scene,

  • a full lifetime ago on June 17, 1939,

  • it had an immediate and unequivocal effect.

  • That day, the first film of a public beheading was created in France.

  • It was the execution, the guillotining, of a German serial killer, Eugen Weidmann,

  • outside the prison Saint-Pierre in Versailles.

  • Weidmann was due to be executed at the crack of dawn,

  • as was customary at the time,

  • but his executioner was new to the job,

  • and he'd underestimated how long it would take him to prepare.

  • So Weidmann was executed at 4:30 in the morning,

  • by which time on a June morning,

  • there was enough light to take photographs,

  • and a spectator in the crowd filmed the event,

  • unbeknownst to the authorities.

  • Several still photographs were taken as well,

  • and you can still watch the film online today

  • and look at the photographs.

  • The crowd on the day of Weidmann's execution

  • was called "unruly" and "disgusting" by the press,

  • but that was nothing compared to the untold thousands of people

  • who could now study the action

  • over and over again,

  • freeze-framed in every detail.

  • The camera may have made these scenes more accessible than ever before,

  • but it's not just about the camera.

  • If we take a bigger leap back in history,

  • we'll see that for as long as there have been

  • public judicial executions and beheadings,

  • there have been the crowds to see them.

  • In London, as late as the early 19th century,

  • there might be four or five thousand people to see a standard hanging.

  • There could be 40,000 or 50,000 to see a famous criminal killed.

  • And a beheading, which was a rare event in England at the time,

  • attracted even more.

  • In May 1820,

  • five men known as the Cato Street Conspirators

  • were executed in London for plotting

  • to assassinate members of the British government.

  • They were hung and then decapitated.

  • It was a gruesome scene.

  • Each man's head was hacked off in turn and held up to the crowd.

  • And 100,000 people,

  • that's 10,000 more than can fit into Wembley Stadium,

  • had turned out to watch.

  • The streets were packed.

  • People had rented out windows and rooftops.

  • People had climbed onto carts and wagons in the street.

  • People climbed lamp posts.

  • People had been known to have died in the crush on popular execution days.

  • Evidence suggests that throughout our history

  • of public beheadings and public executions,

  • the vast majority of the people who come to see

  • are either enthusiastic or, at best, unmoved.

  • Disgust has been comparatively rare,

  • and even when people are disgusted and are horrified,

  • it doesn't always stop them from coming out all the same to watch.

  • Perhaps the most striking example

  • of the human ability to watch a beheading and remain unmoved

  • and even be disappointed

  • was the introduction in France in 1792 of the guillotine,

  • that famous decapitation machine.

  • To us in the 21st century,

  • the guillotine may seem like a monstrous contraption,

  • but to the first crowds who saw it, it was actually a disappointment.

  • They were used to seeing long, drawn-out, torturous executions on the scaffold,

  • where people were mutilated and burned and pulled apart slowly.

  • To them, watching the guillotine in action,

  • it was so quick, there was nothing to see.

  • The blade fell, the head fell into a basket, out of sight immediately,

  • and they called out,

  • "Give me back my gallows, give me back my wooden gallows."

  • The end of torturous public judicial executions in Europe and America

  • was partly to do with being more humane towards the criminal,

  • but it was also partly because the crowd obstinately refused to behave

  • in the way that they should.

  • All too often, execution day

  • was more like a carnival than a solemn ceremony.

  • Today, a public judicial execution in Europe or America is unthinkable,

  • but there are other scenarios that should make us cautious

  • about thinking that things are different now

  • and we don't behave like that anymore.

  • Take, for example, the incidents of suicide baiting.

  • This is when a crowd gathers

  • to watch a person who has climbed to the top of a public building

  • in order to kill themselves,

  • and people in the crowd shout and jeer,

  • "Get on with it! Go on and jump!"

  • This is a well-recognized phenomenon.

  • One paper in 1981 found that in 10 out of 21 threatened suicide attempts,

  • there was incidents of suicide baiting and jeering from a crowd.

  • And there have been incidents reported in the press this year.

  • This was a very widely reported incident

  • in Telford and Shropshire in March this year.

  • And when it happens today,

  • people take photographs and they take videos on their phones

  • and they post those videos online.

  • When it comes to brutal murderers who post their beheading videos,

  • the Internet has created a new kind of crowd.

  • Today, the action takes place in a distant time and place,

  • which gives the viewer a sense of detachment from what's happening,

  • a sense of separation.

  • It's nothing to do with me.

  • It's already happened.

  • We are also offered an unprecedented sense of intimacy.

  • Today, we are all offered front row seats.

  • We can all watch in private, in our own time and space,

  • and no one need ever know that we've clicked on the screen to watch.

  • This sense of separation --

  • from other people, from the event itself --

  • seems to be key to understanding our ability to watch,

  • and there are several ways

  • in which the Internet creates a sense of detachment

  • that seems to erode individual moral responsibility.

  • Our activities online are often contrasted with real life,

  • as though the things we do online are somehow less real.

  • We feel less accountable for our actions

  • when we interact online.

  • There's a sense of anonymity, a sense of invisibility,

  • so we feel less accountable for our behavior.

  • The Internet also makes it far easier to stumble upon things inadvertently,

  • things that we would usually avoid in everyday life.

  • Today, a video can start playing before you even know what you're watching.

  • Or you may be tempted to look at material that you wouldn't look at in everyday life

  • or you wouldn't look at if you were with other people at the time.

  • And when the action is pre-recorded

  • and takes place in a distant time and space,

  • watching seems like a passive activity.

  • There's nothing I can do about it now.

  • It's already happened.

  • All these things make it easier as an Internet user

  • for us to give in to our sense of curiosity about death,

  • to push our personal boundaries,

  • to test our sense of shock, to explore our sense of shock.

  • But we're not passive when we watch.

  • On the contrary, we're fulfilling the murderer's desire to be seen.

  • When the victim of a decapitation is bound and defenseless,

  • he or she essentially becomes a pawn in their killer's show.

  • Unlike a trophy head that's taken in battle,

  • that represents the luck and skill it takes to win a fight,

  • when a beheading is staged,

  • when it's essentially a piece of theater,

  • the power comes from the reception the killer receives as he performs.

  • In other words, watching is very much part of the event.

  • The event no longer takes place in a single location

  • at a certain point in time as it used to and as it may still appear to.

  • Now the event is stretched out in time and place,

  • and everyone who watches plays their part.

  • We should stop watching,

  • but we know we won't.

  • History tells us we won't,

  • and the killers know it too.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • Bruno Giussani: Thank you. Let me get this back. Thank you.

  • Let's move here. While they install for the next performance,

  • I want to ask you the question that probably many here have,

  • which is how did you get interested in this topic?