To Censor or Not to Censor the Internet, for Some This is the Question… and this morning, for better or worse, I reveal my own conflicts about the much discussed issue of censorship, freedom of speech and expression on the Internet, which of course extends to real life, but this post is about the internet.
It is not a clear cut issue, but one that is deeply complex, with ethical, moral, sociological, legal, cultural, political and personal ramifications for everyone and so I have always been a champion of freedom. But articles like the attached in yesterday’s Times, which discusses a police officer’s plans, championed in internet chat rooms, to torture (cook, among other things) select women, one of whom was his wife, who discovered his plans and reported him to the FBI – he is now on trial – has pushed every button I have about the inherent wisdom of a definition of freedom that allows for the incubation and possible manifestation of such plans.
Years ago I had the good fortune of studying acting in a classroom at the back of Carnegie Hall with a respected coach named Robert Modica. Prior to his career as an actor and coach, Modica had been a decorated Marine, and I was intrigued by the combination of his fierce patriotism, his love of country, his devotion to and love for the theatre and teaching, his respect for his students and, quite obviously, his insistence on, and respect for, manners and civility between individuals. A Marine who had become an actor was fascinating to me.
Our classes were in the evenings at his small studio on an upper floor at the back of Carnegie Hall. I was working at CBS at the time and would walk to class after work. One day, as I strolled up 7th Avenue toward the back entrance of Carnegie Hall at 56th Street, I came upon a police barricade and a growing crowd pressing to see what was happening. Someone had committed suicide by jumping out of a window and their body was laying on the sidewalk. The crowd, which included mothers with their young children, was trying to see what had happened and there were policemen holding people back from the taped off scene.
When I finally arrived in class, my fellow students were talking about it and Modica suddenly quieted everyone with a statement that I remember went something like, “There are some things people don’t need to see, that they shouldn’t be allowed to see. That’s why there are police barricades. That’s why they don’t allow you to get close. There are some things that, when you see them, you can ever un-see them. You can never un-know them. They stay with you. And they have a lifelong effect.”
These were the words of a Marine, who had seen things I will never see and can’t imagine. Movie images and news clips do that for me. I imagined there were lots of things that Modica wished he could un-see. What ensued before everyone arrived and class began was a conversation about the fragility and strength of the human spirit, about how sensitive we are, but about some of the harsh realities we are asked to process. It was an appropriate conversation in an acting class, because, in order to be a good actor, one is called upon not only to know oneself well, but to make this kind of observation about the human spirit so that it can be called into play where needed in the theatre.
The truth is that I am a complete coward when it comes to any kind of violence. I am anti-War and anti-gun (even though I have one) and I am conflicted about all of it. While I respect the movies of Quentin Tarantino, for instance, I will put my hands over my eyes at the gory parts (okay, okay, so that would be most of each of his movies, because that is what he does, I get it…) and I don’t watch television shows that feast on what seems to me to be an endless issuance of programs that are kick-started with an episode featuring a raped, murdered, tortured, dismembered or otherwise brutalized woman.
I don’t watch these programs because I don’t understand why anyone who has a mother, a grandmother, a wife, an aunt, a sister, a daughter or a best girlfriend would want to watch programming like that, because, remembering that conversation with Modica years ago, I think that stuff sticks with us in ways we can’t even begin to understand. I know it does with me. And it shows up in disturbed sleep and a general restlessness about the violence going on in the world. (You can legitimately ask me why then I go to Tarantino’s movies – a valid question given what I’ve just written – and I do have an answer but that is another post.)
Someone has to defend this man. Some lawyer must come up with an argument that gets him off the hook. That argument, of course, is that he didn’t actually kill his wife (lucky for her she discovered his plans before that could happen), but was just thinking about it, fantasizing about it, mulling over what it might be like to see her die in chat rooms with other like-minded individuals and that, while this is scary to us women, it’s essentially harmless. It’s just the shadow side of the human consciousness being expressed in the shady corners of the Internet. It’s just the underbelly looking for a place to relieve itself of its agida, which in this case is the Internet. But here’s the deal: there is such a thing as a snuff film and they are real. There are people in the world who are serial killers and do things that are inconceivable to most of us.
There are people in the world who somehow, someway decide to walk on the dark side for real rather than in their fantasies and my question is should we or shouldn’t we shut down avenues of expression that could turn one, or two, or three or more people’s fantasies into reality?
Or do we say, No, freedom is freedom and people have a right to think and write dark, very dark thoughts, without the fear of being arrested and put on trial?
Looking back on that day oh so many years ago when I came upon that police barricade, I am glad that my aversion to gore kept me from pushing through to the edge of the barricade so I could see that body laying there.
And I am glad that this police officer’s wife discovered her husband’s plans before they could be manifested in reality.
Unfortunately, there is no police barricade in her mind and she will never be able to erase what she discovered and what she now knows. This man fathered her child. That leaves me cold.