ISIS, Casino’s Cornfield Scene, and our Desensitization to Violence

I remember the first time I watched someone die.

Not in real life, of course. I’ve still managed to sidestep that experience as of yet (phew). I am course referring to the stage of growing up experienced by any curious kid raised on the internet. Sooner or later you end up on a site you probably shouldn’t be on. I’m sure you know a few. Well as a pre-teen, I found myself on such a site. It happened to be hosting the suicide of politician Budd Dwyer, which has now gone down in infamy as one of the most recognizable and widely watched recorded suicides on the internet. Hell, it’s even allowed on YouTube for some reason (with 8 million+ views and counting!).

I don’t even know what I expected death to look like. It certainly wasn’t like the movies. I think my first reaction before anything else was “Can that much blood really come out of someone’s nose?” Kill Bill had prepped me for explosive fountains of blood spewing from many things—neck holes, arm sockets, eye sockets—nostrils weren’t one of them. Something I have always found amusingly bizarre about this video is that a lot of the time, in the event of some unexpected or shocking act of violence occurring during a live filming, the camera man typically pans away, runs from his station, or cuts the feed. The guy recording this made sure to stay right on that camera, pan down towards Budd’s limp, fallen body and carefully zoom in to capture all the gory details of his spasming, blood gushing face. That’s a man committed to his profession.

Weirdly enough, my young, naïve mind wasn’t initially scared or repulsed. I wanted to see more. So I did. I spent the day watching grainy, low resolution recordings of Mexican cartels lopping off heads with chainsaws, African bread thieves getting stoned with rocks before being doused in gasoline and lit aflame, people getting sliced in two after falling onto train tracks—it was an eye-opening day. I’m not entirely sure if my brain was fully rationalizing at the time that everything I was seeing was real. Most boys that age have a curious love for excessive violence. Sometimes the things my nephew says to me will make me do a double-take before I remember I wasn’t much different at his age.

Also keep in mind, this was a time before the Facebooks and Twitters of the world wrangled the internet fully into the mainstream. Many people were not yet exposed to this kind of stuff, so it was hard to believe, in some sense, what I was actually seeing. Eventually, my brain did start to come to terms with the reality of what I was watching, and my curious fascination morphed into a regretful dread. I felt guilty at the time, like I was a weirdo doing something bad, and felt ashamed to speak to most people about it.

A decade later, ISIS puts out a new execution video seemingly by the week, recorded on state-of-the-art, ultra-high resolution, slow motion capture cameras which highlight every minute, exploding bone fragment and shockwave sent coursing through the victim’s skin as a shotgun blast disintegrates their frontal lobe from half an inch away. And these videos regularly attain view counts in the millions.

What a time to be alive.

Ultimately, what I am trying to get at is that our world is evolving, and that evolution is being driven by social media. As our sources of information change, as we transition from neatly curated news sources presented by attractive, well-dressed people who carefully hide all of the nastier warts of life, into Twitter and Liveleak uploads of police shootings, ISIS executions, and homosexuals getting thrown off cliffs, all shot from high-resolution phones and cameras, we as a world are becoming desensitized to extreme violence as a whole. It used to be that most people in safe, first-world nations and neighborhoods were not exposed to this kind of brutality, that it was simply the domain of the third-world and impoverished, inner city communities. But as the poorer, less stable areas of this planet have become equipped with not only just the means to record the realities of their living conditions, but also a platform to share those recordings with the entire, mainstream world—that is something revolutionary. That is something bound to change the entire fabric of our societies.

You can already see it in the evolution of our entertainment industry as well. Remember when a few red pixels of blood spouted moral outrage over Doom and Mortal Kombat? Remember when the release of Saw, one of the first mainstream torture-porn films, sparked wild enthusiasm and controversy over its graphic content?

Fast forward to three years ago, Breaking Bad can air a two-and-a-half-minute sequence on national television of several men being horribly, brutally executed, and nobody bats an eye. Can’t say the word fuck or show any naughty bits of the body though. We have to think of the children, after all.

 

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I don’t know what this spells for our societies as a whole, but I like to remain optimistic. On one hand, exposure to undeniable realities, even within our own borders, that our media and governments may otherwise not want us to see can help us grow aware of the struggles outside our own personal bubbles and become agents of change.

On the other hand, how many throats can you see slit before it becomes reduced in your mind to “just another” ISIS execution? Just another police shooting. Just another terrorist attack. How do you retain the intense, emotional impact of a man getting brained by an AK-47 when you see it happen every week? How can you remain an agent of change when your mind begins to rationalize this violence as the norm?

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I’d like to end this post by sharing the one depiction of violence that despite our current gore saturated entertainment options, still sends shivers down my spine. Today, I can watch all of the above mentioned videos and scarcely feel a thing. The production values of the content ISIS puts out almost turn them into horrible, surreal art pieces. Funnily enough, one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever watched in a film features no gore whatsoever.

I’m referring to the cornfield scene at the end of Martin Scorsese’s terribly underrated Casino. It’s such a shocking, random, brutal act of violence in a film defined by shocking, random, brutal acts of violence.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci, is an enforcer for the Chicago mob operating inside of Las Vegas. Despite his short stature, Nicky is a terrifying, seemingly unstoppable force through the film, responsible for most of the violence that takes place. In one of the film’s concluding scenes, Nicky is seen driving out to a remote cornfield in Illinois with his brother—who to the viewer’s knowledge is innocent of any crime—for a clandestine meeting with the mob. Unfortunately for them, this turns out to be a hit. Nicky is held down and made to watch as his brother is beaten within an inch of his life by a gang of men with aluminum baseball bats. We see the powerlessness and hurt in Nicky’s eyes, a frightening and dramatic power shift from his presence in the film at every preceding stage. They then turn the bats on him, striping both of them naked, and dumping their bloodied, convulsing bodies into shallow graves where they are buried alive and forced to suffocate to death.

I don’t know if it is that transition of power, seeing a character so scary and seemingly immortal so quickly reduced to a helpless victim begging for his brother’s life to be spared, or just the pure, cold savagery of their deaths that gets me so much. All I know is that Scorsese is a master of eliciting emotion in his films. All of the Eli Roth’s and Rob Zombie’s of the world with their buckets of blood and outrageous gore can’t hold a candle to a simple scene with some baseball bats and two shallow ditches.

If you’re interested in watching, I’d recommend seeing it within the context of the entire film. I do not know how well it holds up on its own, but here it is if you don’t have three hours to spare.

Are there any scenes in a book, film, show, or game which particularly unnerve you? Please share them in the comment section below.

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