Woolwich: we have to talk about the bystanders

There’s no more avoiding it: we must discuss the chilling fact that people casually watched and photographed the aftermath of a brutal murder.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

In the miles of commentary about last week’s horrific stabbing to death of a soldier in Woolwich, few have commented on one of the most chilling sights of that bloody day: the audience of 60 to 70 bystanders, voyeurs even, who watched or filmed the attack or its aftermath. There has been much discussion of the three women who did, very bravely and at great personal risk, intervene in events to try to calm the knifemen down. But far less is being said about the others, the impromptu photographers and tweeters, whose instinct seemed to be to record and comment on what they were seeing, rather than try to do something about it.

No doubt part of the reason we’re uncomfortable with commenting on the almost nonchalant manner in which people raised their phones to film what they were witnessing is because none of us knows how we would have reacted if we’d been there. Would we also have watched? Or would some of us have been brave enough to remonstrate with the knifemen, perhaps even charge them with makeshift weaponry: a bin, a piece of masonry, a knife from a nearby cafe? We don’t know. We like to think we’d have done something heroic, but all sorts of strange emotions and considerations can kick in in the heat of a terrible moment.

However, there’s no denying that there was something deeply troubling about the way a large group of inactive voyeurs observed the attack or its immediate aftermath. While some of the people caught up in this chaotic act will have been understandably confused or scared, it simply can’t be the case that the reason the crowd stood watching is because they were frozen with fear or shock. After all, some provided a live commentary on the bloody events via their Twitterfeeds, the most famous (or infamous) tweet being: ‘I just see a man with his head chopped off in front of my eyes!’ The fact is that a fairly substantial group of people watched a very unusual and very violent event as if they were watching a cricket match. And that is worrying; it matters and should be talked about.

Some have noted and tried to explain the strange voyeurism in Woolwich. The best known of the three heroic women – French-born former teacher Ingrid Loyau-Kennett – has expressed shock that during the eight minutes she was talking to the killers, a large crowd formed, and none of them did anything. She says she is disturbed that lots of people seemed only to want ‘to watch and record the unhappiness of others… watching like it’s on TV’. She thinks this reflects a lack of caring, a dearth of social bonding in modern society. ‘I prefer the values of the past [over] the non-values of today’, she says, ‘where most people don’t seem to give a damn about others’.

But there was more to the voyeurism in Woolwich than not caring about other people. In the past, when politicians tried to convince us we’re all becoming more uncaring, they used the phrase ‘walk-on-by society’, the idea that, too often these days, if someone sees a fight or a young person in distress, his instinct is to ‘walk on by’. Let’s leave to one side the massively important fact that if such a culture exists, then politicians did a great deal to nurture it, whether through implicitly demonising adults who engage with children or telling us it’s foolish to be a ‘have-a-go hero’. The more striking thing in Woolwich is that people didn’t walk on by; they stood still and watched, they filmed and logged on to social-networking websites. This wasn’t a lack of caring or even cowardice; it was something else, something potentially even more worrying – a kind of extreme alienation from real-life events, coupled with a narcissistic desire to say to the world ‘I was there’.

What the voyeurism in Woolwich points to is the extent to which we all now experience the world around us in an increasingly mediated way. We no longer see things – we photograph them. We no longer intervene in events – we observe them. We no longer truly experience stuff – we log it on social-networking websites. We experience the world around us always at a remove; real life now increasingly resembles Second Life, that virtual world lots of people inhabit in their time off from work. It speaks to a severely weakened sense of citizenship and to a heightened atomisation that many of us now interact with the world as voyeurs rather than as proper social actors. It’s important to note that this development precedes the emergence of mobile communications. This isn’t a technological issue. It isn’t the fact that we have fancy mobile phones with cameras on them, and personal websites on which to post the pictures we take, that has given rise to today’s voyeuristic culture. Indeed, in a collection of essays published more than 30 years ago, titled On Photography, the American writer Susan Sontag had already diagnosed human beings’ ‘chronically voyeuristic relation to the world’, which she believed the growth in photography (with old-fashioned cameras) exemplified.

For Sontag, this voyeurism spoke to and sprung from some serious problems in the real world. Our era ‘does not prefer images to real things out of perversity’, she said, but rather as ‘a response to the ways in which the notion of what is real has been progressively complicated and weakened’. That is, the turn to voyeurism, to watching and recording life rather than truly living it, reflected a crisis of meaning, and fundamentally of connection, in people’s real, everyday existences. This crisis has intensified since Sontag’s time. Indeed, such has been the growth in voyeurism in recent years that we now think nothing of watching people sleeping or vomiting in a reality-entertainment house and we casually read about famous and not-so-famous people’s ups, downs, diseases and even deaths. Perhaps, as an extension of this, we now also think little of seeing a man having his head hacked off in the street. Is that also just another thing to look at, to photograph, to put on a website next to a message saying ‘I was there’?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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