Monday, October 18, 2004

LONDON — Dozens of ghoulish women used to knit while watching the executions of the French Revolution in the 18th century. Now millions of their latter-day counterparts log on to the Internet to download the beheadings of foreign hostages in Iraq and elsewhere.

Web sites devoted to executions are becoming the most accessed on the Internet. The images they show are not staged or digitally enhanced. The videos show real people being beheaded by al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.

“It’s the thrill of quasi-participation, I suppose,” said “John,” one of the self-described addicts of execution sites. “This is no horror movie. If it is titillation I feel, then it is because this is happening to a real person. The fear is real, the brutality is real, the blood is real, it is all real. And I am watching it unfold as it happened.”

He says he is not breaking any law, but acknowledges that his passion might be construed as morally repugnant.

“That is why I don’t talk to friends or family about it,” he says. “My wife shuddered simply at the sight of [British hostage] Kenneth Bigley in his orange jumpsuit, caged and haggard. She would be horrified if she knew I watched his final moments.”

Mr. Bigley was kidnapped along with two American colleagues from their Baghdad home on Sept. 16. The Americans — Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley — were beheaded within a few days, and Mr. Bigley’s killing was announced Oct. 9.

John says he has watched Mr. Bigley’s execution at least a half-dozen times and calls it one of his favorites because of “the unexpected suddenness of it.”

The man who owns the Web site, Dutchman Dan Klinker, says in an e-mail exchange that he is merely providing members of the public with what they have proved they want.

“I personally feel that everyone has a right to see the uncensored truth if they choose.”

Mr. Klinker says that on an average day, his site has about 300,000 visitors. The number grows to 750,000 during beheadings.

To date, more than 2 million people have downloaded the video of Mr. Bigley’s beheading. More than 10 million have watched people jumping off New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the beheading of American Nicholas Berg.

Seventy-five percent of visitors to the site are men, and 65 percent log on from the United States, Mr. Klinker says.

The sources for his material vary from the press, retired police officers and medics, he says. “We also trawl the Islamic Web sites around the clock.”

Two years ago, after Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded in Pakistan, his parents spoke of the anguish that the thought of a video of their son’s death caused them.

“We could never, ever watch our beloved son’s murder,” Judea Pearl, Mr. Pearl’s father, told the Sunday Telegraph. “What sort of depraved person would want to?”

Mr. Klinker says every human being “has some kind of morbid curiosity hidden within them” and that some “merely watch the video images for shock value.”

Mr. Klinker says children can gain access to the gruesome images on his Web site, but that the responsibility to protect them lies with parents.

“Parents should realize that the Internet contains dark corners. It’s like letting their child walk unsupervised through Amsterdam or New York,” he says.

The danger was starkly illustrated last week in the playground of an East London primary school. One teacher saw a boy of 10 playing with a toy saber and realized he was re-enacting a beheading with another child.

“When I questioned him, he said: ‘My dad watches all the beheadings on the Internet … then I call them up, too. They’re real aren’t they, not pretend?’”

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