Is Watching Violent War Footage Something We Should Do?

As revolution and unrest have swept across North Africa and the Middle East, thousands of videos of graphic violence have poured out of the region: protesters crumpling to the ground after being shot, people lying in hospital beds, beatings and beating victims. Today, our own Jared Keller tackled some of the tough issues involved in verifying -- or even knowing -- what we've purportedly seen.

But the new media ecosystem that delivers these images presents another set of issues. While television news programs rarely show horrific war footage, on the Internet you can see as much of the carnage as you can handle.

Sociologist and occasional Atlantic Tech contributor Zeynep Tufekci has written that she herself has had to stop looking at graphic photographs and footage, but that its availability is a good thing:

I am firmly of the opinion that the massive censorship of reality and images of this reality by mainstream news organizations from their inception has been incredibly damaging. It has severed this link of common humanity between people "audiences" in one part of the world and victims in another. This censorship has effectively relegated the status of other humans to that of livestock, whose deaths we also do not encounter except in an unrecognizable format in the supermarket.

Today, BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin penned an editorial for the Guardian in which she wondered aloud if maybe all the graphic footage may end up desensitizing those who watch it the most.

I do believe that truth is a good thing. And to the extent that the flood of bloody videos pouring out of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere right now document the truth, they are important. As commercial cable news networks (at least, in the US) evolve into something more like entertainment channels than the news outlets they began as, our access to these ugly streaming truths matters even more. Distant shots of missile drops are less likely to inspire empathy than a YouTube clip of a man in Libya whose lower jaw has just been blown off, who is still shouting for freedom. And yes, that video exists; the tireless Twitter chronicler Andy Carvin at NPR (@acarvin) tweeted it last week, along with many other videos like it. (I don't know how he does it; I could not keep up his tolerance or his pace.)

But human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video. At what point does access to war gore become harmful to the viewer, and at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?

Though they appear to be on opposite sides of the debate, both writers are deeply conflicted about what it means to see war footage from a world away. Americans with broadband Internet connections have a new type of access into the lives of others, but we're not sure what it's going to do to our own.