the pulse

Our true nature drives Saddam execution vid

What a long, strange trip 2006 was, from showbiz icons holding racist meltdowns in public to News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch getting into bed with O.J. Simpson and then quickly (and apologetically) climbing back out to what had to be the most incongruous "deaths happen in threes" week of all time as the year drew to a close.

You simply can't get any weirder than to have James Brown, former President Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein bidding this mortal coil farewell during the same seven-day period. The juxtaposition made for some outrageously interconnected images: Brown's gold-plated casket parked in front of the Apollo Theater, President Ford's flag-draped coffin inside the Capitol, and Hussein's head being placed inside a noose as he calmly prepared to be hanged.

But it was naturally the story of the Hussein execution that has been most telling of the macabre and voyeuristic times in which we live, supplying an almost too-perfect capper to the Year of YouTube. It instantly rendered moot the once daunting ethical dilemma of whether to allow TV cameras to deliver capital punishment into our living rooms. The video age has transformed it into a simple point-and-click proposition on our desktop or in our very laps as we sip latte at the corner coffeehouse.

If you went on YouTube on Monday and entered the phrase "Saddam execution" into the search engine, you saw 2,240 results. There was actual grainy, herky-jerky footage shot using a cell phone, footage from the news agency Al-Jazeera, with sound, without sound, with the actual neck-snapping moment, without the moment of death.

We should probably skip past the morality of this kind of readily-available bloodlust satisfaction, since it seems clear that question is no longer even on the table — usurped by the frightening simplicity of accessing EVOD (execution video on demand).

It seems the more pressing issue might now be whether this really is who we are and if it's about retribution, morbid curiosity or sheer boredom. I fear that the online video revolution has merely released the restraints from a beast called human nature, allowing it to strut in all of its messy glory. Most of us, it turns out, are pretty sick. I have to believe that when and if a video capturing Steve Irwin's death at the hands of a stingray surfaces, an overwhelming number of us will no doubt pay for the privilege of seeing it even as we claim to recoil.

Is it different in this case because we're talking about such an evil figure in Saddam Hussein? I don't think so. I believe we just have a thing for calamity and even fatality, preferably with vivid graphics. It's why we rubberneck at accidents and slow down the Zapruder film for the precise moment when the bullet rips open President Kennedy's head.

We're not all that way, of course. But the powers that be who run television and, lately, an anything-goes hangout called cyberspace well understand that enough of us want to see the ghastly and the grotesque to effectively remove from the equation most notions of taste and sensitivity.

It isn't that the truly offensive ought to be censored. That's never a viable solution. The point is simply that what once was considered unacceptably revolting can no longer be separated from run-of-the-mill indecency. Blame the Wild Wild Web. Blame a culturewide desensitization borne of apathy. Blame video games that teach kids that death and destruction are common fallout in our daily lives.

But mostly, blame yourself. And blame me, too.