On October 2, 2018, at around 1 p.m., a surveillance camera captured journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Seven hours later, that same camera recorded a man leaving the building with the same build, outfit, and beard as Khashoggi. However, this man had more hair and different shoes. This man was not Khashoggi, but an agent of the Saudi government. Sometime after Khashoggi entered the consulate and before his body double left the building, Saudi officials killed and dismembered Khashoggi with a bone saw.
Abetted by Edward Snowden’s 2013 whistle-blowing revelations, much has been written and said about how the gross ubiquity of surveillance cripples our personal freedoms and subverts our right to privacy. The commonplace covering of laptop webcams shows the widespread nature of paranoia surrounding state and corporate-run surveillance. It’s concerning to consider what machines may be able to find out about us, and more unnerving to consider how we actively reorient our personhood in the eyes of those watching. The manipulation of the captured footage in the case of Khashoggi also highlights the potential (mis)applications of surveillance material writ large. If Khashoggi’s murder and cover-up illustrates the increased visibility of acts of cruelty and botched attempts to doctor them from existence, perhaps the state values the performative reconstruction of individual behavior — not as a means of self-betterment, but as a means of panoptic self-control.
Avenues for isolation decrease as our interactions become more networked and our movements more tracked. Reality shows and vlogging rob the domestic of its former privacy. Location sharing, Ring cameras, and browser histories are all mechanisms by which we are constantly sought, identified, prosecuted, or sold to. The mass collection and display of personal information is even more intensified in the public sphere. Streets, parks, institutions, and stores host closed circuit cameras, and cell phone recording and social media represent new means by which our presence can be observed, captured, and uploaded. Not only do we incessantly broadcast ourselves, but authoritarian bodies hijack and mine these broadcasts to build a wealth of information.
It’s hard not to feel alien from one’s autonomy, to self-consciously reorient our needs and desires both on and off-line. At times our lives can feel like performances for a perpetual audience of tyrannical spectators. Khashoggi’s body double was intentionally performing for surveilling eyes, travelling from the embassy to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, a heavily trafficked tourist destination undoubtedly outfitted with a multitude of cameras. Thus, bearing this awareness of an omnipresent observer can impact our own behavior, or, in turn, can become a malleable tool for state sanctioned deception and cruelty.
Still, one of the ostensible purposes of surveillance is to either prevent a crime from occurring in the first place, or at least to retroactively identify a guilty party. In the case of Khashoggi, the CCTV cameras ironically served the latter purpose — the surveillance footage reveals more the crime of the state than any individual criminal. And while it’s uncomfortable to grapple with the insidious, pervasive presence of surveillance, it’s true that an increase in autocratic modes of watching can in turn lead to the prevention or identification of acts of cruelty. The problem emerges when that technology instead enables state sanctioned cruelty against those accused of dissent, as well as paving the way for rampant manipulation of public perception.
But with all the commotion that comes with the fear of being watched, it’s easy to forget that today the choice is often our own. And particularly when it comes to public spaces, it can be argued that social media and camera phone documentation have engendered a post-surveillance era of self-policing. Ultimately, we perform not only for our peers, but for a (potentially unknown) observer — one whose hazy existence is oppressive and threatening. If we consider infamous, volatile events that took place just before the advent of social media and widespread knowledge of surveillance technologies, we can attribute a lack of this shadowy observer’s influence to collective indifference regarding public acts of cruelty.
Take for instance the 1999 incarnation of the Woodstock Music Festival. Though intended as a 30th anniversary tribute to the original “Three Days of Peace and Music,” the concert’s legacy is colored by incidents of sexual assault, arson, and looting, soundtracked by musicians representative of white, Generation-X rage like Limp Bizkit and Korn. Woodstock 1999’s infamy comes from the depravity of its attendees and the greed of its organizers, who chose a 100 plus degree air strip devoid of shade for its location and charged $4 for bottles of water. But despite the poisoned memories left behind, the images that survive from Woodstock ‘99 largely reveal a different story.
MTV recorded sophisticated, multi-angled footage of nearly every act. While the cameras focused primarily on performers, the footage contains brief, glimpses into the crowd’s cruelty. During Limp Bizkit’s set, groping hands emerge from the pit towards female fans sitting shirtless on the shoulders of their peers. At one point, frontman Fred Durst tells the pulsating crowd, “Don’t let anybody get hurt. But I don’t think you should mellow out. That’s what Alanis Morissette had you motherfuckers do.” In the background of Korn’s performance, concertgoers pelt bottles at cameramen and security personnel. And though the fires set by the out-of-control crowd didn’t reach their zenith until after the music had ended, one can see the genesis of flames during the Red Hot Chili Peppers close-out performance.
Still, the most depraved acts reported from the festival largely evade the lens of MTV’s coverage. Like 9/11 and Columbine, the concert took place just before the advent of smart phone documentation — a time where historic events could happen in public spaces without the relative assurance of visibility. For this reason, it’s one of the last notable incidents of mass, conspicuous violence wherein images of the event are still limited to those taken by a relatively small number of major media conglomerates as opposed to many private citizens. Today, it would be hard to imagine the very public abasement of Woodstock ‘99 not being captured by an abundance of cell phones. Might the knowledge that rioting attendees could have their faces plastered all over social media in an instant have prevented the rioting in the first place?
Though as poorly executed as it was callous, the use of a body double in the murder of Khashoggi speaks to citizens’ newfound need to perform for a surveilling agent. Whether our surveyors are the government or a selection of our peers, the erosion of the privacy that has come with the digitization of communication challenges our ability to live our lives for ourselves. While this invasive threat permeates our bodies and minds, constantly threatening to divert our most elemental human instincts and desires as we perform for Big Brother, the insecurity of being watched possesses the power to curtail our tendency for cruelty towards one another, or at least compel us to hide it.
Of course, maybe a younger generation resists perpetrating the sort of violence that occurred at the festival because of our constant exposure to historically unprecedented images of global atrocities. Those born in the decades after those of the Woodstock ‘99 generation have been raised with 9/11, Abu Ghraib, the Syrian Civil War, Hurricane Katrina, the Financial Crisis, #MeToo, as well as Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, all in the hi-def feeds on Instagram, Facebook,and YouTube. Perhaps the easy and plentiful access of these images makes us more empathetic, aware of our human capacity for cruelty and the pain it engenders. It’s more likely, however, that we’re simply more self-conscious and restrained with our sadism in an era where our actions are constantly surveilled and broadcast.