Cheap Technology, Shoddy Morals
Why do so many criminals want to be video stars?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

"Peeping Tom," the chilly 1959 movie by Michael Powell, concerns a young psychopath who uses a 16mm movie camera to film his victims while he is killing them. The close-ups of terror that cross the faces of the women as he impales them on a spike attached to his tripod are for him a source of curiosity and pleasure.

Widely reviled on its release--and credited with destroying the commercial career of Powell, a venerable English director ("The Red Shoes")--the work was rediscovered by Martin Scorsese and other cinéastes in the 1970s. They argued against its earlier detractors, noting that in its exploration of the dynamics between movie images and violence, criminality and voyeurism, the film was shockingly ahead of its time.

A casual reading of the news illustrates just how prescient "Peeping Tom" has turned out to be. There was the recent arrest in Nevada of Chester Stiles, who allegedly filmed himself raping a three-year-old girl. This sensational item overlapped with the capture in Thailand of Christopher Paul Neil, a Canadian schoolteacher accused of posting on the Internet images of himself having sex with a series of children. Neither would in all likelihood have been jailed so quickly had they not photographed themselves performing these atrocities. Both Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who shot eight people in a Finnish high school on Nov. 7, and Cho Seung Hui, murderer of 32 at Virginia Tech this April, made confessional videos for broadcast or posting online--so called massacre manifestos--designed to outlive their suicides.

A partial list of others happy or compelled to document their own crimes in recent years would include the young arsonist in California who took pictures of himself against the background of the infernos he set. Or the Canadian joy-riders who cruised around Vancouver at night, shooting frightened pedestrians with paint-ball guns while recording themselves whooping it up during these escapades. Or Sean Gillespie, a neo-Nazi who videotaped himself in 2004 firebombing an Oklahoma City synagogue as part of his racist promotional package. Or the three teenagers arrested last year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for clubbing with baseball bats three homeless men, one of them to death, events the boys commemorated by making a video.

The guards at Abu Ghraib also participated in this trend. Their abuse and torture of Iraqis might have remained whispered rumors within the prison walls had they not taken pictures for their own amusement. The members of al Qaeda who beheaded Western journalists and aid workers are a subset as well. They staged these murders for the cameras in hopes the group's ruthlessness would be broadcast to viewers everywhere. Like the lead character in "Peeping Tom," they took pleasure in filming and watching playbacks of their own cruelty.

Many other shadowy sides of human behavior--formerly hidden from public view because they were regarded as either aberrant or just plain shameful--are now freely recorded and exposed for everyone to witness, often with considerable attention by the participants to mise en scène.

Movies of sex between adults, acts once considered so private that few dared to film them, have proliferated wildly for sharing over the Internet. In the November issue of Portfolio magazine, Claire Hoffmann reports that amateur sex tapes distributed on YouPorn and other free sites are cutting deeply into the income of the professional sex industry. Some of these swingers may be striving to emulate Paris Hilton, whose lucrative career as a novel form of dubious celebrity derives from a 2001 bedroom tape shot by her boyfriend. But most of these couples will have to be satisfied just with the nonmonetary rewards of knowing that a camera has preserved their moments of extreme intimacy for an international audience of voyeurs.

The growth of these many new varieties of confessional video, self-programmed with either violent or sexual content, has coincided with the expanding reach of surveillance technology. Never have so many of us been so willing to have our lives overseen by cameras. Being photographed in public places--sometimes with one's tacit consent but usually without--is now so routine that hardly a day goes by when urban or suburban dwellers don't have a chance to catch sight of themselves on a video monitor.

While a minority still protest or at least openly worry about these Orwellian intrusions, most of us have internalized modes of surveillance so deeply by now that they are a source of either comfort or entertainment. "Big Brother" is a larky reality show and an international franchise. After two rounds of jihadist bombings in Britain, in which the suspects were later identified by surveillance cameras, citizens there seem to have meekly accepted the country's 4.2 million closed-circuit TV cameras. Only a few seem to mind that the routes of up to 35 million cars a day can be tracked around London as part of a national surveillance system.

The photographic image has the power to magnify the everyday by the simplest means. To star in your own movie requires only that you press a button on the picture machine. The dirt-cheap costs of producing digital images and linking them to global networks that promise a vast audience--or that cater to a particular "community"--have no doubt contributed to these mutations in mores. The hundreds of niche audiences developed by cable television and the millions created by the Internet are responsible for a wilderness of images.

The rapist who trains a camera on his actions, the high-school friends who exchange sexually graphic cellphone images of themselves--even the egregiously off-key "American Idol" contestant--have this in common: They have decided that any risk they run of self-incrimination or public scorn is worth the thrill of seeing their own image looking back at them.

The one encouraging note may be the number of pedophiles, jihadists, hate groups and numbskull criminals willing to trap themselves in their own world-wide web by providing boastful evidence of their lawbreaking online.