Nothing has done more to convince me of the existence of the soul than watching several hundred of them being snuffed out over the past five years, in Islamic State videos screened during the course of my reporting. One need not be spiritual or religious to identify the instant when a human body, suffering from a mortal wound, stops being human and becomes a sack of meat, offal, and bone. I experienced something similar when I worked briefly as a butcher, slaughtering cows and pigs. Suddenly, subtly, an animal (from the Latin anima, or “soul”) becomes food. Every slaughterer is familiar with that instant. In the case of slaughtered humans, the instant is all too perceptible. Something changes. Something leaves the scene. That something is an essence that resided in the corpse now being desecrated before you, as you watch along at home or the office. And exiting the scene along with it, I found, is a bit of you, the viewer, who has just witnessed the departure of a soul, and felt a little of your own soul slip away in the process.
Last week, NPR’s Hannah Allam broached the topic of the mental well-being of terrorism researchers—journalists, academics, policy makers, and other analysts whose work requires them to watch ISIS videos. I will not initiate you into that nightmare world by linking to any videos, or describing them at great length. Just read Charlie Winter’s testimony in the NPR story, about a video filmed in an abattoir in Syria. “Apostate” spies, caught by the Islamic State, hang from meat hooks and are carved up alive. Blood flows over the rough concrete floor. It is the worst thing I have ever seen. When it first came out, I described it on Twitter, and the next day an acquaintance approached me on the street to tell me my tweet had disturbed his sleep.