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When Should Violent Imagery be Censored?

Truly, there is irony in the fact that the hometown newspaper for the movie capital of the world -- where blood, guts and gratuitous violence galore are produced every day -- deems an unaltered picture of a terrorist organization to be too overtly violent.
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Hollywood has come under scrutiny over the years for its use of gratuitous violence in film and television. Having lived in Los Angeles for many years and produced a number of films, the use of violent imagery in entertainment is an issue which I've come to experience with familiarity.

The debate over what constitutes gratuitous violence in entertainment often impels a visceral reaction by those involved, and each side has legitimate and worthwhile points to share that further reinforce their argument. But what about violent imagery as it pertains to the news and other similar mediums, separate from entertainment?

When considering barbaric terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Hamas, how do we deem what is appropriate and necessary as a requisite for an informed public? Recently I was stunned to learn that some of the nation's leading newspapers in major markets were censoring advertisements by a non-profit organization which intended to inform the public of the savage practices regularly utilized by terrorist organizations such as ISIS.

As reported by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach last week in the New York Observer, "The New York Times objected to ISIS terrorist Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, aka "Jihadi John" -- a 23-year-old rapper-turned-terrorist who is the leading suspect in the beheading of James Foley -- holding a knife (in the advertisement). They would only accept a knifeless version." Boteach added, "Then the Los Angeles Times drove us (the non-profit organization) crazy by rejecting both the ISIS photograph and also the photograph of Hamas terrorists standing next to "collaborators" whom they were about to murder (ISIS killed 22, including two women, without any kind of trial). They (the Los Angeles Times) then came back and said that they would publish a knife-less version of the ISIS ad... if we reduced the pictures by two-thirds. A few days later we had bargained them down to a one-third reduction."

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I'm somewhat partial to this particular organization, This World: The Values Network, given that I am one of their benefactors and served as co-chair for last May's Champions of Jewish Values Gala in New York.

Nevertheless, what's right is right, and you don't have to be a benefactor of said organization to realize the astoundingly poor judgment on the part of the Los Angeles Times with their decision to censor the advertisement. Truly, there is irony in the fact that the hometown newspaper for the movie capital of the world -- where blood, guts and gratuitous violence galore are produced every day for mass consumption via film and television -- deems an unaltered picture of a terrorist organization to be too overtly violent.

When it comes to educating the public on organizations like ISIS, which seek to destroy Americans and our very way of life by any means necessary, such violent imagery is apparently unfit for public consumption. Conversely, we as a society seem to be considered completely desensitized to fictional but bloody action films such as The Expendables 3 and Sabotage, with nary a qualm over their release every being raised by the censors in power.

The distinction between gratuitous violence and the violence which exists in the world today is an important one that needs to be made. It stands to reason that gratuitous violence and the imagery that goes along with it should be deemed more offensive than an advertisement with violent imagery educating the public on actual threats which exist in our world today.

For better or worse, violence is part of the human condition, and we need to recognize it and acknowledge its existence if for no other reason than ensuring an informed public. Gratuitous violence in entertainment, however, is not a part of the human condition. A world where violence exists -- often with the potential to affect us directly -- is the world in which we live today. It's imperative that we be cognizant of this so as not to become desensitized to it and allow the lines between entertainment and reality to blur. That is why the issue of censorship on the part of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times is so critical.

Censoring the images in this instance was, in fact, diminishing the danger inherent in terrorist groups like ISIS. These organizations must be recognized for what they are: tyrannical, blood-thirsty terrorists insistent upon savagely killing Americans -- as they have done with journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff -- to further their agenda. Diminishing or glossing over this reality, be it through censorship or otherwise, is a distortion of the facts and only serves to harm the public by keeping them uninformed. Goethe once wrote, "There is nothing more terrifying than ignorance in action." Censoring images of ISIS arbitrarily is one way to ensure such a scenario becomes a reality.