In the initial absence of any substantial information about the whys and wherefores of this event, a terse, speculative piece in Der Spiegel curiously foregrounds a minor detail that nevertheless speaks volumes about human nature:
Vor Ort versammelten sich nach kurzer Zeit Hunderte Schaulustige.Which might roughly be translated as: "Shortly after, hundreds of onlookers gathered at the scene of the crime."
The English word "onlooker" of course fails to express the ambiguity of the German term "Schaulustige" – which literally means "people who derive pleasure from looking". While "looking on" constitutes a relatively neutral description of a simple sensory act, the German term clearly entails an undertone of voyeuristic enjoyment, even at the sight of something gruesome, disturbing and painful.
Schaulust is when retired men in grey polyester pants hitched up to their nipples gaze at holes being dug in the street. It is also when you slow down your car on the motorway (thereby forcing others to do so, too) to get a really good look at the accident on the other lane. My own Schaulust has been tickled intermittently over the last three months or so by the unhappy couple who have chosen to stage the dissolution of their relationship in a car parked outside our house.
From a Lacanian perspective, one could explain this scopophilia as a pathological by-product of the split identity incurred during the mirror stage (for Jacques Lacan the constitutive moment of subjectivity). An evolutionist, by contrast, would probably say that Homo Sapiens is merely a nosey old bugger and that curiosity – far from killing the cat – is actually adaptive.
Is the tendency of this constant, everyday desire to tip over into the voyeuristic also visible in the heart-rending images that have been circulating in the wake of the Russian offensive in the Caucasus?
Although pictures like this, this and this would clearly be in the running for the next World Press Photo Award, we should not forget the far more visceral and humble desires to which they cater and on which they rely.