Notes From the Margins…

Islamic State and the Spectacle of Terror

  • September 20, 2014
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In Don de Lillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, the writer-protagonist Bill Gray declares: “Years ago I thought it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture.   Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken over that territory.   They make raids on human consciousness.”

De Lillo was writing at a time when the notion that the world had entered an ‘age of terror’ was already firmly embedded in the political and security discourse of the late twentieth century.    As Bill Gray suggests, it was widely-believed that the impact of terrorism was not merely due to the acts of ‘bomb-makers and gunmen’ per se, but to the way that these acts were amplified and projected through television and the mass media.

In an era in which the world was increasingly experienced by millions as a televised spectacle, it was argued, such acts were often deliberately calculated to attract television cameras, primetime news and newspaper frontpages, in order to generate disgust, outrage or sympathy,   or simply to attract the attention of an otherwise indifferent public.

Governments and exponents of the burgeoning discipline of ‘terrorism studies’ often agonized over this seemingly mutually-reinforcing and symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the mass media.    Some argued the ‘oxygen of publicity’ that terrorists enjoyed could be cut off by banning media coverage of terrorist organizations and actions.   Others suggested that news teams and newspaper editors should voluntarily refuse to give frontpage or primetime attention to terrorist events, regardless of their newsworthiness.

Both arguments were based on the same essential fallacy:   that terrorists were like toddlers and if they were ignored they would go away and stop doing it.

These issues have been raised once again in the last few weeks, following the three snuff videos posted on the Internet by Islamic State/Daesh.   I refuse to watch these videos, because I will not allow so-called ‘holy’ warriors in balaclavas to make me a spectator of the murder of anyone, let alone journalists and aid workers.

Such acts are so utterly repellent, so deeply sad and contemptible, and they represent such a complete abandonment of even the most elementary notions of human decency and civilization, that they do not deserve any attention whatsoever.

Yet as everyone knows, they have received a great deal of attention.   And even though I haven’t seen the full videos, the images of men in orange jumpsuits and their black-clad executioners are now firmly embedded in my ‘consciousness’, as Bill Gray would put it, just as they are on everybody else’s.

This is of course the whole point.     These videos are both propaganda and theatrical spectacle.   Like the filmed executions carried out by Iraqi insurgent groups they are intended to shock, horrify and disgust a mostly western audience, and also to demonstrate to their own imagined constituencies the power and reach of ‘Jihadi John’ and his cohorts.

These ‘messages’ have also been used by their enemies.   Largely on the basis of these three videos, the United States government has managed to convince the American public to support what is in effect the third Iraq war, and also to support air strikes in Syria – both of which most Americans were opposed to until only a few weeks ago.

These videos have also been instrumental in the decision by Congress to approve Obama’s demented proposal to boost ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria by arming and training the Free Syrian Army – the same organization that sold two of the murdered hostages to Islamic State last year.

In Britain, the IS execution videos have also been used by the government to intensify and upgrade the ongoing state of emergency that has effectively been in place since 9/11, and whip he public into another fearful frenzy.

Only three days after the murder of James Foley on 26 August the government raised its ‘terrorism warning’ from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’, even though it has never presented any evidence that a terrorist attack in the UK was imminent.

Following the murder of aid worker David Haines two weeks ago, David Cameron promised that Britain would ‘hunt down’ those responsible for an act of ‘pure evil.’ It’s not yet clear what this response will be, but in effect both the US and British governments have used these IS propaganda videos for their own propaganda purposes, in order to justify military interventions.

To do this both governments have magnified the threat that IS poses, and presented the snuff videos as prima facie evidence of a psychopathic ‘death cult’ that can only be eliminated by military operations and American ‘leadership’.

It’s possible that IS deliberately intended to provoke such a reaction with these videos, in the hope of drawing the US into another war that it believes will act as a radicalizing cause celebre for its ‘caliphate.’

But whether intended or not, these videos have achieved this result, and demonstrated once again, that ‘terrorist propaganda’ can help the state as much as its helps the terrorists.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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