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, and governments, ‘terrorism experts’, security analysts and thinktanks agonized over the supposedly morbidly-reinforcing and symbiotic relationship between ‘international terrorism’ and the mass media.
The general consensus then was that acts of non-state terrorist violence, such as kidnappings, bombings, executions etc derived their power not from any direct ‘military’ threat to the state, but from the publicity they were able to generate and transform into a political outcome.
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. One school of thought argued that terrorism depended on the ‘oxygen of publicity’, and that this lifeline could be cut off by banning media coverage of the organizations and individuals responsible. Others argued 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.
The idea that the media had become a willing or inadvertent accomplice of terrorist acts also failed to take into account the extent to which governments also sought to use television and the press to tell their own stories about such acts.
These issues have been raised once again in the last few weeks,following the three snuff videos posted on the Internet by Islamic State/Daash. I refuse to watch these videos, because I will not allow a pathetic ‘holy’ warrior in a balaclava to make me into 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 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 the three shaven-headed men in orange jumpsuits are now firmly embedded in my ‘consciousness’, just as they are on everybody else’s.
This is of course the whole point. These videos are propaganda and theatrical spectacle and they have messages they want to convey. Like the filmed executions carried out by some Iraqi insurgent groups in the past they are intended to shock, horrify and disgust a mostly Western audience and demonstrate the might and implacable ruthlessness of ‘Jihadi John’ and his cohorts.
Like de Lillo’s gunmen and bomb-makers, they are intended to ‘shape the inner life of the culture,’ and they have succeeded. Because largely on the basis of these three videos, the United States governent 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 videos have also been used by the government to upgrade the ongoing state of emergency that has effectively been in place since 9/11, and whip up the 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.’
Though the full British military response isn’t yet clear, both the US and British governments have used these IS propaganda videos in order to justify military interventions that have little or no chance of success, in two states that are already on the brink of collapse.
To do this both governments have deliberately and shamelessly magnified the threat that IS poses, with barely a trace of nuance or analysis, and presented the snuff videos as prima facie evidence of a psychopathic ‘death cult’ that can only be eliminated by Western and particularly American ‘leadership’, regardless of the catastrophic record of such ‘leadership’ in the region.
It is 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 it intended this or not, these videos have achieved this result. In doing so they have demonstrated once again, that beneath the veneer of humanitarianism, the Imperium and its allies are no less sociopathic than the enemies they propose to ‘hunt down’ and eliminate, and that ‘terrorist propaganda’ can help the state as much as the terrorist.