ISIS and the Logic of Shock
Why each Islamic State video is more horrifying than the last
On Tuesday, ISIS released another snuff movie: the ritualized burning to death of a captured Jordanian pilot. It is arguably the most shocking ISIS video to date. But then every major video ISIS puts out is arguably the most shocking ISIS video to date. The film of the mass beheading of some 20 Syrians last year, which ended with the display of the severed head of an American aid worker, was, at the time it was released, arguably the most shocking ISIS video to date. And so was the video, released last month, featuring a child as chief executioner in the slaughter of two men confessing at gunpoint to be Russian spies.
This is the demonic nature of the Islamic State’s terrorism: Each act of atrocity must eclipse the previous one. The group's brand of terrorism is like a drug: You need to keep ramping up the dose to sustain the pleasure high. For ISIS and organizations like it, that high is global publicity.
In a classic paper on terrorism and religion published in 1984, David C. Rapoport wrote that terrorism is “a crime for the sake of publicity. When a bomb explodes, people take notice; the event attracts more attention than a thousand speeches or pictures.” In an Atlantic article two years later, Conor Cruise O’Brien similarly remarked that:
The combating of terrorism is not helped by bombastic speeches at high levels, stressing what a monstrous evil terrorism is and that its elimination is to be given the highest priority. I’m afraid that the most likely terrorist reaction to such a speech, whether it comes from a President, a Secretary of State, or other important official, is: “You see, they have to pay attention to us now. We are hurting them. Let’s give them more of the same.” And it all helps with recruitment. A movement that is denounced by a President is in the big time. And some kind of big time is what is most wanted by the aggressive and frustrated, who constitute the pool on which terrorist movements can draw.
ISIS has been repeatedly denounced by President Obama, as well as roundly condemned by many other world leaders, including, most recently, King Abdullah of Jordan, who castigated it as a “deviant criminal group” and vowed to take revenge for the murder of the pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh. ISIS has thus made it to the big time, and continues to draw large numbers of recruits from a wide spectrum of countries.
Rapoport’s point that terrorism is “a crime for the sake of publicity” remains as true today as it was two decades ago. But it is not guaranteed that “[w]hen a bomb explodes”—or a shooting occurs—“people take notice.” For one thing, it depends on the identity of the victims. The Charlie Hebdo attacks in France last month, claimed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, captured headlines all over the world. In marked contrast, Boko Haram’s reported slaughter of hundreds of civilians in Nigeria days before didn’t generate nearly the same level of global media attention. This dynamic helps explain why ISIS has invested so much effort in staging carefully choreographed and slickly produced execution videos of Western hostages—and those, like Muath al-Kaseasbeh, participating in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State—and why, conversely, it has expended so little effort in creating its many grainy and chaotic video montages showing the execution of Iraqi Shiites.
The film of Kaseasbeh’s execution has global shock value, but one also senses that it was an intimately personal project for ISIS. In recent months, coalition forces have been bombing the Islamic State in its strongholds. This is starting to hurt. And for much of the video, the dominant narrative is of humanitarian suffering caused by coalition bombing raids, graphically symbolized in footage of charred babies and children. The message, to the world as well as the people in the Islamic State’s dominion, seems to be: We will take revenge for the hellish inferno unleashed on us by unleashing it on our tormentors in turn.
Frantz Fanon theorized in The Wretched of the Earth that violent action can be viewed as a form of catharsis for the perpetrator, particularly when the perpetrator feels he has suffered grave abuses or been condemned to live under tyrannical oppression. “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force," he wrote. "It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction, it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” This offers insight into ISIS’s reported decision to publicly screen its latest video in Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold in Syria and a target of coalition aerial firepower—where one presumes catharsis is urgently needed.
Another qualification to Rapoport’s point is in order: When a bomb explodes, people are apt to take notice, but not for long. Since Rapoport published his article, the rise of the Internet has meant that there is simply too much information out there vying for attention. The web has undoubtedly been a boon to terrorist groups, helping them disseminate their messages to an ever-wider audience. But it has also hindered them in that they must now compete with the world’s cacophony of other voices. And this, unfortunately, has served to reinforce the demonic logic of ISIS’s brand of terrorism, which requires not only surpassing previous atrocities, but trumping other global news events.
O’Brien remarked in his Atlantic article that “one surefire way of attracting instantaneous worldwide attention through television is to slaughter a considerable number of human beings, in a spectacular fashion, in the name of a cause.” This, too, needs updating: Today, to borrow from O’Brien, one surefire way of attracting instantaneous worldwide attention through the global media is to slaughter a considerable number of children in the name of a cause. The Pakistani Taliban, which deliberately targeted an Army School in Peshawar last December, has apparently embraced this new axiom. Another alternative is to deploy kids as terrorist assassins—to use them as suicide bombers or executioners in propaganda movies, as ISIS has done. Another boundary crossed, another headline guaranteed.
This, as the last point suggests, isn’t just a quantity issue in terms of people killed. It is also a quality issue relating to the how of killing. It is killing with sadistic and extravagant creativity, in High Definition. This is perhaps the main thrust of the inexorable logic of today’s terrorist organizations. And no group appears to understand this better than ISIS's leaders, who first shocked the world by staging the beheadings of Western hostages, using not swords, as is customary in the Islamic tradition, but six-inch knives—so as to prolong the agony of their victims; who kept the momentum going by evolving to the horror show of staged mass beheadings; who pushed the envelope yet further by creating a video in which a child is used as executioner. And now the group has produced the theatrical spectacle of burning alive a Jordanian pilot. The film is arguably the most shocking ISIS video to date—until the next one.