By live streaming from the scene of his crime, Abballa also points to a new and growing trend in jihadist propaganda: the terrorist as auteur. It is likely that Abballa, who had proven links to terrorism, would have watched ISIS propaganda. But he was no mere spectator, and by filming in the immediate aftermath of his attack he propelled himself into the ranks of creator, producing his own brand of do-it-yourself ISIS propaganda.
Facebook quickly removed Abballa’s footage and disabled his account. Had it not done so, it is a near certainty that people would have watched in large numbers, transfixed by the horror unfolding in front of their eyes, just as thousands searched online for the beheading video of the American engineer Nick Berg after it was posted online in May 2004. (The video was an early, and then-rare, example of the genre later perfected by ISIS; the title identifies the executioner as the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.)
As the anthropologist Frances Larson writes, “There have always been people ready to watch executions, and ready to enjoy the spectacle.” Or as Susan Sontag has more piercingly put it, “It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked.” One possible reason for this, cited by the intellectual historian Karen Halttunen, is the secret comparison we make between ourselves the person who suffers, and the satisfaction of prizing our own good fortune that results from this. Another possible reason, discussed in J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, is related to what the author calls, invoking the Bible, “the lust of the eye”: the urge to see “the novel, the unusual, the spectacular.”
“Terrorist attacks,” the scholar Brian M. Jenkins observed over 40 years ago, “are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press.” The goal is publicity, which is itself a strategic asset that can be used for all sorts of purposes, such as winning recruits or putting an issue on the political agenda. Jenkins also remarked on how the “willingness and capability of the news media to report and broadcast dramatic incidents of violence throughout the world enhances and even may encourage terrorism as an effective means of propaganda.” Today, with the advent of the internet and social media, that willingness and capability has increased markedly, and with it a further possibility discussed by Jenkins has materialized: namely, ever “more extravagant and destructive acts” of terrorism.
It is easy to condemn the news media for its fascination with terrorism and for “playing into the hands of the terrorists” by giving them the publicity they crave. Yet audiences, too, collude in this. We denounce the killers, yet we are riveted by their awesome violence and their convoluted life-histories. They are the classic folk devil we love to hate—and endlessly talk about. Terrorists know this and draw encouragement from it, as does the international news media with which they are in a dark symbiosis. Which is why the jihad will be televised—and you and I will be watching.