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Promoting the grisly terrorism theatre of IS

The grisly murder of James Foley is the continuation of a well-established Islamic extremist tradition of media manipulation. And it works.

I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.  — Ayman al-Zawahiri, 2005

If it bleeds, it leads. —  Informal media industry rule

Beheading videos are hardly new. In fact, al-Qaeda once produced so many of the grisly propaganda artifacts in the 2000s that it realised they were losing their media potency, and curtailed them. What was once regarded as a new low of horrific barbarity became run-of-the-mill media fodder.

Now with the murder of James Foley, they’ve been revived by Islamic State militants, a group that has already proved highly adept at using social media to both terrorise their opponents within Iraq and stoke Western outrage. And they know exactly what buttons to push in the Western media to maximise their coverage. Some of their propaganda looks to be photoshopped, but the murder of Foley is ostentatious savagery, a grisly kind of terrorism theatre designed to enrage. The fact that a British executioner was used is hardly accidental either.

As Fairfax’s Tom Allard explains in an excellent analysis today, the broader IS goal with the video is to build up pressure on Western governments to take stronger military action in Syria and Iraq. It’s plainly working, as angry media commentators and politicians demand action. GOP veteran John McCain — who admittedly never met a war he didn’t like — called the beheading a “turning point”, saying “you’ve got to dramatically increase the airstrikes”. “Destroy the Islamic State,” demanded the UK Telegraph’s defence editor. The local Telegraph — which ran a column by Andrew Bolt channelling Margaret Thatcher’s advice about terrorism, demanding that the government “cut off Clive Palmer’s oxygen”, while putting the Foley murder on its front page — declared it an evil that “must not be allowed to stand”.

In that context, the outrage directed at News Corp tabloids here and elsewhere giving the moment of Foley’s death front-page treatment is misplaced; any publicity for the murder, whether there’s a blade showing or not, does the work of IS.

The obsessive preoccupation with terrorism is a bizarre case of prioritising a threat that harms far fewer of us than car crashes, crime or easily preventable diseases.”

Whether the militants will be around long enough to reap the rewards of their strategy isn’t clear: they are suffering significant reversals because of US air strikes and attacks by US-backed Kurdish forces. But experience tells us it’s a sound strategy. The Iraq War played out exactly in line with Osama bin Laden’s original goal behind 9/11 — to induce a furious United States to militarily intervene in Muslim countries and thereby anger and radicalise extremists on a mass scale. The US, and docile allies like the UK and Australia, spent $2 trillion creating a whole new generation of terrorists, and IS wants us to repeat the dose. IS and Western neoconservatives (and the military and contracting industries that back them) are thus locked into an unspoken but very real alliance of interests — each needs the other to perpetuate the War on Terror.

The beheading front page also illustrates how race and terrorism work to prevent us, or at least the media that purports to serve us, from thinking rationally. It’s to state a commonplace to note that a white, English-speaking individual’s death carries more weight than that of a non-white, non-Anglophone individual for the media; 2000 Gazans, the bulk of them civilians, can be blown apart by the Israeli military without many in the media seeing anything newsworthy, let alone disturbing; another Islamic extremist group of notable brutality, Boko Haram, has killed over 2000 Nigerians in 2014 but only gets Western attention when a Twitter hashtag goes viral.

What IS has done, however, is skilfully play to Western fears in a way that Boko Haram could never do no matter how many Nigerian schoolchildren it abducted or slaughtered: the white, English-speaking Westerner — and a member of the media — far from home, fallen into the wrong hands, horrifically murdered, with the unsubtle suggestion that the individuals who did it or those who share their views could be on your streets in London, or Sydney, or Chicago. It was “better to fight them in Iraq than here” was one of the neocon justifications for the Iraq War, an updating of the Vietnam-era line that it was was better to fight them in the jungles of Asia than in Pasadena (to which Michael Herr said he felt like replying, “at least we might win if it was in Pasadena”); IS and its vile terrorism theatre seeks to goad us into the same self-defeating argument.

Meanwhile, as always, far greater threats to the lives of Westerners, things that kill far more Australians and Americans and Brits than will ever be killed, no matter how horrifically, by terrorists, are ignored. It takes a particularly dramatic case of domestic violence to even get media coverage, let alone a front page, despite the dozens of women and children killed each year by partners and parents in Australia. The point is not to equate terrorism and intimate partner violence, but to note that for anyone focused entirely on the lives and health of Australians, the obsessive preoccupation with terrorism is a bizarre case of prioritising a threat that harms far fewer of us than car crashes, crime or easily preventable diseases.

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  • 1
    mikeb
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The fact that it “harms far fewer of us than car crashes, crime or easily preventable diseases” is without dispute. Also a fact is that these murderers would like to do the same to any man woman & child if it so pleases them or their stupid beliefs. I think that is worth being aware of.

  • 2
    cave
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Bernard ,
    your the first thing i go to in my daily Crikey.
    what was the point of your article today? lets outsmart them by ignoring them, and it will all go away,la la la,
    oh and by the way people get killed in ways other than beheadings, so nothing to see here…….

  • 3
    RoseL
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    A well reasoned and thought provoking article, Bernard.

  • 4
    Peter Hannigan
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Western intervention in the middle east and Afghanistan is always done by ‘civilised’ rules with careful attempts at distinguishing between combatants and civilians. These are not the rules IS plays by, as beheadings and religious cleansing indicate.

    So unless the approach in an intervention is no holds barred aiming for a complete win, then action should be very carefully measured to make sure it supports locals willing to act themselves and does not make things worse. A ‘complete win’ is going to involve deaths in the millions. That is not a step we can take and remain civilised societies. So the answer is that we had better come to terms with constant low level terrorism - which in a risk management sense is not that serious for western societies with careful security.

    I am not advocating this as an abstract - I work in Pakistan and live it.

  • 5
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    IS and Western neoconservatives (and the military and contracting industries that back them) are thus locked into an unspoken but very real alliance of interests — each needs the other to perpetuate the War on Terror.” Very 1984!

    with the unsubtle suggestion that the individuals who did it or those who share their views could be on your streets in London” And right on cue our dear leader announces “”It just goes to show that this is not just something that happens elsewhere, it could happen in countries like Australia if we relax our vigilance against terrorism and potential terrorism here on our shores….”This is why we do need new legislation to strengthen the powers of our security agencies to make it easier to detain and jail people who have been involved in terrorist activities overseas and why we also need legislation to ensure that the police and other security agencies continue to have access to telecommunications data.”

  • 6
    Scott
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    ” the broader IS goal with the video is to build up pressure on Western governments to take stronger military action in Syria and Iraq.”

    And this is strategic folly. Look at Al-Qaeda. Hardly exists any more. Bin Laden dead, al-Zawahiri in a cave somewhere. All because they pulled the tigers tale with 9/11.
    The US is pulling out of the middle east…the last thing ISIS should be doing is to give them a reason to stay tough.
    You start killing American civilians, it won’t be long until a bunch of GI’s (led by a 23 year old from Alabama with a bad haircut) kicks down your door.

  • 7
    Charlie Maigne
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    @Peter Hannigan: “So the answer is that we had better come to terms with constant low level terrorism - which in a risk management sense is not that serious for western societies with careful security.”

    This is exactly the kind of realisation to which the world needs to come, but that sadly becomes more distant by the day.

    We won’t get there until we shed the pervasive idea that it’s somehow more terrible to die from terrorism (and therefore more worthy of concern) than any of the far more likely causes that Bernard has mentioned.

  • 8
    Liz Connor
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Almost by definition, since they’re necessarily one-on-one direct interactions, ‘barbarisms’ like beheading are certainly less dangerous to a population than remotely launched drone-strikes or ‘door-knock’ bombs followed by demolition bombs.

    Personally I am less horrified to learn of such ‘barbarisms’ than I am to hear of, and see, ‘collective punishment’ being carried out so callously - like playing a computer game. This is because the callous mass-killing of civilians is the kind of violence that is taking over the planet, much to the delight of the profit-obsessed global military-industrial complex, which nowadays arms police officers as well as soldiers.

  • 9
    Forever Marshall
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    there’s no money in stopping IPV, at least not as much as there is in supplying a group of mercenaries with weapons then claiming that group as an enemy and waging war against them

    the logistics says 3 dead suburban women won’t increase the share price, but a strategically placed white killed by a mysterious black clad figure is a veritable gold mine

    sorry ladies, you should start beheading people then you may get the media to pay attention to you, but only if you’re white (sorry brown people you’re role as “The Enemy” is still in play)

  • 10
    Forever Marshall
    Posted Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    well, al-qaeda beheaded many westerners “back in the day” and even a south korean if i’m not mistaken, so the white man as a symbol of a victim of terror is not new, but i suppose what’s new now is the west has been proclaiming with some puffed chestedness the “victory” of america and its allies over the “muslim barbarians”. but here we are, some 12 odd years after iraq v2.1 and the same fauxnemies as were meant to be eradicated are front and centre. of course anyone who has even 4 or 5 braincells between them knows that this was a grand work in the making for years, even before the cia planted instigators in syria,

  • 11
    Campbell Thompson
    Posted Friday, 22 August 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    We shouldn’t over-react and put 150,000 troops on the ground. Providing air support, training and arms to the Kurds and Iraqi government forces (and Jordan if it comes to it), and protecting refugees, seems necessary. I wouldn’t rule out co-ordinating quietly with Iran and the Syrian government, or with Russia.

  • 12
    AR
    Posted Sunday, 24 August 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Ver 50 years ago some unamerikan, commy, pinko subversive gave a farewell speech warning against western society being taken over by a “military-industrial complex” with aims inimical to a free society.
    Can’t recall his name … some beribboned ex general so perhaps knew summat of which he warned..?

  • 13
    David Schulberg
    Posted Sunday, 24 August 2014 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    well-established Islamic extremist tradition of media manipulation”
    Of course we don’t see the corollary of this realisation being propagated to a discussion of that other branch of the Islamic extremist tree i.e Hamas.
    Why do they get an exemption?

    The obsessive preoccupation with terrorism”
    And what about that equally obsessive preoccupation with Israel?

    The logic disconnections in Keane’s brain defy belief.

  • 14
    GideonPolya
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Excellent article by Bernard Keane. It has been blindingly obvious to informed people - but not Westerners who actually believe the propaganda of their endlessly mendacious governments – that Muslim-origin non-state fighters wittingly or unwittingly serve the interests of US Alliance by regularly providing excuse for war (causus belli; “an act or event that provokes or is used to justify war”) . Indeed the US originally funded Al Qaeda and the Taliban and it has been asserted that the Israeli Shin Bet (Apartheid Israel’s internal security service) originally backed Hamas in order to divide the Palestinians, enable genocidal Israeli intransigence and for “terror hysteria” propaganda purposes in the West.

    Indeed for all the Zionist- and pro-Zionist-promoted Western “terror hysteria”, Muslim-origin non-state terrorists have killed only 2,000 Westerners in the last quarter century (this total excluding 2,000 racist Zionist invaders killed by Palestinians and 3,000 people killed in the 9-11 atrocity that clearly involved the US Government and very likely involved Israeli state terrorists; see “Experts: US did 9-11”: https://sites.google.com/site/expertsusdid911/ and “Racist Zionism and Israeli State Terrorism threats to Australia and Humanity” : https://sites.google.com/site/palestiniangenocide/racist-zionism-and-israeli ).

    While the “annual homicide rate per million of population” is about 2000 /(1,000 million x 25 years) = 0.08 per million per year for Western civilians being killed in the last quarter century by a “Muslim-origin non-state terrorist” (about the same as for deaths from shark attack in Australia) , this parameter is 4.6 million/25 million x 25 years = 7,360 per million per year for Iraqi deaths from US Alliance violence or US war-imposed deprivation over the last 25 years. US Alliance state terrorism indeed.

    Terrorism is as terrorism does. US state terrorism, UK state terrorism, French state terrorism, Israeli state terrorism and Australian state terrorism outdo “Muslim-origin non-state terrorism” against Western civilians in terms of body count over the last 25 years by a factor of 12 million/2,000 = 6,000.

    Australian state terrorism? Yes - Australia has participated in all post-1950 US Asian wars, conflicts associated with 40 million deaths from violence and violently-imposed deprivation (see (Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, that includes an avoidable mortality-related history of every country since Neolithic times and is now available for free perusal on the web: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/body-count-global-avoidable-mortality_05.html ). White Australia has a major complicity in the generation of over 20 million Muslim refugees in the Zionist-backed US War on Muslims and 12 million Muslim deaths (half of children) from violence and violently-imposed deprivation since 1990 (see Muslim Holocaust Muslim Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/muslimholocaustmuslimgenocide/ ) and has confined thousands of children fleeing this ongoing atrocity in concentration camps.

    Peace is the only way but silence kills and silence is complicity. By endless lying and censoring, Mainstream media are complicit in the horrendous crimes of US state terrorism, UK state terrorism, French state terrorism, Israeli state terrorism and Australian state terrorism.

  • 15
    Kim F
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    To reduce violence in the world, it is necessary to reduce media advertising of it, which only serves the criminals and those who arm them. There should be no pictures of it in the mainstream media and that includes the social media. Only text and spoken word. Do not sex it up with colour, space and hyperbole. Do not quote the names of criminals who thereby become world famous. People say they want to be treated like adults and decide for themselves what they see. Drivel. There is a lot they are never allowed to see, ranging from company accounts to state secrets to child pornography, to their kids’ internet activity, and more. Adults don’t need illustrations. They are required to understand what they are told, without them. It is time for collective attention to this problem, and a willingness to put aside individual curiousity and voyeurism.

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