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.