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Islamic State, homicidal click-bait and the politics of snuff films

Real world violence can too often take on a false cinematic quality for those trying to understand and prevent it. It’s about time we went off-script.

Terrorists, as much as Hollywood film studios, are driven by the need to provide a visual spectacle. The attack of September 11, 2001, might have had its origins in long-standing geopolitical fractures and short-sighted foreign policy decisions, but of course it was also every disaster movie brought gruesomely to life. Osama bin Laden’s horrific re-make of The Towering Inferno lifted the bar for subsequent terrorist productions, but the directors/murderers have done their best to step up to the mark. In a world overladen with content, their work is a form of homicidal click-bait.

To google or not to google, to click or not to click. Like 21st-century Hamlets, we circle around this question without arriving at a satisfactory resolution in the uneasy certainty that whichever choice we make, the stage is going to end up littered with corpses. And in the end the choice is made for us, the movie so ubiquitous that it is impossible to avoid, even for those of us who are fortunate enough not to be conscripted as extras.

Terrorist group Islamic State is a long way short of being able to match the 9/11 attacks for sheer blockbuster impact, but its video footage is so horrifically compelling that it seems necessary to watch — and having watched, to respond according to the genre’s established norms. In conformity with the genre, it places a higher value on the lives of white Americans than of Arabs, with the murders of James Foley and now apparently Steven Sotloff rating their own mini-features, while the “Oriental” victims are disposed of in mass executions. Foley and Sotloff’s killer claims in his latest message that the deaths are a warning to “those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone”. However, as Bernard Keane and others have noted, rather than being a signal to “back off”, these very public killings are carefully crafted to draw the United States and its allies deeper into the conflict in Iraq and Syria. We cannot stand by in the face of such brutality. We need to take sides in this battle between good and evil.

But in so doing, we are just repeating the same story, only with even higher levels of horror and bloodshed. And all of us are called upon to play our allotted roles. Predictably, Muslims in particular are being told to choose between the familiar roles of loyal members of Team Australia or dangerous fifth columnists. Those Muslim community leaders who declined to meet with the Prime Minister last week — because they rather not participate in what they described as a “media stunt” — were reprimanded even by more thoughtful media commentators for not following their lines. They had excluded themselves from the process of consultation and reinforced the perception that their community is difficult and recalcitrant.

But Muslim community leaders were already under fire for prioritising their allotted roles as national therapists during times of moral panic ahead of the needs of those who they supposedly represent. A generation has come of age to a soundscape of dog-whistle politics accompanied by the low hum of the ritual condemnations of extremism dutifully recited by Muslim spokespeople. Last week’s meetings with Muslim community leaders were never destined to be meaningful consultation in the first place, so there was nothing to be lost by refusing to play along with the charade in the wake of Abbott’s Team Australia rhetoric. Similar future invitations may be accepted, but consultation has to be more than a post-hoc rubber stamp and a handshake for the cameras.

In trying to work out how to react to recent events, I find myself returning to the resolutions that I made after the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway (which of course according to some “analysts” were not terrorism at all). Anders Breivik did not upload his personal movie to YouTube. He did not want us to watch his spectacle, but to read his manifesto — a compilation of material that had been in the public domain for years without generating the kind of sensational impact that he craved, of course with himself at its heart. Initially I recoiled at taking his bait and reading a document for which 77 people had been killed — but of course, precisely because 77 people had been killed, and because their deaths seem to prefigure more deaths to come, in the end it seemed necessary to read. And to read not only Breivik’s own document, but the endless op-eds by those whose writing formed a part of it and who, after the killings carried out in its name, hastened to repeat their usual lines about violence being inherent to Islam while claiming that their own fear-mongering held no capacity to inspire violence.

My anger at that time made me resolve to stop endlessly responding to events and to stop simply repeating the same old lines, over and over again, after every attack and every crisis. To stop turning up to meetings with people who have no desire to listen, to stop trying to explain to those who are seeking scapegoats rather than understanding. Whether we are dealing with self-proclaimed Knights Templar like Breivik or self-proclaimed jihadists like the masked man with the British accent who has now publicly murdered two Americans, it’s time to go off-script.

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  • 1
    Mali Edon
    Posted Wednesday, 3 September 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately all such “terrorist” attacks seem to be left with questions unanswered by the official version.

    Take for example MH17 where there are too many bullet holes. Who would want to know that?

  • 2
    j.oneill
    Posted Wednesday, 3 September 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    The terrorist events that you refer to, 9/11, 7/7 etc have acquired their own mythology. This is unfortunate on a number of levels. The events have been used to justify the so-called war on terror, more accurately a war of terror. They lie at the heart of massive invasions of our civil liberties and the constant desire for extensions on the powers of intrusion. They have also been used to demonise Muslims. 9/11 is a case in point. Muslims are obviously very clever people. They had a pilot whose instructor said wasn’t safe in a Cessna fly (for the first time) a Boeing 767 with all the skills of a fighter pilot. They managed to get the US Air Force to stand down for more than an hour. And not least they managed to defy the laws of physics. Unless we arse willing to look honestly at this and other terrorist acts attributed to Muslims we are in for a very long series of wars.

  • 3
    GideonPolya
    Posted Thursday, 4 September 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Terrorism is as terrorism does i.e. terrorize by killing people to back an ideological agenda. IS is evidently doing barbaric things (mass executions of prisoners of war, terrorizing minorities into fleeing their homes, the barbaric beheadings). It appears that the killings by Islamic State (IS) state terrorists in Iraq so far total of the order of 1,000.In contrast, US state terrorism, UK state terrorism, French state terrorism, Italian state terrorism and Australian state terrorism are evidently committed to total destruction of the 30,000 members of IS and it seems likely that US bombing and Australia-directed drone strikes have already killed of the order of 1,000 Sunni IS fighters.

    However the greatest death toll in this new “endless” US War on Iraqis - and indeed on Arabs, Muslims, Asians, Africans , anyone they don’t like - will come from war-imposed deprivation in Iraq that the war criminal Americans have now committed to an endless civil war.

    History ignored yields history repeated. Here is a short history of Australian state terrorism involvement in Iraq - 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the British invasion of Iraq in November 1914 and the commencement of a century of Anglo devastation of Iraq . The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) assisted the British invasion of Iraq in 1915 and its soldiers unwittingly commenced the Palestinian Genocide with the Surafend Massacre in 1918. Australia was involved in the US-led 1990-2003 Sanctions War during which 1.7 million Iraqis died from imposed deprivation and 1.2 million under-5 Iraqi infants died (90% avoidably and due to US Alliance war crimes in gross violation of the Geneva Convention and the UN Genocide Convention). Australian special forces spearheaded the illegal and war criminal US-UK invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that resulted in 2.7 million Iraqi deaths from violence (1.5 million) or violently-imposed deprivation (1.2 million) and a further 0.8 million Iraqi under-5 infant deaths (see “Iraqi Holocaust Iraqi Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/iraqiholocaustiraqigenocide/ ; “Muslim Holocaust Muslim Genocide” https://sites.google.com/site/muslimholocaustmuslimgenocide/ ; and Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, that includes an avoidable mortality-related history if 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 ).

    Of course Iraq is just 1 of 70 countries that have been invaded and devastated by the US since 1776 . The UK has invaded about 172 countries and France has invaded 80 . Australia as a UK ally or (since 1941) a US ally has invaded scores of countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australasia. Why are these distant, non-Muslim, non-Arab-speaking, non-Arab and serial invader, state terrorism countries re-invading Iraq? The short answer: for US hegemony, oil, and non-Russian gas for Europe.

    Decent Australians who abhor war, violence and terrorism whether state terrorism or non-state terrorism, will see through the pro-war Mainstream terror hysteria, utterly reject the pro-war, anti-Arab anti-Semitic and Islamophobic Coalition and Labor Right (aka the Lib-Lab, Liberal-Laboral) state terrorists, vote 1 Green and put the Coalition last.

  • 4
    warwick fry
    Posted Friday, 5 September 2014 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    If I had the choice I think I would prefer a nice quick clean beheading than to be waterboarded, electrocuted, and then thrown out of a helicopter.

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