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.