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Last year, 2014, bore witness to a succession of beheading videos, originating from the Islamic State, coupled with more-or-less similar dispatches from the group’s urban warfare campaigns. We marveled at these messages’ dispersal throughout the spheres of digital media, the consistency of their messaging, and their similarity to the organized marketing campaigns of major corporate brands.
But if last year’s IS propaganda was characterized by consistency, its 2015 media blitz is already shaping up to be one of unsettling variety. A quick of scan of war crimes publicized and promoted by the group will reveal a marked increase in the diversity and—for lack of a better term—creativity of its atrocities so far this year. In less than six months, the group’s self-documented war crimes have gone from from condemned prisoners kneeling in open air, to standing in cages [NSFW], from solitary, almost intimate executions to mass-beheadings [NSFW], immolation [NSFW], stonings, crucifixions and the defenestration of accused homosexuals [NSFW].
Indeed, the group seems at pains not to repeat itself within the same news cycle. But the motive behind this “novelty” is not some psychopathic sense of boredom—at least not functionally. Rather, it is an effective strategic response to Western media’s treatment of the beheading videos of 2014.
Western media’s widespread decision to censor footage of IS beheadings has forced the organization to diversify its targeting tactics. Print-primary media and censored broadcasts lack the individualizing, specifying elements unique to video. The Islamic State must therefore change the linguistic-indexical categorizations of its atrocities as frequently as possible in order to distinguish one act of violence from the next. That is to say, unlike video depictions of murder, which are rendered unique by the visible individuality of their cinematography, the mere term “beheading” does not renew itself from act to act. Its repetition, absent a visual referent, actually reduces its ability to terrify. Even when coupled with victims’ names, printed reportage emphasizes the sameness of the terrorist act, reducing its impact, its reach and its fearfulness. The casual reader wonders if this is the same beheading as last month’s, or a new one? And how many does that make since January? The names and headlines run together. Repeated often enough, the very word begins to lose meaning.
And so, when an image may not be shown, the word must be made to suffice: hence the increasing diversity and sensationalism of IS’s torture, terror and killing tactics. By shifting categories of violence—from beheading to immolation to crucifixion, etc., etc.—each act remains nominally singular, unique to its news cycle, and less likely to lose its individuality in relation to past or future actions. To each week belongs its own sensational term, in a litany of violence seemingly drawn from the pages of a grindcore fanzine.
All of this underlines one key point: the propaganda of the deed (i.e. terrorism) and the propaganda of the word/image are increasingly indistinguishable in the digital realm. By digital media’s very interactivity, personal customizability, and increasing anatomical fusion with our own bodies, we inhabit digital space. We do not, as was the case with broadcast media, merely observe such violence. For to encounter terror’s representation in cyberspace is now to locate it within our immediate presence. Any attempt to separate the act of terror from its media representations therefore becomes an arbitrary exercise for all but violence’s most immediate victims (who, one might point out, hardly need the distinction made on their behalf).
The Islamic State understands this, if not theoretically then at least intuitively. It views its human victims as mere props in a campaign of terror intended to occupy the newest frontier of human consciousness and habitation: digital media. The victims of IS’s most grisly violence are—tragically, stupidly, unforgivably—secondary to that purpose. In these carefully staged theaters of cruelty, the true target is, and has always been, the viewing audience. Lifting corporate censorship will not solve that aspect of the IS problem (although it should be undertaken for other good reasons). However, if we understand that these multiform acts of torture are not the psychopathic whimsies of cartoon supervillains, or sadistic delights of Boschian demons, but rather crass advertising messages resembling such monsters, and intended to sell Western audiences on a message of danger and helplessness, then we will fail to be terrorized. Only then, and then only perhaps, will we be able to approach this crisis with clear heads and some attitude, one hopes, approaching maturity, accountable both to ourselves and to those civilians and soldiers who must eventually face this violence in the flesh.