Teenagers, Moral Panic, and the Islamic State


Last week, Danish teenager Lisa Borch was convicted of the stabbing murder of her mother. Such crimes, of course, are not unheard of, but what makes the case of Lisa Borch stand out from other grisly family slayings is the teen’s reported fascination with the famous beheading videos of the Islamic State.

Aged 15, Lisa Borch spent hours watching footage online of the decapitation of hostages by Islamic State militant Jihadi John…Borch was sitting on a chair in the living room watching videos on her iPhone when police arrived. When officers asked where her mother was, she simply pointed upstairs. When police subsequently examined her computer, they found the teenager had watched videos of IS executions for hours at a time… (read more)

There is very little to connect Borch’s actions with true domestic terrorism. She doesn’t seem to have made any concrete plans to flee to the caliphate, nor has she made any public statements avowing jihad. Borch’s fascination with the Islamic State appears less indicative of her own political and religious feelings than of a disordered attempt to integrate her violent urges. In this schema, the caliphate becomes a kind of dark, symbolic telos representing psychological wholeness, where her impulses might be domesticated not through repression and sublimation, but through radical acceptance. In this sense, Borch’s crimes do not resemble those of Ali Amin or Shannon Maureen Conley so much as the so-called “Slender Man stabbing” of 2014:

Prosecutors say two 12-year-old southeastern Wisconsin girls stabbed their 12-year-old friend nearly to death in the woods to please a mythological creature they learned about online…One of the girls told a detective they were trying to become “proxies” of Slenderman, a mythological demon-like character they learned about on creepypasta.wikia.com, a website about horror stories and legends. They planned to run away to the demon’s forest mansion after the slaying, the complaint said… (read more)

The Borch murder—and the public’s reaction to it—is not a case of terrorism motivated by the ideology and geopolitical success of the Islamic State. Rather, it is a new cultural manifestation of the IS specter, this time as an object of individual psychosis and collective moral panic. This is a fascinating development. The prospect of the Islamic State joining the ranks of such pop cultural boogeymen as Dungeons & Dragons, Marilyn Manson and Grand Theft Auto indicates a tangle of contradictory cultural significance that is at once ridiculous and sublime.

There is almost always an element of absurdity to moral panic. Even at the time, villainizing AV club nerds who played D&D during lunch period seemed like the kind of stupidity only possible in Reagan-era American. More recently, journalist Dave Cullen has decisively shown the mendacious silliness of blaming Marilyn Manson—a goth drag queen—for the Columbine massacre. Putting the Islamic State in the same company as hapless scapegoats like D&D, Marilyn Manson and Slender Man feels like a fitting insult.

However, those of us who grew up in the midst of one moral panic or another know what glamour these boogeymen can acquire once at center of a good media circus. By making a parochial scapegoat and boogeyman of the IS assassin, we risk trivializing real dangers posed by Islamic radicals, and may even confer a rebel chic onto them. Whether this new role as parent’s worst nightmare ultimately undermines the Islamic State’s credibility or strengthens it will depend on just how sensational future murders are—and how credible the assignment of blame is deemed by teenagers witnessing the spectacle.

On that darker note, we should realize that the Danish case demonstrates the inarguable success which IS has had in conjuring the specter of its hooded assassin and insinuating him into the digital sphere. The Islamic State has achieved what most marketers only dream of doing: forging a brand icon so singular and resilient that it can be set loose to wander through the media ecosystem, reproducing itself independent of corporate oversight, all without suffering the slightest alteration or dilution.

I’ll be addressing this last point in more detail this November, when I present my paper “Brand of Brothers: Marketing the Islamic State” at the 2015 National Communication Association conference. Briefly: I believe that the eerie resilience of the IS brand owes something to the very form of its violence. The act of beheading is a corporeal analog to archetypes of trauma and psychosis that run throughout the literature of depth psychology.

As Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched writes in The Inner World of Trauma the image of decapitation “haunts these patients’ psyches, supervising dissociative activities…We have an image of a violent decapitation – an intended split between mind and body. The neck, as an integrating and connecting link between the two, is about to be severed” (p.13). In the ideations described by Kalsched, a blank-faced man with large, black eyes—in essence a photo negative of “Jihadi John”—emerges from the murk of the unconscious to sever the patient’s head from his body, effectively symbolizing the act of disembodiment and dissociation so frequently experienced in moments of trauma. The cosmetic similarities between Kalsched’s imago, Jihadi John, Marilyn Manson and Slender Man are there, if only by virtue of their very neutrality.

Jihadi John MV5BMjAyNDI3ODkxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMzk5NjY0._V1_UX214_CR0,0,214,317_AL_ Slender-Men







The act of decapitation is therefore emblematic, containing within it the essence of trauma itself, “reminding one of Jung’s early suspicion that ‘fantasies can be just as traumatic in their effects as real traumata’” (p. 14). This may well explain the durability of the IS icon, and perhaps prophesies his future role in the urban legends and moral panics that periodically sweep through the civilian West.

He is, quite literally, the boogeyman himself.