Isis beheading videos: the scariest part is how well their propaganda is working
The Guardian, Wed 3 Sep 2014
What are you more likely to click? President Obama making a statement about the Islamic State
(Isis) before he returns to play golf ... or an American man on his knees, in a bright orange
jumpsuit, on what looks like the surface of the moon, with a ninja-like warrior standing
triumphantly next to him, knife ready to perform the ultimate subhuman act?
I haven’t watched the beheading videos of the journalists Steven Sotloff or James Foley – even a
few seconds of Daniel Pearl was too much for me – but I know good propaganda when I see it,
even for a second. I used to be a government propagandist with the US Information Agency, and
Isis is good at propaganda.
Not that there is anything good, morally, about these political snuff films, which are now spread
across the web so quickly as to assume a form of violent hardcore porn. But as a recruitment
tool, the videos – and, sadly, there may be more – wake up the senses, and Western powers
would be foolish to downplay the brilliant auteurism of Isis as Manpower Inc, a kind of
production company for manufactured evil.
Not that Isis is actually interested in a real nation-state beyond violence, or that we should
presume their extreme ideology will get them anywhere, but the group has proved very effective
at reaching people who have lost all other meaningful points of reference. Facebook postings by
armchair life coaches – BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, IT CAN ONLY GET BETTER – are
ineffectual drivel to would-be Isis recruits. These videos become more than just don’t-click bait
for Westerners; they are an appeal to men far and wide to give up their mythological “fat jobs” in
order to fight to the death for a life with “meaning” – and fighting to the death is not a temporary
The most effective propaganda is simple, direct and repetitive. The reporter-turned-captive
narrative does not require some lengthy textbook to explain: the captive makes a statement of his
last will and testament that directly ties the accompanying violent act to his indictment. The US
and UK military-media-industrial complex is made to look impotent in its response. The
propagandists come across as a credible threat to a secular, pluralistic way of life that far too
many of us, apparently, take for granted.
Isis clearly thinks that its opponents have a certain set of assumptions, that they are, apparently,
coldhearted, psychopathic killers. And they play into that. The message is direct and clear: Don’t
mess with us. We will do exactly what we said we will do. No ransom? He dies.
This is pretty straightforward messaging, not the kind of propaganda that distorts facts to present
an alternative reality. Isis demonstrates to its supporters the same message consistently: Western
lives are no more important than those of Shiites. For Sunnis, who have seen hundreds of
thousands of their countrymen mutilated by Western bombs and guns, this offers not just a
promise of omnipotence but the misguided hope of what comes after slaughter. Whether we’re a
fictional Tarantino character with a machine-gun prosthetic leg or a very real Isis convert, we all
want to be something.
After all, propaganda is all about misdirection and wish-fulfilment: Whether you are Apple’s
advertising agency using integration propaganda to multiply desired patterns of what it means to
be cool and different, or you are Isis using agit-prop to transform men from resentment to open
rebellion, the target is the individual within the mass.
All of us seek meaning in our fleeting lives. We want to be somebody, whether we’re a fictional
Cherry Darling with her machine-gun prosthetic leg in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse, or we
are the very real Chechclear, a Dutch fighter for Isis proclaiming on a Tumblr post that “Jihad is
the best tourism”. Most of us binge-watch or shop till we drop in order to overcome our anxiety;
others succumb to an organizational myth that destroys all contradiction.
It may seem impossible to wrap our minds around the hows and whys of the paranoid style in
Isis recruitment, but it is a rave party of violent rebellion. Isis has disillusioned male fans re-
tweeting like One Direction fangirls, only with far different repercussions.
Anyone who does not accept the goals of Isis – and any sane person wouldn’t – should study its
propaganda films to learn how to counter it. We are living in a time of competing modern
propagandas, so this is not a case of their propaganda versus our truth. There are many points of
reference in modern society that have lost meaning – the sense of a good future, the ability to
provide for a family, political impotence and paradox – it’s just that we don’t all choose the same
Isis becomes the meditation, reflection and action of its recruits. Every moment of the recruit’s
life is occupied by the Isis ideology. The blood it takes from so many of its innocent victims
becomes transfused by a feeling of omnipotence. How many of us can say we are so dedicated
and relentless in our nonviolent pursuits?
For worse and worser still, the filmmakers at the Isis house of horrors have learned from history.
Let’s hope the West, even if through the cracks in fingers covering our eyes, is watching.
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