ISIS and the Spectacle of Terrorism: Resisting Mainstream Workstations of Fear

by Henry A. Giroux, Truthout | News Analysis –

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(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

The use of new digital technologies and social media by ISIS has drawn a great deal of attention by the dominant media not only because the extremists have used them as a form of visual terrorism to graphically portray the beheadings of captured American and British civilians, but also because of its alleged sophistication as a marketing tool. (1) Examining ISIS’s propaganda machine within a neoliberal frame of reference that responds to the latter in the language of the market does more than depoliticize the use of the media as a spectacle of terrorism; it also suggests that the new media’s most important role lies in creating a brand, establishing a presence on Twitter, and producing a buzz among those individuals sympathetic to its violent, ideological vision. For instance, Dinah Alobeid, a spokesperson for social analytics company Brandwatch, told VICE News:

Everyone needs a social media campaign today, even political movements in the Middle East it seems. The type of highly focused marketing and social media community building as exhibited by ISIS is something that brands strive for to get their message across. . . . Taking out the political and human rights implications of this situation, ISIS has a keen sense of how to attract their target demographics, keep them engaged, and spread their messaging and news via social to highly interested individuals. ISIS’ strength lies in the recognizability of its brand, the reach of its network, and its capacity to boost its Twitter presence through a combination of carefully crafted “official” messages, as well as the buzz and volume of fans sharing content across the globe. (2)

Power disappears in this analysis as the social media is stripped of its diverse sites and complex usages, defined largely in terms of its presence as a marketing campaign. What is missing is the recognition that as the link between the media and power becomes more integrated, the visual theater of terrorism mimics the politics of the “official” war on terrorism. Violence not only becomes performative, functioning as a kind of representational politics linked to the death drive, but it is also packaged so as to mimic the unbridled monopolization of pleasure now associated with extreme and sensational images of brutality and cruelty. Moreover, representational shocks and outrages are now presented as either legitimate sources of entertainment or as part of a survival-of-the-fittest ethic endemic to neoliberal spectacles of misery, all of which are used by the major cultural apparatuses to flood the culture in spectacularized images of violence and graphic displays of terrorism. It should come as no surprise that when mainstream media report on the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq they accompany their comments with images of the actual bombings as if the viewer were looking at a video game.

Echoing the discourse of the “official” war on terrorism, the violence of extremist groups such as ISIS is produced almost exclusively within the vocabulary of moral absolutes pitting good against evil. Ironically, this is a binary discourse that mirrors a similar vocabulary used in the interest of the national security-surveillance state and the corporate sponsored war machines of battle-ready domestic and global forces of repression. (3) What is clear is that the spectacle of terrorism trades in moral absolutes whether it makes such claims in the name of religion or human rights. This friend/enemy distinction wipes out any sense of uncertainty, need for thoughtful debate, and reason itself. Whether it’s George W. Bush’s now infamous claim that “You are either with us or against us” (4) or ISIS’s insistence that their enemies are infidels for whom there will be no mercy, this is a repressive binary logic that devalues democratic, reasoned debate in favor of feeding an apocalyptic desire for destruction and death.

Hence, it is all the more surprising to see this binary repeated in a September 29, 2014, New York Times op-ed by Roger Cohen titled “Here There Is No Why: For ISIS, Slaughter Is an End in Itself.” In referring to the US war against ISIS, Cohen states bluntly that “presented with the counter-human, the human must fight back.” Surely, fighting “the inhuman” does not justify the indiscriminate killing of Syrian civilians by drones and high-tech fighter jets, among other dastardly crimes? The human and inhuman too often bleed into each other, destroying this wretched, unreflective rhetoric. This is a dangerous binary because it closes down questions of history, politics, power, justice and the ethical imagination while legitimating revenge and militarism through the language of an unchecked moralism.

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Reprinted with permission