From 9/11 to the ISIS videos: The darkness we conjured up

The ISIS videos depict dreadful crimes. But the scariest thing about them may be what they tell us about ourselves

Published September 6, 2014 4:00PM (EDT)

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – the event that announced “the end of the end of history” and plunged the United States into an endless cycle of self-destructive warfare – two prominent European intellectuals got in hot water for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. In retrospect, it seems clear that Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jean Baudrillard were speaking truth as they saw it, or at least offering plausible interpretations of an event that reshaped the world. Those were not interpretations the world was ready to hear.

I think it’s worthwhile to revisit the examples of Stockhausen and Baudrillard, and their ideas too, in considering a new outrage that is both literal and symbolic: the ISIS beheading videos. The criminal acts depicted in those videos are on an entirely different scale from 9/11, and it’s important not to lose sight of that fact amid the understandable shock and revulsion they have engendered. But the intended effect is strikingly similar, and the ISIS videos are conceptually and historically related to 9/11 as tools of provocation and propaganda. They are designed to make a ragtag band of apocalyptic rebels look like a symmetrical adversary to the world’s greatest military power; to incite an exaggerated response from that power, driven by panic and hysteria; and to attract rootless millennials, both from the West and the Muslim world, to their incoherent cause. So far it seems to be working.

I recognize that in trying to strike some kind of dispassionate or analytical distance from these videos and what they depict, at a time when the families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff are grieving and Americans in general feel enraged and under assault, I face a small-scale version of the Stockhausen-Baudrillard paradox. If you believe this kind of rhetorical approach is inappropriate right now, or maybe ever, then I’m sorry. But I firmly believe that the “let’s go kill them all” collective abreaction is worse, and indeed is precisely the reaction that the criminal gang who killed those people (and many, many others) and made those videos is hoping for. ISIS is clearly a dangerous force in the Middle East, but hardly an augury of the End of Days. If two American civilians had been murdered by drug lords in Colombia or Thailand, we would of course seek punishment for the perpetrators. But only a few of the more feverish Fox News hawks would be talking about sending in the bombers. The way to rob the dead-end morons of ISIS of their power is to begin decoding the signals of their viral horror-show, and to begin to wrestle with what it says about them, and about us.

Just six days after the fall of the Twin Towers, Stockhausen, the avant-garde German composer who was then in his 70s, told a press conference in Hamburg that the events of 9/11 were “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” Even if you get what the famously inscrutable Stockhausen was presumably driving at -- within the context of his worldview and aesthetic tradition and all that -- and even if you accept his later protestations that he saw Osama bin Laden’s great artwork as immoral and satanic, it was an ill-timed remark that reflected an amazing cultural obtuseness. Still, as Stanford professor Terry Castle wrote in an intriguing essay for New York magazine 10 years later, in his pretentious, intemperate and self-absorbed fashion Stockhausen was onto something.

For most people who weren’t in lower Manhattan that September, 9/11 existed only as spectacle. It was frequently and inescapably compared to a Hollywood disaster movie but, as Castle observes, Hollywood disaster cinema is itself descended from the 18th- and 19th-century “cult of the Sublime,” in which melodramatic depictions of dreadful or disturbing events “could be a source of perverse yet intoxicating delight.” Stockhausen’s point was that bin Laden’s band of suicidal hijackers had unwittingly created the nightmarish fulfillment of the Sublime tradition, a spectacle worthy of Lucifer himself. (Remember that this was a guy who spent 16 years composing a 29-hour operatic cycle based on various mythological traditions, which is almost impossible to perform.) Coming from outside Western culture (more or less) the hijackers had accidentally channeled its darkest fantasies of self-destruction. That Stockhausen was being a thoughtless ass is beyond question, but the issues he was trying to raise still loom large after his moment of infamy has faded. (The man himself died in 2007.)

The ISIS videos are not great works of art, nor are they expressions of the Sublime. If Stockhausen discerned something monumental in the grand spectacle of 9/11, these two-minute snuff videos are intentionally trivial, instantly disposable works wrought in the lowest-common-denominator idiom of global pop culture, the YouTube video. Part of the reason we find them appalling is that they exist on a continuum with videos of cute kittens and people losing their pants. Rather than invoking the sublime, they would be ridiculous self-parody if not for the fact that they depict real murder. The sand-dune backdrop -- tentatively identified as a rebel-held desert region in southern Iraq -- looks like the setting for a Jeep commercial or a 1970s Hollywood film. The kneeling American in an orange jumpsuit and the bad guy in a black balaclava would be kitsch if they weren’t horrifying. More precisely, the fact that the real situation is horrifying does not prevent the images from being kitsch.

And that guy: the black-clad buffoon with the knife and the South London accent, now known to the British press as “Jihadi John.” (Western captives had nicknamed their ISIS jailers after members of the Beatles.) He may be a real killer, but he still can’t play one convincingly on TV. His rushed and mumbled monologue (“I’m back, Obama!”) comes off like a suburban teenager’s attempt to impersonate a tough guy in an action-adventure film. He’s basically a real-life Ali G who isn't funny, which may expose the ways that Ali G wasn’t funny in the first place. It wouldn’t even be a little bit surprising to hear him start complaining about what a prick Ronald McDonald is. That guy has already erased himself, and I don’t mean just because British or American special forces will kill him as soon as they can find him. He has erased his own humanity by becoming the most evil figure in the brief and stupid history of Internet video. Whether or not he dies in the coming weeks, he will always be the poorly executed punch line to an bad joke.

It’s important to notice that Jihadi John is a walking indictment of every culture he has ever touched. If he’s the most impressive role model that can be offered to disaffected Western Muslim youth, then our world and the Islamic world are both in deep trouble. (I guess we already knew that.) We’re supposed to be terrified of him because he’s not from a palace in Saudi Arabia or a hovel in Yemen or the slums of Damascus. Instead, he's a nihilistic idiot who was raised in some dismal English housing project on a toxic blend of fast food, Manchester United, American action movies and poorly understood snippets of the Quran. As Baudrillard wrote about al-Qaida in 2001, he represents no coherent ideology, no politics and no cause, just an attempt to radicalize the world through sacrificial violence, which turns out to be startlingly easy. In regarding that doomed nonentity I felt some sympathy, for the first time, with George W. Bush’s infamous remark that he was "not that concerned" about Osama bin Laden. Sure, Obama finally had bin Laden killed, but what did that accomplish? Those who long to see Jihadi John tortured or beheaded are longing for a catharsis that can never be found amid the mess of Western-Islamic relations, and seeking to evade the fact that he is a product of our society (broadly speaking) far more than “theirs.”

To correct what I said earlier, Jihadi John’s videos almost depict real murder. One of the most insulting and calculated aspects of this phenomenon, to my mind, is the “artistic choice” to fade to black rather than show us the final agonies of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. What’s the point? These people have committed murder on a mass scale, mostly targeting ordinary Iraqi Muslims who have no global propaganda value. Are they trying to impress us with their taste and discretion? Of course not. They’re taking exactly the same strategic approach that a low-budget filmmaker might in search of a favorable MPAA rating: They're limiting the on-screen bloodshed to render their product readily consumable on a mass scale. This is just one of many clues to a crucial fact about the ISIS videos: They weren’t made by outsiders to pop culture but by participants in and consumers of pop culture.

As you can tell by now, I have watched one of these videos (the Sotloff one) all the way through. I’m not proud of it and do not recommend the experience, but it seemed stupid to write about something based on other people’s descriptions. I would agree that ISIS wants us to watch and disseminate the videos, and to that extent I too have fallen into their trap. But we all have, and we can’t really help it; I’m not sure it’s any better to turn the videos into taboo cult objects that people watch in secret, like the latest work of fetish porn from Brazil or Estonia. That’s another sense in which the beheading videos reflect a Western or pan-global sensibility: They are works of insinuation, designed to penetrate any and all possible defenses and percolate everywhere.

If ISIS claims to represent implacable opposition to Western culture, they’re kidding themselves. They are an aspect of Western culture. That brings us to the multitude of interconnected ideas expressed in Baudrillard’s magisterial essay “The Spirit of Terrorism,” first published in Le Monde in November 2001. If Stockhausen got into trouble by expressing a complicated idea in blunt and simplistic fashion, you could never accuse Baudrillard of that. Nonetheless he got people’s attention, by appearing to blame the “unbearable power” of America for engendering violent reactions around the world and by claiming that the “terrorist imagination … inhabits us all.” There was a deep, unavowed complicity between “us” and “them,” Baudrillard argued, between the Western moral and political order and its enemies. “It was almost they who did it, but we who wanted it.”

An eminent Parisian philosopher pronouncing that the U.S. was to blame for Islamic terrorism and that the 9/11 attacks reflected more than “the murderous fantasy of a few fanatics” but were a kind of collective wish fulfillment – this did not play too well in the American media during the maximal self-brainwashing of the “Shock and Awe” epoch. But Baudrillard was not firstly or even secondarily making an anti-American argument. He was making a much broader case about human psychology and the nature of political power, which is that any hegemonic and monopolistic superpower, from the Roman Empire to the U.S. in the 1990s, not merely contains but nurtures the seeds of its own destruction and unconsciously encourages its enemies to find and attack its most vulnerable spots. Having defeated communism and conquered the world, the liberal capitalist order had conjured up a shadowy worldwide adversary, “a fantastical enemy … diffused over the whole planet, infiltrating everywhere as a virus, surging from every interstice of power.” But the radical Muslim enemy was only the expression or "moving front" of a fundamental antagonism: “This antagonism is everywhere and it is in each of us.”

Baudrillard never mentions Stockhausen, who had become a worldwide persona non grata several weeks earlier, but as I read this essay (which seems prescient in many different directions, from 13 years’ distance) he is developing a more sophisticated version of the same argument. Although al-Qaida had no specific intention of accomplishing this, 9/11 was an event that confused the realms of the real and the symbolic, and that drew on a deep but unconscious desire to see the dominant world order thrown down and the mighty brought low. Baudrillard makes clear (as Stockhausen did not) that he sees the destruction of the World Trade Center as an immoral act, but he also suggests that it is ludicrous to describe the capitalist globalization that presumably provoked such a reaction as moral.

In one of the essay’s more difficult passages, Baudrillard argues that the spirit of terrorism lies in “the brutal irruption of death” on live TV, “but also the irruption of a more-than-real death: symbolic and sacrificial death.” Such symbolic acts of murder and suicide – the fundamental currency of terrorism – are meant to provoke an extreme and self-destructive reaction in the dominant system of power. It’s almost as if the system drives itself crazy and commits slow-motion suicide in response to these events. “The tactics of terrorism are to provoke an excess of reality and make the system collapse under the weight of this excess.” That’s not a terrible description of Israel’s increasingly psychotic reaction to the provocations of Hamas, and it’s an even better description of what has befallen the United States since 2001.

Viewed in these terms, the ISIS videos are symbolic and sacrificial “irruptions of death,” transferred from the old-style mass media through which we consumed 9/11 to the intimate and ubiquitous zone of the Internet. You didn’t have to be gathered around the TV at home or work or school, united by horror, to share the experience. You could absorb this particular “excess of reality” on the bus, in between snippets of Colbert or Fox News, while struggling to convince yourself that it actually was reality. Even after two instances, the beheading videos have become a genre with its own conventions, beginning with the lame "gotcha" opening featuring Obama saying something the lunatics don't like. They're shot with a two-camera setup and competently edited, with clean graphics, a coherent structure and at least some minimal sense of authorship. Some asshole with a MacBook, probably in the Gulf States, showed the final edit to his boss, who made a few picky suggestions but gave him a fist-bump overall.

The weak spot where the ISIS videos worm their way in is not some deep-seated, grandiose desire to see our civilization destroyed, since we don’t really need to wish for that one anymore. It’s our persistent boredom, our permanent consumer narcosis, our yearning to be entertained at any cost by cute things and funny things and horrifying things that may or may not be real. We have great difficulty telling the difference these days, which is troubling, as is the discovery that the fundamentalist killers we prefer to think of as others or outsiders speak our language – meaning not just English, but the language of YouTube – exactly like natives. But none of that is a good reason to treat the crimes committed by a pack of desert bandits, either in those videos or in the world, as an existential assault on our civilization, or as the casus belli for yet another misguided Middle Eastern war that is certain to make things worse. That would suggest that Baudrillard was right, and we cannot stop ourselves from answering madness with madness and death with death, following the shadowy adversary we ourselves created down into the abyss.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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