June 17, 2014

Terror Imagery the Envy of Hollywood: Why a Scapegoating West Can't Get Enough of ISIS

Such has been his success as a propaganda tool that he has even appeared in the front page of an online jihadist magazine, while his rugged looks are even said to have attracted female admirers from other Arab and Gulf countries.

— from: Iraq crisis: the bare faced ISIS executioner who spreads terror with his open killing (Telegraph)

The question is, why is Western media suddenly so obsessed with the propaganda of ISIS in Iraq, and gratuitously publishing the groups factually-ambiguous terror scenes?

Graphic display of terror in the media, including images of violence and carnage, is never random. What and how much is published can and always will depend on political and nationalistic factors. Around the globe, the same and worse has been going on and substantiated on a consistent basis, the most recent examples including Somalia and Syria. And then, where was all the press attention and graphic imagery after the mass public killing of Brotherhood members by the military government in Egypt? (I understand I’m barely scratching the surface here.) One might say this overwhelming focus on these ISIS images are simply based on powerful interest in the welfare of a country in which we bear such strategic interest. If that were the case, however, where is the rest of the story? Where, for example, are the corresponding photos of the exodus of Iraqis fleeing their homes, turned overnight into refugees?

Domestically, the degree of blood and gore, or the reporting of carnage at all, is completely variable. The reporting of the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, was inordinately graphic — in contrast to the way other events are depicted in the Western press.  Pictures of gun violence or state executions or extrajudicial killings or acts of homegrown domestic terrorism, for example — acts raising moral questions or reflecting the state of the American psyche or American social justice — are routinely edited or censored. (For example, I’m still waiting for that extended set of Abu Ghraib images, or a photo of that Las Vegas policeman covered with a Gadsden flag after he was gunned down two weeks ago by a pair of far-right patriot movement killers.)

Perhaps we can say that the degree of gore in the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing was proportional to the size of the ego blow to that city — widely perceived as “Boston’s own 9/11” or the sense, at the time, of a new, national and permanent loss of safety. Complementing the extreme depiction of carnage, the fact the entire city experienced a lockdown to locate the two suspects seemed to far exceed the scale of damage or the small number of injuries and fatalities. But, how close to the top of that list is the blow to domestic pride and security, and injury to nationalistic identity when it comes to when it comes to sensationalism?

You don’t get the suspension of censorship, the indulgence in perversity, the quick and wide publication and trumpeting of graphic carnage without a political context for why this is happening.

In the case of the ISIS imagery, could it have anything to do with America looking for a scapegoat and a way to save face after having eliminated Saddam Hussein and initiating the fracture of Iraq into the sectarian Frankenstein now further fraying and even unraveling?

Could it have anything to do with the media and the White House having effectively purged the fact that America went to war on false pretenses. (Listening to Paul Wolfowitz, the neocon architect of the Iraq invasion, holding court on Meet the Press Sunday, the pre-9/11 intention to overthrow Hussein was clearly a casualty of historical amnesia.)

Could it have anything to do with the fact that the West mobilized and funded the Sunni insurgency, training and arming the progenitors to ISIS?

Or, could it have anything to do with the billions of dollars and the thousands of Americans who died or were maimed in a campaign we have no explanation or much of anything to show?

And there’s a related point to be made here about visual propaganda. I’ve seen an attitude crop up in the US government and pundit class lately about the growing media savvy of terror groups, the latest example being the Taliban’s media savvy in the way they produced, or at least, co-produced the handover of Bowe Bergdahl. With America the home of Madison Avenue, Hollywood and K Street, there is the idea that propaganda, the use of death spectacle for political effect (did anyone say “Shock and Awe”?) and the application of high production values in the service of either persuasion or historical revisionism is somehow proprietary to the West … akin to the stealing of intellectual property or proprietary technology in the hands of “the other.”

What was really mind-bending to me, however, was the way this CNN report about ISIS (“Brutal terrorist video borrows techniques from Hollywood”) paints the group as evil incarnate just for graduating from handheld home videos shot in a cave.  And then, it’s one thing to do an apples-to-apples comparison of Western war propaganda to jihadi war propaganda, but it’s another thing — and a classic example of how Western media sees war propaganda as a close cousin of the entertainment industry — that CNN would actually compare the quality and dramatic value of recent ISIS videos to to “Zero Dark 30″or “The Hurt Locker” is telling.

CNN comparison of ISIS production quality to Zero Dark 30.

CNN comparison of ISIS production quality to The Hurt Locker.

Finally, Western media is again doing its thing, and exercising its own Hollywood DNA, by rummaging through the ISIS story to find a villain, a poster boy and/or a boogie man to offer up to the American populace as its next new worst nightmare. One guy who is earning a tryout is ISIS evil-doer, Shakir Wahiyib.

In the photo leading this post of the so-called “ Desert Lion,” the quote from the Telegraph and the whole context and focus of the article — not to mention the photo selection — says next-to-nothing about him and everything about us. Does it make any sense at all that a man dedicated to killing anyone who even thinks about sensuality and worldly pleasure would be characterized as a sex god in the Muslim world?

This whole episode reminds me of the elevation of Abu Masab al-Zarqawi during the Iraq War, after the occupation went went completely south and the Pentagon, needing a poster boy to stimulate support, sympathy and anger back home turned this guy into a household name and the new boogy man. This role player got so elevated and the media so played along, TIME had the audacity  — after his elimination by the military –to feature him on the cover as a co-equal member of this group (the demonization of Iraq going completely hyperbolic):

Stepping back from the visually-assisted hysteria, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First off, the ISIS M.O. doesn’t necessarily fit the gratuitous killing model and more sober and informed analysis — such as this piece yesterday in the NYT (“Massacre Claim Shakes Iraq”) or this from the BBC (Iraq ‘Massacre’ photos: What we know) start by breaking down exactly what is going on in the terror and so-called massacre photos, how much they seem to be taken literally or for effect, and to what extent the massacre figures widely quoted in Western media and sourced from Sunnis/ISIS itself can be substantiated or even make sense.

Second, if you read someone like Juan Cole, who simply combines cultural, national and sectarian knowledge with actual facts on the ground (7 Myths about the Radical Sunni Advance in Iraq), ISIS might be kicking up quite a bit of sand, but they aren’t exactly a new brand of evil, a monolithic juggernaut or even a real threat to bring down Bagdad. (As a rhetorical aside, it’s interesting how the hyper-demonization of ISIS  — and CNN’s intimation that ISIS is a quantum deadlier al Qaeda mutation — is complemented by it scary-mythic-futuristic-Evil Inc.- sounding name … reflective of how Blackwater morphed into Xe.)

Finally, if the goal of the B-movie-style (but rapidly improving!) ISIS propaganda visuals are to elicit mass attention, build their brand and deliver equal doses of infotainment and terror to the Western media consumer, it’s working like a charm. And it’s working through the same media supply chain, through the propaganda packaging, hate channeling and villain casting— that the Western media and political establishment lives to shower on us.

(credits pending)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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