It keeps to leave me baffled to watch the visual world envisioned by different groups of Islamist propagandists and to notice the lack of any female characters. It is truly a world without women. I might have mentioned this before, but this – the non-existence of women – is harder for me to cope with than the brutal depiction of violence against men. I know that there exists every disgusting form of violence against women, but it seems as if this isn’t even worth mentioning. Please spare me with “but they are not allowed to depict women”. Bullshit. They are not allowed to permit any of the violence acts presented in these videos. Not showing women just makes it more evident how fucked up their whole ideology is. Women are considered the lowest of the low.
That makes the rare occasions, when women are actually visible, even more outstanding. From the ISIS-sphere, there is just a handful of videos, I know of, where black clad women are to be seen somewhere in the distant background. The closest to a female character you can get is a small girl of maybe 8 or 9 years old.
But I just stumbled upon a video I had collected last year but overlooked till now. I think it did come out in September of 2017 and it actually shows a female figure fighting. That is the only video of this kind I know. It might have to do with the notion that these battles might be part of a final struggle, that led the propagandist to use this “desperate” material. Of course, there have always been women amongst the fighters or serving as part of the security apparatus, but it has never been shown that openly.
The propaganda is full of heroic male characters, yet this short, 30 something second snippet is the only video I know of that not only talks about fighting women, but “shows” them. But it stops short of giving the figure a face and therefore an identity.
I am currently applying for a research position. I am not going to get it – why should I? I am just an artist. Part of the requirement though was to send in some writing samples. I took this as an excuse to write some stuff. Part of it might repeat some of the ideas I have already mentioned here. But much of it is new. So I just post it.
If you wanted to film an execution, how would you go about?
The boundless Stage
If the question in the title of this text would not be about how to film an execution, but how to film a birthday party for a small child, the answer might apparently be easier to answer. We might go and check how others have done it. We visit sites like Facebook or YouTube, we check our personal archives, we ask others. We remember how Hollywood does it. In general, we try to remember our common visual language, which in return might give us guidance on how something like this is properly done. Certainly, the key shot has to be, when the child blows out the candle. People in the background do a countdown and then, oh joy, the happy moment. We all know how this looks like. Even those of us, who have actually never attended a single birthday that had been celebrated in this fashion.
There are two sides to that. There is the ritual. The fact that we celebrate a special day for each person, once a year. The cake. The presents. The songs.
And then there is the visual aspect. Try to picture a birthday party and we all can agree on a basic appearance. But many of these images that come to mind, are actually not of events, you have been participating in. They have come to you through the broadest variety of media. From the picture albums of friends and family, to movies and TV.
In our visually driven society, the image has become a key element in the ritual itself. Pictures must be taken and shared for the event to be valid. The ritual is set up in such a way to be easily photographed or filmed. And all too often, the images seem to be more important than what had originally been the key aspect of the ritual.
Recently, I had been invited to the birthday party of a one-year old child, whose parents had to flee the civil war in Syria. Once the decoration was up, the food was on the table, the candle lit and the child in its seat of honor, there was a ten-minute frenzy, when everyone was trying to get the right shot. Many of the images were instantly shared online. Relatives were connected live via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. The adult guest queued to get their picture take with the toddler. The candle was lit multiple times, to be blown out repeatedly. Once all the pictures had been taken and the food was on the plates, the toddler was put back into its play pen and mostly ignored for the rest of the evening. His job in the ritual was done, even though, originally, the ritual was meant as a celebration of his birthday.
The pictures had been taken and the event was a full success – maybe especially since the pictures looked like ones from a successful event.
Not only do the pictures become part of the ritual, the taking of the pictures too has become a key element. We all remember “Uncle Herbert” taking pictures on certain private occasions. And there were the professional photographers during public events. This is why we know how to pose in front of the camera. And we know how to do this differently in different circumstances.
So, the ritualized aspect of image taking isn’t new, yet the reach of the medium is far greater today than ever before and I would argue that photography and video certainly help to ritualize our lives even further than before. More and more moments in life are photographed constantly and more and more of these moments develop a “correct” look.
With the omnipresence of cameras, we have come to expect pictures to be taken in every imaginable situation. Parts of private life, that had remained private before, become public. But this might also create another feedback loop. Since more and more things, events, places become potential interests for the camera, it becomes crucial to be photogenic. Like the table at the birthday party, many things and events around us, are set up in such a way to easily create pleasing images. This seems to be dictated by the images already associated with a certain object or situation. So, the visual language of images is being transferred into the real world. Not long ago, food photography was a sub-genre with a very limited application. Today, many people replace the short prayer before the meal with a picture of the way the food is served. And this certainly has a big influence on how the food is served – and maybe even what food is being eaten.
In the setting of a TV studio, this seems natural, since everything is created for the camera. But the cameras today point in all directions. The stage has lost its boundaries. But on this boundless stage, everyone becomes an actor and every moment in life part of the play.
This is evident in almost every public event today. There always seems to be a multitude of cameras pointing at every little detail.
It is even true, when looking at many of the public executions shown in Islamist propaganda videos. Of course, to the audience that (quite often forcibly) attends these, they are a spectacle and we have learned that spectacles need to be recorded visually. Filming and taking pictures during the suffering of fellow human beings seems to be a sign of an evil and perverted culture, but I believe that the lack of such images from our society only has to do with the lack of public executions, and not with higher moral standards. During the public lynchings in the US of the early 20th century quite a few photographers made good money by taking pictures of members of the crowd. Even postcards of these events were produced and sold.
Today, almost everyone carries a camera and many people are inclined to document almost everything they encounter. If there would be public executions in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, there would certainly be images of them on Instagram.
How to die the right fashion?
I always wonder, how far our visual training has taken us. With a smartphone in easy reach such a huge chunk of humanity, almost all of us have become image creators. But far longer have we been consuming and reading images.
Hundredandsixtysomething years for the medium of photography might be a short period of time in the big scope of human history, but on a personal level, we do not work like this. Not a single person alive has met someone that has not grown up in the age of images as a form of mass communication. (I am ignoring those rare encounters with remote tribes made first contact in the last few decades.)
Movies try to recreate human interaction and behavior. But they also teach us interaction and behavior.
It has always been true, that most of a person’s knowledge is not based on his own experience, but on experience that others have made and that has been shared. That was true in the age of the hunter-gatherer and it is true today. What has changed is that, today, more and more knowledge comes with images attached. The hunter-gatherer might have heard the tales of far and distant lands, but we feel we have been there, since the images we have encountered have become part of our own memories.
My mother has never been on a plane. And she has never traveled outside Germany, Switzerland and France. But as an avid TV consumer, if you’d ask her, she would certainly have an apparent knowledge of many places around the world. Hell, I know what a volcanic eruption looks like. Have I ever seen one in person? Well no, but I have been taught how it looks and I am quite certain to recognize one, when I see it.
It might be relatively evident, which things we know, that we have never really encountered ourselves. I am phrasing this slightly vague, since our visual knowledge of things we have really encountered is also a mixture of personally experience and tales told. I have seen the Eiffel Tower on several occasions, yet the picture I have in mind is most certainly not one that is solely based on my personal gaze.
But it becomes really vague, if we talk about behavior and interaction. How many of the soldiers that die on the battlefield, unconsciously recreate in their last moments stuff they have learned through movies and TV? Like, “tell my family….”. Maybe I am completely misguided and there is something in our genes, that makes us act this way, when we die. But I highly doubt it. I think it is cultural training and much of that, today, comes to us through media.
So, what should be the most personal event possible, also becomes a ritual. Thinking back, when visiting my later father-in-law at his deathbed, I almost expected theatrical last words from him. Of course, he was too sick. And at the time, I had other things to think about, then the botched movie ritual. But later I came to realize that something had been missing.
The glitter Taliban
When comparing three or four year old Islamist propaganda from sources connected to ISIS and sources connected to al Qaeda the differences were somewhat striking. Even back then, ISIS propaganda was extremely posh and fancy. Yet, the al Qaeda propaganda was somewhat lacking behind.
Not the cool special forces outfits. Not the paramilitary drill. Not the action scenes normally found in Hollywood blockbuster movies. And exactly that might the point. What seems off with this propaganda, is the fact that it barely resembles the propaganda we normally encounter, when watching TV or going to the movies. This certainly has to do with the fact that much of this kind Western media has never reached the religious parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it is precisely here, where many of the recruits for al Qaeda and the Taliban come from.
They have not come to expect the propaganda to look the way a Hollywood movie would depict a powerful group of fighters.
It looks as if local traditions and fashion are far more important to them than the latest style of military gear. Certainly, as deadly as ISIS fighters, sometimes it is difficult not to chuckle looking at these images.
On the other hand, ISIS media operatives apparently have seen a ton of Western propaganda. So much so, that their visual language is mostly indistinguishable from what the West might produce. Of course, there were many Western fighters amongst their ranks that brought along their visual culture. But Iraq and Syria themselves were not disconnected from Western media, the same way, a remote and religious area of Afghanistan might have been. People, growing up in the 80s or 90s in Syria and Iraq, most certainly know their way around in Hollywood.
But from this difference in appearance, we can read how much Islamist propaganda is actually a response to the prevalent visual language. Many ISIS videos could be classified as music videos without music – since the use of music is prohibited. Others appear more mundane and boring and better resemble documentaries. But the genres in general seem quite clear and well known.
Over time though, the propaganda emanating from the Hindukush (and in lower quantity from Yemen) has changed drastically. Al Qaeda and the Taliban seemed to have faced a dilemma. On one hand, making the propaganda look to Western would be a kind of moral defeat on the other hand, they were losing the war over global attention against media outlets associated with ISIS. And more attention means more recruits and more money donated to the cause.
It is still relatively easy to say which side of the struggle a certain video comes from. Especially looking at the way graphic violence is depicted (ISIS) or is not depicted (al Qaeda) and looking at some cultural hints, like certain ways to dress and so on. But they are much more similar than before. Both sides now show SWAT team like military training. Both sides show off military gear and equipment. And both sides pay more attention to fast cuts and appealing action scenes.
An interesting case is the use of remote controlled video drones to document suicide attacks with cars (VBIEB for vehicle-borne improvised explosive device). The drone flies some distance away from the car and records the explosion. Quite often these videos also show the unsuccessful attempts to stop the car by opposing forces. Many attacks fail, but naturally, these failures rarely make it into the final cut of the propaganda video. If you want to see the failed attacks, you have to look for the successful prevention of these attacks in the propaganda of the respective opponent.
The first use of remote controlled video drones – without the suicide attack – I have seen, was from Russian “journalists” operating embedded within Assad troops. These videos were showing the destruction the war has caused and successfully liberated neighborhoods and towns. Very quickly though these drones were adopted to document attacks and in this way, they were mostly used by ISIS. The first encounters with these videos left me pretty speechless. The image quality was brilliant, and the footage was something I had never seen. It really gave the impression of a true birds view on an actual battlefield. With this brutal clarity, the attack seemed even more cunning than if it were filmed from the ground.
That must also have been the reaction of Islamist forces in opposition to ISIS. Because quite quickly, other groups in Iraq and Syria adopted the same kit to document suicide attacks. And quickly more of the attacks shown were filmed by drones than from the ground. Maybe because drones are hard to find in Afghanistan or maybe there were some resentments against the use of these cameras, but it took the Taliban almost a year to visually catch up. But in the end, they did. And now even in Afghanistan attacks are filmed using drones.
So, propaganda, it turns out, has become a fast-paced arms race. Technology changes very quickly and the needs and wants of the online audience forces propagandists to adopt. That way it is not different from other forms of advertising. It is interesting to me to see, how the Internet dictates even the inner workings of Islamist propagandists. Even though they wish to promote an unchanging religious set of values, that is 1400 years old – at least that is their claim -, they have to change the way they transport the message constantly. The audience demands it, or otherwise it is going to click on another link.
Most of us might know Robert Capas famous image of a dying Spanish soldier during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. I am aware that there is some debate on the authenticity of this image, but let’s just – for the sake of my arguments – assume that the image does show the precise moment this soldier is being killed. Robert Capa, in his role as a war photographer, was certainly hoping to take images like this one, but the image itself wasn’t something he was able to plan. He was just at the right place at the right time to document this event.
Even the images of the attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York were more or less results of chance encounters. The al Qaeda operatives, involved in the planning and execution, would certainly have hoped to create images, but they relied on cameras already filming (tourists and surveillance cameras) or news crews gathering to record the aftermath of the attack. They did not set up their own cameras. Nor was this the case for most of the other terror attacks of the early 2000s that made the headlines.
The conflict in Syria can be seen as part of the Arab Spring series of popular uprisings. In these struggles social media like Twitter and Facebook played an important role from the very beginning. When people went to the streets in protest, the took with them their phones to share images and videos with the world. The same happened in Syria. When the peaceful struggle became the Syrian Civil War, people kept recording and sharing. And when protesters became combatants, the filming of protests became war photography and propaganda. Maybe two years into the conflict, there was a noticeable shift. For quite a while, suicide attacks had been filmed with cellphones and the propagandistic use of images of executions was quite limited.
More and more, cell phone cameras were replaced by more professional equipment. And the filming of attacks was planned more carefully. It became clear that the production of images for the use in propaganda videos had become a crucial element in the planning of attacks. Cameras were not aiming in the general direction of the oncoming attack, but many videos were carefully framed. To an extent, where one might wonder, whether some targets might have been chosen not for their military value, but for their visual appeal.
Images are not a by-product anymore, but rather a key element in the struggle. This changes everything.
The dramatic shift is especially visible in videos that show the work of snipers. These videos are one of the many sub-genres of propaganda that come out of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These videos pretend to show the successful work of snipers from their own point of view. Of course, these videos are part of the propaganda and therefore their authenticity can never be fully trusted, nor will they ever be impartial. But it is quite clear that at least some of these videos in fact do show the “successful” killing of people. Whether these are enemy fighters or innocent bystanders is not important here.
People are killed to produce images. Of course, the sniper waits for the person with the camera to tell him that the camera is recording. Of course, he waits for the victim to enter the field of view of the camera, before he pulls the trigger. This is not the view of a person like Robert Capa, who tried to document the brutality of war. Here, the only “successful” kill is one that produces an image that can be used for propaganda purposes. It does not matter, whether the person killed really poses a threat or not.
The same is true for videos that show executions. Many people are killed for their deaths to be used in propaganda videos.
It is interesting to see this drastic shift so clearly in organizations (ISIS and al Qaeda), that historically were extremely negative towards the use of images altogether. Not long ago, Islamists in Afghanistan actively prosecuted photographers for breaking aniconic rules. And now, they themselves are producing propaganda videos and release them to the public. This might be a hint, that it isn’t necessarily the propagandist who decides on the way propaganda evolves. Maybe it is rather the collective audience that pushes certain developments. With view counters and user statistics, the Internet makes it possible for the viewer to leave a feedback to the creator of content, whether he is aware of that or not.
The Problem of the new
When YouTube celebrity Paul Logan shocked parts of the internet community by filming and mocking a dead person in Japan, this seemed to cross the line for many people. He and his team had been roaming a forest in Japan, that has gained some notoriety, for the high number of people going there to commit suicide. Clearly, he was hoping to find a corpse, and in the end, he was lucky in that respect. YouTube tried to counter the outrage, this video caused, by briefly restricting Logan’s ability to monetize his content on their platform. Only briefly though. Did this hurt Paul Logan? Not really. Especially not amongst his key audience. The video that caused so much outrage has now been viewed over 50 million times and the number of subscribers of his channel keeps growing.
Logan is following one of the simpler rules of the Internet. You want to be noticed? Then break the rules and make that public. Do something that shocks people and they will watch and listen. It is the same set of guidelines that is followed by ISIS in many of their most brutal videos.
But this also creates some problems. The audience, that is eager to follow you, expects you to constantly repeat your stunts with more and more audacity. It is not your amazing set of skills or your magnificent creativity that makes people watch your videos, but rather it is your ability to provide something that appears to be new and bold.
After the outrage over the mocked corpse had settled down and a short while after a show of public apology, Logan released another video, in which he tasered two dead rats. Bad taste? Certainly. But neither all that creative nor all that bold – maybe mostly desperate. But how would one go about to surpass the hype created by you mocking a corpse? To Logan the options are quite limited, since killing someone seems to be not an option. Ending up on death row or on a life sentence would certainly make the news, but keeping up the hype and benefiting from it afterwards would be rather tricky.
ISIS on the other hand can kill people. It is quite normal for this group to kill. So why not film it and make it a propaganda thing? When these videos appeared at first, they were extremely shocking. They were showing real murders on camera, something our mass media normally would not show us. Videos like these might have been found before already in the deepest depths of the Internet. On some gore sites like theync.com and maybe someone managed to sneak something into a 4chan /b. But these videos always appeared to be shot on accident or by someone who was having other priorities than to film someone being murdered.
The ISIS propaganda came as a shock. And it became an instant blockbuster on schoolyards in many Western countries.
But the Internet dictates, that the new does not stay new for long. Your audience might admire you for the furour you create, but most of them are very loosely attached to you and your cause. You have to keep them entertained for them to stay focused.
The propagandists of ISIS and Co face a dilemma. They created an audience by producing videos that were deliberately violating social norms, by showing violence in a taboo braking way. This has created a lot of response, both from other media and the audience. Hype is gone as quickly as it comes, yet hype is addictive. And the Internet works by its own set of rules. It does not matter, whether you are a YouTube star, that dreams of a bigger house and more women, or a group of Jihadi fighters, trying to promote a social agenda from the 7th century BC. You want to be noticed and want to enjoy the short high only hype can provide? Than follow the rules of the online community.
I must say, that I find the thought very soothing, that even jihadi fighters have to agree to the terms and services of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
This might explain, why execution videos changed over time. More attention is paid to the setting. The camerawork has become more professional. More shots from different angles. Etcetera. But most astonishingly, the violence itself has changed. In the beginning, the decapitations were a relatively swift matter, shootings were done quickly. Later, the whole thing turned to butchery. Sometimes quite literally, by hanging the victims upside down from hooks, cutting their throat, letting them bleed out. Just like a butcher would do it. These videos constantly try to reinstate the feeling terror, that caused people to talk about them in the first place.
Shooting a hostage just does not cut it anymore. Nowadays you have to shoot in groups, burn, blow up, use shotguns and slow motion. You have to deliver something unseen before, to make the news. To the victims, of course, this is terrible. They become objects of perverted content creators. Much of this increase in violence is driven by an urge to create something new. And it appears to me that there are even persons killed, whose death normally would not be justified, unless someone needed some victims to create a video. If you constantly need to create new shocking videos, featuring the murder of your opponents – well maybe you become somewhat desperate to find opponents that are really worthy to die in the most terrible fashion. Maybe you let your standards slip slightly, just to be able to declare more people enemies of the level.
That is not to say that all there is to ISIS propaganda are the killings. That isn’t true. But many of the most brutal ones share some traits with viral advertising. Viral ads try to make us listen to an extremely bland message of “buy this”, by wrapping the message in an outer shell that is unexpected or outrageous, funny or just amazing. ISIS videos are, at the core, as bland as the sales pitch for a car insurance. Maybe even blander, since many of the ideas propagated are extremely old and remote from a reality in which the Internet exists and in which every imaginable content is just a few clicks apart.
The brutality is the shell, that makes to message easier to swallow. Many of the mayor jihadi video productions are truly wrapped in viral content. At the beginning, you see some flashy intro, maybe some fighting and some battles, then comes the boring part, where you someone explains the boring details of the world view of the group and the execution at the end serves as your reward for staying focused. Really, not that different from a sales pitch for a car insurance.
But once the appeal of the facade wears off, it becomes all too clear how desperate the middle part sounds. This would not necessarily affect the true believers, but the propaganda tries to recruit new people and that becomes much harder, once people lose interest.
If we compare the two images on the previous pages, we can see two persons playing the same role. One is working for ESPN, a big US TV station that focusses on sports, the other an operative for a group that associates itself with ISIS. But both act in a similar fashion and even though, he might lack the standard business suit, the ISIS guy even has the ISIS logo on a small cube attached to his microphone. Over the course of the two videos snippets, both men perform very similar looking interviews.
The ESPN journalist talks to an American Football player and the ISIS guy to a group of people in cages, that are burned alive after the interview.
The last detail makes the whole thing fall apart. Why would someone clumsily act like a journalist, just to perform some mock interviews with a group of men that are killed in such a horrifying way shortly after?
How should he do it otherwise? If we turn on TV, we can see that it is really difficult, to come up with a unique visual language, that is still comprehensible. Some people try, and almost all of them fail miserably. To play it safe, it is easiest to just reuse the codes and sings already in use. Everyone does it. The ISIS guy isn’t influenced by the guy from ESPN, rather both follow the same lead. Neither is truly authentic, but that might not matter.
Not everyone that uses spoken language has to reinvent it constantly. Why should that be any different, if it comes to images? The media dictates how a story is best told and therefore the jihadi journalist or the Taliban-made TV studio actually make sense. It feels absurd though, to watch Islamists call for the “death of the West”, while at the same time following stereotypes invented by and for Western media. A typical example would be an attack in Kabul by a group that associated itself with the Taliban. The attack was aimed at a TV station and four people working there were killed. Shortly after the attack a press release was issued by the Taliban, claiming responsibility for the attack. The press release, of course, was aimed directly at media outlets like the one that had just been attacked.
One might call for the destruction of all media, but to reach the public, this call should best go through as many media outlets as possible. It is very similar to populist politicians, that seem to complain about “fake news” every single time, they are being interviewed on TV.
The more I think about it, the more I have to realize that many of my works are somewhat problematic in respect to the topics they are dealing with. The same, I think, is true for other works by different artists, dealing with similar topics, so I would like to try to phrase my concerns.
When Herostratus laid fire to the Temple of Artemis in the 4th century BCE, it is said, that he was aiming for eternal remembrance. So, the reaction by public figures to punish him with damnatio memoriae, or the condemnation of memory, seemed quite sensible, even though this attempt has failed miserably. The names of the people that did condemn him have long since been forgotten, yet the name of the criminal lives on.
If we take the story for granted, Herostratus was no terrorist. The people he was aiming for were not his enemies and he was not trying to instill fear in them that other such acts might inevitably follow, he was rather extremely selfish. He wanted his actions to be remembered and his name to live on. If he would have been a member of a bigger group, that threatened similar acts, the story would be different, but he was giving his life merely for his own cause. He wanted to be glorified – sure, he did something most people would have hated him for, but glorification works in the negative as well as in the positive. The arch villain is a hero in of itself.
I guess, there is little real information on the reaction of his contemporaries, but I would doubt that there had been widespread fear that his action could have merely been the start of an upcoming series of similar events. If bureaucracy worked in a similar fashion 2500 years ago, some guards at the temple were reprimanded for their lapse in security, but that would have been it. The guy who actually did it had been apprehended and executed and no one was ever to mention his name again. That was it.
When looking for the right way to deal with contemporary acts of terrorism. Many media outlets struggle and quite a few resort to a damnatio memoriae for our current media environment. The acts themselves are still reported, but certain news sites for instance stopped to show images of terrorists and refuse to mention their names.
If terrorists would be motivated by similar urges than Herostratus, this seems an adequate way to cope with terrorism. But there is more to that, than just the individuals need to leave traces.
For once, the fundamental claim of terrorism is that there are more things to come. Things that are going to strike us out of the blue. The individual terrorist might indeed partially be motivated by the selfish urge of becoming a glorified hero, but the fact that the claim is made, that his actions are part of a wider movement, is essential. Interestingly, this claim is very often not made by the attacker him- or herself, but rather by the group that defines his whole existence through an ongoing series of attacks. ISIS for instance, keeps claiming attacks for themselves that have little connection to the real planning of this group. To the person who feels under threat, it makes little to no difference who makes this claim.
Whether the above-mentioned response, by some media outlets, to retract the names and images of violent attackers, is a valid response, is up for debate. But maybe this response does not even go far enough and the story of Herostratus might teach us some valuable lesions for the conflicts of the 21st century.
Compared to the role remembrance plays in contemporary conflicts, the actions by Herostratus seem almost like child’s play. He wanted his name to be remembered to become immortal, but today it is all about a continuous place in the 24-hour news cycle. He was up for what we would call today 15 minutes of fame, while terror groups aim for a never-ending state of fear.
Today’s conflicts aim at our perception as the crucial battlefield. Terrorism, for instance, only works once it is been perceived as terrorism. If the single acts of murder are understood merely as acts of a criminal nature, the feeling of terror most likely disappears. If a drunken guy stabs some people in front of a club and is then killed by police, the whole thing is merely reported as news. Something that has happened and that is now over. Just something the public might want to know about. If there is a growing number of such incidences, politicians might face some tough questions by their constituents and might fear for reelection. But little else comes of it.
Terrorism, on the other hand, lives from being reported in a different way than that. To fully function, it needs to be understood as merely part of something bigger. As something that might happen again in a different setting, but that has to be understood as part of the same storyline. Terrorists work hard to make their actions seem as if they were connected. But this connectedness is artificial. What we experience as a constant threat from Islamist terror groups in Europe at the moment, is in fact a series of incidences that are quite few and far apart. Even if it were true that most or all of the attacks were orchestrated by the same group, following the same narrative, this struggle has bears little resemblance of an all-out war. But to many people, it feels like it. Why? Maybe because every incidence is talked about over and over again. And this way, the groups claiming responsibility for these attacks are given constant media airtime.
So, when some news outlets decide not to show the faces and names of the perpetrators, this solves only a small part of the issue. The attacks are still given ample airtime – much more in fact, than many other events, that have a comparable number of casualties.
What reminds me here of Herostratus is the fact that terrorism seems to depend on us thinking about it, for it to stay alive. The more we talk about it, the more the whole issue grows and thrives. Oddly enough other issues are quite similar in this respect. Take for instance mass surveillance. Sure, Big Brother could watch you without your knowledge, but it has always been the more cost-efficient approach to pair surveillance with a heavy dose of paranoia in your targets. Have them be afraid and therefore enforce some control on themselves.
In that respect, “knowledge” can be a curse, since what you believe to know, is in huge parts a construct that only exists in our group consciousness. There might be a terror attack any moment or there might be Big Brother watching over my shoulder right now, but the chance that this just isn’t the case is so much bigger. Us, being afraid, easily fills the gaps between accidents or acts of surveillance.
The more attention these topics get, the more important they seem. This is a problem. Not only the classical media outlets do a far too focused job, reporting on terror or surveillance, but it has also become a staple topic in other cultural fields. Movies, documentaries, books, theater plays – I just guess that there are even operas – are dealing with terror. And many visual artists, like me for instance, spend a lot of time drawing even more attention to this issue. The way this is done is very often quite fanciful and therefore gives the whole thing some street cred. Surveillance, war and terror have become cool topics for the coolest kids around.
We might come with the best intentions, but I am not so sure anymore, if we are actually doing a good job. We might have to deal with the idea of us being complicit, when dealing with topics, where the actual danger is not so much out there in the real world, but rather in our internal response. By shedding even more light on these topics, we serve the agenda. When ISIS, for instance releases new videos, people like me instantly flock to them and make them part of the debate.
If it comes to these topics, there should be debate, but the question is, which debate. I have no conclusive answer, but I want to show that I am struggling.
— This is something I just wrote down, without planning too much. I realize that it might be a little bit confusing. This is just me, just rumbling on. —
Time and time again, fascists try to rebrand themselves to regain traction. They look for new symbols, to replace those, that have become too easily recognizable as belonging to their despicable agenda, or to replace those, that are outright illegal to use. And with the new symbols come new slogans. The change is limited to the outside appearance though.
I have quite some knowledge of how Islamist propaganda videos look like, and when I come across videos by groups that associate themselves with neo fascist agendas in the West, quite often it strikes me how similar they are in appearance. Take for instance the video below from a group that associates itself with the so-called Identitarian movement. The way these men run through the forest and wrestle looks so youthful and modern, yet the same is true for by many of the Islamist propaganda that tries to find recruits in the West. When looking through my collection for a video to pair with the Identitarian, I was somewhat lazy. This was the one I found first and this is why I used it. There are many others, that look more modern than this one here and that utilize a similar lightheartedness, than that is found in the Identitarian video, to spread their hatred.
But why do these groups that seem to aim for a weird sense of stability, one that is promised if you follow conservative values, constantly evolve? Maybe this could be explained, if we look at these groups as part of a youth movement that changes from generation to generation. Every generation that comes of age, has to define itself new. Fashion trends change constantly, and the army boots, skinhead haircuts and bomber jackets of the 90s just lost their appeal to the next generation of Nazis.
Many parties in the West have long ago formed their youth organization. In Germany, every major party has one. That is quite clever. There is the real party, with a grown-up agenda, aiming for real world politics, and then there is the youth wing that is allowed to be more extreme and sometimes even youthfully delusional.
Maybe this is true for ISIS as well. When looking at the propaganda, I have always found it quite interesting, that there seems to be a whole multitude of target audiences. On one hand, ISIS tries to appear like a state that is somewhere out there and that does stately things. Building roads, providing food and entertainment, or even punishing criminals – whoever those might be under their jurisdiction. But then there is also the propaganda that tries to recruit young people in the West and locally. This propaganda has a different appeal to it. This is the propaganda that tries to look young and fresh. Could it be, that this propaganda looks different because it is part of a youth culture?
We have to keep in mind, that at least in part, ISIS is the result of the Arab Spring, which in itself was driven to a huge extend by a disillusioned youth. Countries, that have been encapsulated by a crust of old elites, with little to no hope for a better future, served as a hotbed for a revolting youth. And when the promises, that were made, were broken, ISIS filled the void by promising an even brighter future.
In my youth, I had been fascinated by radical left ideas. I desperately wanted to fight for a better world. It just happened, that my own endeavor never turned violent, but I guess, I might have been walking a fine line. There were certainly violent groups and players that had an appeal to me; in hindsight though, I have come to realize that the promises they made back then were lies. I wanted to struggle for freedom and liberty and these groups pretended to do fight for the same goals. Yet, the stories by folks like Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh and reality are two different things. But it sounded tempting.
When I was at that age, I might have been just lucky that there were not so many revolutions easily accessible, that were calling for volunteers to fight. Even if they would have, I could have never afforded to book a flight to, let’s say Nicaragua.
Of course, the things done by ISIS and Co are terrible, but I wonder how we will be able to cope with the next way of unrest, if we merely look at ISIS as something solitary. As something that is rooted in some specific issues, of some specific time. There is this aspect as well. The set of problems at work in the Middle East post Arab Spring are different than the problems in Cuba under the rule of the Batista regime. But there is also the struggle of the youth every society has to cope with.
The growing inequality in many societies, the overpopulation, the disappearance of job opportunities, due to the coming AI breakthrough, climate change, these problems – and many more beyond our horizon -, mean that coming youth generations might have even more reasons to feel disenfranchised in the society they live in. Struggling violently, might seem even more tempting than it is now.
I think it is very dangerous, to look at the problems ISIS seems to cause amongst the youth around us, as something that is just linked to groups like ISIS and therefore as something we might be able to defeat on the battlefield. Members of coming generations are going to take up arms again and fight their own fight. ISIS is going to disappear. And the radical forms of religion are going to grow out of fashion amongst many young people. But religion is just some banner to unite under in a world that seems to hate you.
Claiming or denying responsibility for things that happen, seems to have become almost an art form.
Imagining a criminal, confessing to a whole bunch of crimes he did actually not commit, is quite an extraordinary thought. But this is pretty much normal, if it comes to certain terrorist organizations. It appears as if ISIS in particular, claims almost everything at one point or the other. Sure, there are the official looking ISIS channels who seem somewhat more cautious, but even they did claim responsibility for the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando for instance, where the perpetrator in part seemed to have been motivated by his inability to cope with his own sexual orientation. OK, if I think about it, this might exactly be the reason that incites a huge chunk of religious violence, but normally this is not the stuff a group like ISIS wants to be openly associated with.
The point is though, that Islamist terror groups tend to claim responsibility for far more attacks and events, than what they have actually organized. The attacker in Orlando might have mentioned ISIS in a phone call, he made to the local police during his attack; so, he might have been inspired by the Islamic State; but if we look into it, there seems to have been little actual relationship between the attacker and the group he did mention. Inspiring someone and being fully responsible for his actions, are indeed two separate things.
One the other extreme we find Russian president Vladimir Putin. Whenever someone makes any claim of Russia being involved in anything, Putin instantly seems to deny any connection. Be it meddling in the US election, the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine or the killing of figures of the Russian opposition in Russia and abroad, he instantly denies any involvement and frequently calls the accusations conspiracy theories.
Neither Putin nor ISIS are stupid, let alone inexperienced, so rather than dismissing their difference in style as merely a personal preference, one should look at this as a strategic decision.
A terror group like ISIS tries to spread terror and fear, precisely to extend its otherwise very limited reach. Claiming responsibility for a multitude of events – these do not necessarily need to be attacks – does make sense. Especially in a media environment with an ever-shortening attention span. The way events are perceived is decided in the first couple of hours, until the whole media circus moves on. So, by pretty much claiming everything almost instantly, some claims might make headlines and that is all ISIS needs. That way, ISIS is more of a claim-machine than one that needs to orchestrate terror.
To law enforcement or the judiciary system – and to the victims – it is important to determine, if something had been an attack and who was behind it. But the panic element, that makes terror so devastating, relies on fast paced judgements. If prosecutors, weeks after an event, find out that a blast had been a technical malfunction, the battle over our perception has already been lost.
The reaction of denying any wrongdoing seems quite “reasonable” as well. If you deny any involvement in anything evil, that might limit your liability. Every two-year-old knows that. It becomes odd, when everyone knows that you are lying. Take for instance the fighting in Eastern Ukraine that goes on for years now. Putin denies any support for the so-called separatists. That seems odd, since the lack of support by official channels in Russia make it very hard to explain, where all the shiny new Russian tanks and small-arms are coming from.
Everyone knows, that there is support from within Russia and either Putin is extremely naïve, or he is lying. But constantly lying might in fact be a clever political move. People know that you do at least some of the things people claim you do. By appearing untrustworthy to your opponents – in Putin’s case the West -, people might start to believe that you are responsible for almost everything. You might become the focus of a conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories are funny, since, when you fall for them, they always seem to be directed against you. I have yet to find a person, who thinks that there is a conspiracy going on that aims at making his life better. That way, these conspiracies are always aimed at something extremely powerful, lurking in the shadows. But what if you are at the receiving end of such a theory? To some groups – i.e. the Jews, Freemasons, Communists -, this can have dire consequences. But if you are an organization that holds real power and whose job it is to use that power, people associating even more power to you, might certainly have some benefits.
I believe for instance, that American institutions, like the NSA and CIA, that are constantly under suspicion, do certainly realize that this conspiracy theory that is associated with them isn’t necessarily the worst thing. There are quite a few people, that almost believe in the omnipotence of these US agencies. And you do not want to pick a fight with such a powerful organization willy-nilly. That way, the CIA reaches parts of the world, where there is no agent present.
Strangely claiming everything and denying everything might create a similar outcome. It widens your reach. But the constant claim is the tool of the weak and the constant denial is the tool of the actor, people already think is powerful. There comes the point, where you should start switching from one to the other. If you have widened your virtual reach to a point, that people start believing in your godlike powers, it might become favorable to deny everything.
In light of the recent terror attacks, I believe that the media is obliged to report these attacks with a high level of care. The reach of terrorism is always extremely limited and terrorist organizations heavily rely on the media attention their attacks create to spread fear. The role of the media should not be to widen this reach, but moderate it.
These are some guidelines I believe might be important to follow.
– Treat it as a crime, until local law enforcement says it has been a terror attack.
– Ignore statements by ISIS, al Qaeda and such. What they are saying is propaganda and should therefore be ignored. By repeating their statements, you spread propaganda and therefore make the attack more successful. Just because they make the claim, that they have orchestrated something, does not mean anything.
– People feel the need to upload videos and images taken during attacks. Other people have the urge to search for these videos. Refrain from using these videos. The information value of these videos for the public is extremely limited, unless your goal is it to show people in distress.
– Images of the perpetrator should only be used when law enforcement asks the media to do so. What you might believe is reporting is in fact a glorification of attackers?
– Report facts and not feelings. Of course, people had been confused and scared during the attack. There is no point in putting emphasis on that, unless you wish to spread fear and uncertainty further.
– Only report things that are important for the public to know. Overreporting makes things more difficult for law enforcement and makes it harder for the public to understand.
– Try not to report everything law enforcement does live. If you want or not, you might help the attackers.
– If the whole event is still unfolding, does the general audience really need to know the names, genders and ages of the victims? Let the families come to terms first and then, later, we might join them in their grief.
– If you make a claim, that later proves to be false, at least have the decency to report your correction with a similar emphasis than your original statement. Otherwise the misleading claim is going to stick with the audience.
What makes terror so devastating is not the reach of a certain blast or the number of people killed; it is the way it manages to embed itself deep into our perception. It makes us scared and keeps us preoccupied with an idea of constant danger.
This feeling of terror has to be understood at a personal level. Each one of us is a possible target that might be overwhelmed by this feeling. Only at a later point would the reaction of our society as a whole be of interest.
We personally feel threatened. Terror is this invisible threat that seems to be directed at people like us and therefore might harm us any moment from now. So being afraid almost seems to be a valid idea. The way we feel these threats apparently needs no explanation to be real.
What is much harder to grasp, is to understand threats that are directed at people, we do not associate with – others. Empathy might enable us to get a hint of what the other person might experience, but even with an empathetic approach, there is little present of this deep-seated feeling of terror.
This feeling of terror is linked to phobias in that the threat might be real, but my reaction has little connection to the level of the threat. I for instance am afraid of heights. To some extend that is a valid fear, since falling off a ladder might carry some dire consequences. But most people don’t just fall off ladders. Accidents happen, just not all the time. Normally being careful should be enough. My phobia does not care though. Standing next to a ladder and looking up, very often the fear of the height feels illogical – even to me. Once I try to ascend it though this question of whether it is logical or not completely disappears. Friends of mine “know” that I am afraid of heights. Can they understand it? I have my serious doubts. They are be able to see the same threat I do – falling off a ladder – just it does not seem to be similarly directed at them. For them, “being careful” is all that is needed.
With the way Islamist terror currently has a firm grasp on media attention, it is somewhat hard to see that there are other, quite similar, threats aimed at other groups. And this, I believe, is a very serious issue. If we look at racist violence against immigrants, the drone warfare by the US in different parts of the world or the police violence in the US against people of color and so on; these are all things that cause a similar form of anxiety in those who feel under threat. I am not saying that police violence in the US is a terrorist operation, but it does certainly create the feeling of being terrorized in those who feel targeted. The threat become something that is unavoidably directed at you.
I recently had a discussion with an openly racist person here in Germany. He did not deny that there were “some” acts of violence against refugees in Germany, what he denied though was my claim that this is terror quite similar to the terror by Islamists. For him one thing is merely a series of criminal events and the other stuff is pure terror. This is what I tried to explain earlier. Terror is very hard to see if it affects others. Or, to phrase it differently, terror is what affects you.
Most of us will never become victims of terror attacks. Most refugees in Germany will never be harmed by Nazis. Most Afghans are never personally harmed in drone strikes. And most people of color in the US will never be harmed by police. Yet, the feeling of terror that unites these groups, isn’t entirely baseless. There are people that are harmed or killed. And the feeling of terror is real. So how should we address this?
Even though this is hard, we must try to separate the personal level from the level of society. The events that cause terror, like attacks by ISIS and Co, attacks by Nazi on refugees, the police brutality, these are real life events that have to be addressed. This should be the job of lawmakers or law enforcement. But the terror itself, in that it exists on a personal level of perception, is trickier to address. We see the main problem already. If we look at a country like Poland that hasn’t seen a single Islamist terror attack and that has a minuscule number of Muslims, we might still be able to find a similar level of terror in ordinary people, then within a society that suffers heavily from this kind of attacks.
So, if even the absence of terrorism is no guaranty for the disappearance of the feeling of terror, not too much hope should be spent on extremely tough laws and wide-reaching surveillance. Even outrageous demands like the deportation of all Muslims would just not help. The terror is a feeling that rests in us and it is quite hard for the government to rescue us from ourselves. On the contrary. Us, being afraid, is quite handy. Laws and restrictions are easily argued for and populism feasts on it.
The lack of empathy – or the limited reach of empathy – makes things quite difficult to cope with. When different people with different fears communicate, quickly it feels like both sides just won’t take the other side seriously. When Germans show their fear, when a terror attack takes place, and refugees do not show a level of outrage that is considered adequate, this is understood either as their them being complicit or them lacking compassion. But the same could be said the other way around. When refugees are under attack, so many Germans just do not seem to care? Are they complicit? Do they lack compassion? Some certainly do, as do some of the refugees in the first example. But I believe that most just do not really understand that the whole thing is that big of a problem.
Take the troubles in Israel and Palestine. Just imagine that both sides might be right and both sides might do wrong. It could be, that some of the actions both sides undertake, might be understood as acts of terror on the other side.
Some time ago – late 2014/early 2015 or so – there appeared a mod pack for the shooter game Arma III that allowed you to play the game as a member of ISIS. In case this needs some explanation, mod packs are software additions to computer games that enable you to change the appearance or the rules of a game beyond the things normally available. Very often these mod packs can be created by anyone technologically savvy enough and are meant to broaden the community appeal of games. Very often this creates almost entirely new games on the framework of the original one.
Here though, in the case of Arma III, a shooter by a Czech company, that would normally focus more on a western perspective, all the sudden became something very different. That is at least the way the media picked up on the story.
I must confess I did not follow the story back then, but from what I find on the Internet today, it seems more likely to me that at the time a group of script kiddies was merely trying to give the game they were playing a very contemporary appeal. To me that makes sense. Late 2014 saw the emergence of the Islamic State as it swept through huge chunks of Syria and Iraq. It still had a lot of sex appeal to it – so much so that even Vice Magazine reported on it in their fancy style. I have even found a quote in a forum that discusses this mod, where someone comments: “The IS units on the other hand are based directly off of footage from VICE News.”.
The true terror was not fully revealed and neither was the true extend of the oncoming struggle. It just must have seemed like something that was out there and that was new. I might be completely wrong, but from the way I have seen ISIS propaganda develop, 2014 seems to be too early for them to produce this kind of mod pack. But it would have been a great story, since this would have perfectly followed the narrative that ISIS is a highly-sophisticated organization, that follows the US Military in its footsteps.
The US military has indeed quite a history of using computer games as a means to recruit young men (mostly men). The game “America’s Army”, that in 2002 started a whole series that continues up to today, would be a classical example. Targeting young men through computer games – they definitely know their audience!
It certainly would make sense for ISIS and Co to utilize similar mechanisms and I am quite sure that you would find plenty of people who ended up fighting in Syria or Iraq, that indeed did play with the ISIS mod pack, but most people who played it would have since then just moved on to other games.
That does not mean that these groups do not utilize digital techniques, beyond video and photographs, when it comes to the creation of their propaganda. For instance, groups close to ISIS have, in the past, released at least two apps that were aimed directly at children. So maybe a full-scale computer game might be too big of a task, but relatively simple apps are certainly within reach.
The thing that brought me to write this brief text isn’t something interactive, but rather a 6 ½ minute long video that is entirely computer generated. I have seen other examples before, where these visuals appear, but so far these made up only parts of the video and were always of a very questionable quality.
What is fascinating about this new video is, that it tries to resemble closely a common type of propaganda videos, that makes up quite a big part of the propaganda output at the moment. These videos show attacks by little remote controlled drones on soldiers and fighters in Syria and Iraq. The parallels drawn to these videos are striking. The first scene shows two soldiers launching a drone. This drone flies through a dessert landscape and carries out a series of attacks.
It is already striking that the way these attacks – the ones in real life – have spurred an iconic way to depict them. Shot from straight above the first shot shows the bomblet being dropped, then the scene same scene is repeated with the image zoomed in to show the target more clearly and give an idea of the result of the attack. Naturally, since the zoom is done digitally in retrospect, the footage of the second part is quite grainy and shaky – even this is reproduced in the animated video. That I find quite fascinating.
Even though this video looks quite sophisticated – and to some extent this certainly need some skills –, upon closer inspection it becomes clear, that this is very much related to the example of the Arma III mod pack. Similar story, different game. It is quite clear that the basis for the video is the latest edition of the Grand Theft Auto series of games. The landscape shown therefore is not originally meant to represent the Middle East, but rather a fictitious Island that is modeled after California. A clear hint is given when a truck is shown and the license plate reads “San Andreas”. This is the name of the main city in the game.
Still, even though much of the work was done using a preexisting game that provides many of the graphics, it would have taken quite a bit of work to create this video. Why bother? Especially, when it tries to copy many of the scenes available as real-life footage? I can only provide some guesswork. One detail worth mentioning is that the Telegram channel that uploaded this video. Was none of the “more official” ISIS channels. And even though it uses the flag ISIS uses as a logo, this flag is on the left side of the image (as far as I have encountered it is always on the right) and the name “Al-Haqq Media” does not ring a bell. I have never heard of this media outlet (please remember that there are in fact different “official” media outlets in the ISIS sphere of influence), nor does a quick Internet search provide much information.
So, the source might be just an enthusiastic individual, or a group of people who have little, if any, real connection to ISIS. But that is so important to me. I find it fascinating that the propaganda that emanates pot from the Middle East has already become iconic in itself. I have mentioned quite a few examples before (the way people are executed, the way suicide attacks are filmed, etc.), yet here, the whole genre of Islamist propaganda, is copied into another medium. The way the storyboard of this short film is developed could serve as the blueprint for a huge chunk of storyboards found in terror propaganda at the moment. True, there are also different types of videos, but the one this resembles (Preparation – Drone Strike – Car Bomb shown – Suicide Attack – Execution of a Prisoner in Orange) is extremely common at the moment.
But then it also reveals the bigotry of people involved in the creation of this kind of propaganda. Of course, whoever has created this video has also played the game. That is just something you do. You are not going to buy or download Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a video editing program with the sole intention to produce a ISIS style propaganda video. You have to play the game first to see its full potential. And the worldview represented by such a video game – love it or hate it – certainly has little to do with the world view of ISIS. And no, I am not going to agree with people who are going to say: “That makes so much sense, ISIS calls for violence and Grand Theft Auto calls for violence, therefore both are related.”. Games like GTA are about violence, they let you envision violence. That is nothing new. The medium is, yes, but there have always been tales of violence and brutality been told within our cultures, very rarely were they meant to incite violence.
Last month, the team of Arte Tracks came for a visit to my studio. The short piece they have produced has been released to YouTube. Unfortunately embedding the video is blocked, so I just post a link to YouTube.