In the past few months I watched many videos by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. That might not be the most tasteful of pastimes, but for me that I am extremely interested in the role images as a medium of communication play in our modern world, I consider it extremely important material. The more I look at these videos, the more details I see that are upon first notice quite baffling. I am very happy that almost all these videos are in Arab, so I am not distracted by that, plus, since their interpretation of Islam seems to be OK with slaughter shot in slow motion, but strictly opposes music, all you get on the audio spectrum is boring sounding singing. So there is little that distracts me from trying to look closely at these images.
The thing that did strike from the very beginning is that fact that these videos do exist at all. The most conservative interpretations of Islam – and ISIS definitely wants to be counted amongst them – has serious issues with the depiction of sentient beings. And some fifteen years ago, the Taliban in Afghanistan killed photographers for breaking this rule. (They also hired photographers to portrait their fighters it the most kitsch way possible – but that was supposedly for internal use only. Just google for “taliban portraits”). But ISIS wants to be oddly modern. So besides the war against the West, there is also a war amongst islamist groups that is prominently fought on social networks with the help of phones and GoPro cameras.
But the oddity of the whole situation does not stop here. Once the islamists were those who opposed the use and spread of images. Today that role is part of the western reaction to the (perceived) rising threat of terror. These videos are hard to find, sharing them is illegal and having them on your hard drive definitely causes suspicion. In the UK some kids already have been sentenced to time in jail for sharing propaganda PDFs. So the iconoclasm is turned on its head. Now these images are banned in the West.
It seems key to all sides involved in this conflict, what images are shown and what are censored. ISIS seems to have no issue with showing bodies blown to bits – even with those of their own comrades. Something western media would definitely not show. But once a boxer short is shown or – God forbid – a naked belly. ISIS propaganda kicks in and things get blurred. So quite often you’ll find that the boxer short is blurred but not the head-shot wound. And of course there are no women in ISIS videos. That is why, I guess, Germany is not so much in the focus of these propaganda videos than would normally be the case. Chancellor and defense secretary are both women – Merkel and von der Leihen – and are therefore off limits to even the most brutal film director.
But the other side – the West – censors in regard of its political and moral agenda. In fact the way ISIS produces these videos is hard to counter for the West. We have grown used to these kinds of wars being invisible. Drones and fighter planes seemed the weapons of choice and even though everything was carefully recorded on video, the results were classified top secret and hidden from view. So the audience became accustomed to the fact that there is nothing interesting going on, because nothing was to be seen. That strategy served as the basis for this whole conflict, the way the West intended to fight it. Hide the whole operation and pretend you are just after the bad guys. What better way to avoid the issue of collateral damage than to hide the whole thing?
ISIS on the other hand, does not care about collateral damage. The more the better. Shock is part of its propaganda machine. Shock might play a role in the US strategy of drone strikes, but that shock should be felt locally. “Shock and Awe” – the term used by the US military – is a local strategy. ISIS wants its shock to be felt everywhere. And of course it is intriguing to young men – maybe the most important audience group for ISIS -, to watch HD videos shot by remote controlled drone directly over some Syrian battlefield. If music were not banned by their interpretation, I am quite sure that many of these clips were set to Wagner or death metal. It does look like a video game, because these videos are directly inspired by a video game aesthetics.
I see another resemblance with video games. Might be hard to describe, but the way these videos become more and more brutal and the killings more and more “creative”, reminds me of a game sequel or the next horror movie within a certain franchise. A few months ago it might have been cool enough to shoot a poor guy in the head, but now the target audience wants more. Otherwise they are going to switch to another channel. Now you need at least a shotgun, or better still, you need to run over a guy with a tank. Or maybe shoot someone from close up with a rocket launcher.
It would be absolutely wrong to blame video games for any of that violence. Anger does not come from video games. Nor did it come through movies or books before. Media teaches us the way to express ourselves. And different mediums teach us different things. It is quite easy for someone who has never played video games or watched action movies, to blame them for the hard-to-understand way young people act. But it would be much harder for them to link the media they themselves consumed to the way they act within society. Young men are just angry and awkward and if they express this anger, they express it in a way media they have consumed taught them. Let’s forbid all video games and have young guys beat themselves to death with books instead.