After a recent talk at the Re:Publica 17 conference in Berlin, some people criticized I was criticized that I was trying to get cheap laughs out of the audience. The topic of the presentation was about the visual culture of jihadist groups. To some extent, I was certainly carried away by my presentation – as I normally are -, so I am guilty in that respect. Do I believe that ISIS videos are funny? Well, I absolutely do. More than that, many of the videos and many of the scenes shown are just hilarious. Does that mean that they are not terrible? No, they are terrible and brutal and disgusting – yet hilarity and brutality do not necessarily live in separate spheres.
I could come up with many examples for both, the brutality and hilarity – and even for as many examples, where both extremes meet directly in an environment of absurdity -, but counting or comparing is really not important here. How many funny scenes would equal a terrible on? Treating it this way makes little sense to me. And it would completely miss the point, why I believe that it is very important to treat these videos and documents lightheartedly.
Talking about these videos as if they would be just one homogeneous entity is somewhat simplifying; I am aware of that. Sorting them into different categories under different themes, and analyzing the different goals they might aiming for, is very tempting and as a matter of fact, I do this quite extensively; but here, I would look at these videos, as if they were aiming for just one goal. Instilling fear. And since I am writing this from a Western perspective, I am focusing on the attempt to instill fear in the West.
Judging by the political climate and media reporting in many European countries, Islamist terror groups are currently quite successful in that regard. Having the occasional terror attack certainly helps in the creation of fear, but the propaganda is plays an important role. I am even making the case that the terror attacks themselves should be classified as another form of propaganda.
Terror, pretty much by its definition, feeds on our fears; it needs us to be afraid to work at all. Killing people does have an impact, but this impact is very limited. Propaganda tries to extend this reach. I have mentioned this on this blog very briefly before, but I think that propaganda itself is a sign of weakness. It is the attempt to extend the reach into otherwise unreachable realms. Systems, who heavily rely on propaganda, reveal that they have little influence on parts of the world or parts of our minds, they are trying to occupy. If the words Fascists or Stalinists struggle to make people happy by providing them with the basic needs, to fulfill their urges for freedom or prosperity, they are always relying on propaganda to reach them by other means.
In this respect, terror propaganda, that merely tries to instill fear, is much cruder. Spreading fear, when there is little to be afraid of, is much simpler, than spreading the idea of a wonderful life that is contradicted by the harsh reality that surrounds you. Scaring people is much easier than to make them happy.
There are different ways to let terror propaganda suffer. The simplest way would to just ignore it. Stop reporting about it and that would be it. But in our current 24-hour media cycle, this could never be implemented. Hour long news shows have to be filled. Breaking news must constantly flash our screens. And in-depth analysis has to be written. Plus, not reporting on the propaganda that is aimed at us, would in fact be a kind of censorship.
I am not saying that this constant reporting on the slightest bit of propaganda or any attempted terror attack somewhere is a good thing. It is not. In fact, this over-reporting is the stuff of nightmares, since this is precisely what fuels the fears within our societies. I am saying that, blocking the reporting is not feasible and blocking it might backfire in unintended ways.
But, besides being noticed and reported on, another key element that is necessary for terror propaganda to spread fear is that it is taken seriously. Apparently, this is something that can be quite easily achieved. As a society, taking pity in the suffering of others, is a key element for the functioning of our social structure. This is what many of the terror threats and terror attacks aim for. While showing people suffer in their videos, while making them suffer during their attacks, terror groups grab our undivided attention. We have come to accept that, once suffering is involved in an event, we must block out all the other aspects that might be visible.
Once people are grieving, right response is to join in and grieve with them – that is the rule. That is true and important. But prohibiting ourselves from finding another narrative for these violent attacks or brutal videos is a missed opportunity to disable many the mechanisms that make them function.
Terror is brutal and violent and as long as we feel terrorized, it remains what it wants to be: Terror. As soon though, as we stop taking it seriously, it does not lose any of its violence or brutality, but it stops being terror.
We can already see part of this at play during some of the last terror attacks in Europe. Take for instance the Christmas market attack in Berlin. The mood in the city did not change all that much. Or, it did change, but life did not come to a standstill as had happened as a reaction to other attacks. Life went on and that limited the reach of the terror attack by quite a bit. It seems as if people did not take this as seriously as they did many other attacks before.
Humor, I argue, might drive this even further. C’mon! Many, if not most, of these videos are ridiculous. It might be tricky to see at first, with all the moral blocks in place, but once one manages to overcome some hurdles, it becomes obvious.
It is the stuff I would have come up with as a teenager, when someone had asked me to scare the shit out of people. There are so many funny and absurd elements and we should wet ourselves laughing, while watching them. There should be enough room to grieve with the victims and the ones they have left behind, but I truly believe that it is our civic responsibility not to take this shit seriously. Because if we did, they would have achieved their goals and terror and fear would continue to spread.