Posted by Matthew Barber on Friday, February 6th, 2015
The following is not research or analysis, but a few reflections on the film released by IS in which Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh was burned alive inside a metal cage. I won’t claim that my moral reflections are especially profound, but I believe the traumatic nature of this event warrants further conversation.
Horror and Trauma
The anthropologist Talal Asad has famously asked what it is about certain kinds of violence, such as suicide bombing—and we can extend the question to IS’ regular use of beheadings—that evokes greater horror in observers than state-administered violence, which can often be further-reaching or more massive, as in the case of war. I don’t have an answer to the question, but this video, perhaps the goriest that IS has produced so far, was brutalizing to watch and is very capable of effecting trauma. Produced with audio and visual effects to resemble a horror film, the video is abusive to the viewer. By turning killing into theater, IS has uncomfortably blurred the lines between reality and performance. Beyond empathizing with how painful such a death must have been, I couldn’t help wondering what was it like for Muaz to die as the eyes of several cameras stared into him.
By viewing the footage, IS does a kind of violence to me—or perhaps I am doing violence to myself by choosing to watch. There seems to be something problematic about becoming consumers of this horrific product that IS pushes. Does that extend to the political analyst? The intelligence analyst? Who legitimately needs to consume this product and who should not view it?
Though some experts will inevitably have to analyze this kind of material, promoting it to the public is reckless and harmful and will only help IS do violence to more people. On Tuesday, Fox News posted the entire, uncut video on its website and even aired portions of it on television, something no other media outlet would do.
There’s some irony in Fox News—with its avowedly “anti-terror” agenda—featuring uncut IS propaganda on their website, as others have noted. Also ironic is that some of the images contained in the lengthy propaganda video are of some of the more scandalous incidents during the Iraq War, when US soldiers killed unarmed civilians. These are not the aspects of the war that Fox News would normally draw attention to. The fact that major elements within our country cannot take responsibility for the more uncomfortable aspects of the war, yet then inadvertently provide them to the American public through the lens of a terrorist entity, verges on the absurd.
There seems to be a kind of misuse of this heartrending film as Fox News pursues its own agenda. One wonders what the motivations are for publicizing the video to the American people when an English translation wasn’t provided. Without context, viewers might make dangerous assumptions based on this video—like that their Muslim neighbors next door support such sickness. This film necessarily produces anger on the part of the viewer—but to be directed where? Fox News is spreading material capable of traumatizing those who ingest it, without helping them make sense of it. Perhaps they prefer not to translate the propaganda portion of the film, which might raise uncomfortable questions that are easier to avoid.
The images of Iraq war violence (that more Americans should have been exposed to and discussed long ago) now being transmitted by Fox News are made more tragic in that they are being presented through the lens of IS’ even more twisted logic. IS includes these images as justification for their own atrocities. That violence can heal is a lie that perhaps humanity may one day outgrow, a lie that now forms the basis of IS’ assumptions about the world. (Even this video was entitled “Healing the Believers’ Chests.”) IS exposes its broken reasoning when, in its videos, it showcases the dead bodies of those targeted by its enemies, apparently to justify its gory executions, yet ignores the countless victims it has similarly killed across Iraq and the Levant, many of whom had never lifted a finger against it.
Just as IS members are misled in thinking that violence can produce healing for the Sunni victims of Iraq War violence, we are also misguided in assuming that revenge will produce healing for IS victims.
Jordan responded to this brutal message by quickly executing Sajida al-Rishawi, convicted of attempting a suicide bombing in Jordan, and Ziad al-Karbouli, an al-Qaida leader.
Jordan’s immediate reaction to the burning—“OK, then we’ll kill some Islamists”—worries me. This logic of revenge isn’t that far off from that which underpins IS’ own thinking.
Offenders should be dealt the appropriate penalties for the crimes for which they’ve been sentenced (and I’m not suggesting that capital punishment is acceptable), but not kept on hand until their killing will serve some political purpose. Jordan’s execution of the two Islamists has turned violence into a political tool. Admittedly, that is often the case with violence, yet the violence of the state is, in theory, supposed to transcend the impassioned reactions of individuals, keeping with its assumed role of impartially dispensing justice—which might be why its violence evokes less horror than that of a suicide bomber whose responsibility for acting to punish or exact revenge or effect change cannot be shifted to an institution.
Of course, in getting back at IS, Jordan did not burn in cages those it executed… because that would be wrong. If IS’ execution was directed at Jordan, and Jordan’s executions were directed at IS—both instances of killing intended to psychologically wound the other—the main feature differentiating these two acts is the manner in which they were performed. That these killings differed in form but not in purpose, it must be asked whether killing for such motives is acceptable at all. (One could argue that Jordan merely administered the penalties with which the criminals had been sentenced, but the points still stands that punishment is supposed to be meted out for crimes, not used as a political weapon.)
And now al-Azhar is calling for crucifixions of IS members, and to have their limbs chopped off. This is also unhelpful.
Al-Azhar is basically saying: “Yes, we’ll concede that these punishments you perform are Islamic, yet despite the fact that they haven’t been implemented in recent memory, we deem you to be those evil enough to warrant us bringing them out of the closet.” By calling for the crucifixion and limb-chopping of IS members, they are validating the same fundamentalist positions that IS appeals to, that under certain conditions these punishments should be used. If various groups and parties contend over who deserves to be crucified or subject to amputation, humanity won’t be making much progress. The bottom line should be that such treatment is wrong, and that resurrecting its use represents social decline, not advancement.
Both Jordan and al-Azhar’s reactions seem more akin to the sickness than to a solution. Allowing our disgust at IS brutality to define our response risks transforming us into their image, something that would spell victory for them and legitimize their war against the world.
Violence Is the Right Response
The immediate reaction of many upon seeing the video was a desire that efforts to fight IS be stepped up quickly. Today Jordan intensified attacks on IS targets, and the UAE has suggested they may resume their participation in the offensive against them. This is good: the response to IS does require violence, and it should be carried out swiftly and surely—not to satisfy the urge born of our rage and wounds, but to protect the earth and the innocent from this virulent plague. This latest video underscores the fact that IS must be eliminated, to ensure the future security of the region and the globe. This cannot happen without a fight, but it should be a fight of the right kind.
Is it possible to fight without hate? It may be difficult in the face of such callous oppression and cruelty, but it is the approach we must strive to maintain.