We are more exposed to images of war than ever before, but instead of being spurred into action, we have become passive viewers "The hostage has taken the place of the warrior. He has become the principal actor, the simulacral protagonist, or rather, in his pure inaction, the protagoniser of a non-war".
I am aware, I think, of the possible objections – moral, aesthetic, political even – to trying to imagine the consciousness of a hostage held by Islamic State terrorists in the last few seconds before being beheaded. Why would I want to do it? Surely, at the end of a year in which the public arena has been fully booked for grand guignol, the last thing anyone needs is such an intrusive – and arguably insensitive – speculation? May we not take this opportunity, on the verge of a new year, to sit back, relax, and turn away from the theatre of horrors – not, of course, because we don’t care about all this suffering, all this hideously violent discorporation, but because at least we know this much about ourselves: we may not be the most ethically motivated, caring, community-minded people around; however, we aren’t like them – we aren’t like those men in Raqqa who beat and burn and stone and rape and enslave and shoot and chop and cut: we aren’t evil. And surely, in the opinionated maelstrom we can all at least agree with David Cameron and Barack Obama on this: to cut off someone’s head is an act of such maleficence that it necessarily, in and of itself, renders those who do it evil; if by evil is understood a will-to-absolute-negation, a nihilism that metastasises through the failing body politic, leaving in its necrotic wake only dead-eyed zombies incapable of any authentic feeling.
Some attempts to understand these perverse and evil actions are similarly engaged, but for the most part our response to the hostage crisis that unfolded over 2014 was necessarily passive. Passive in part because our government wishes to retain its monopoly both on what it sees as the legitimate exercise of violence, and on the prerogative of mercy as well: there will be no ransoms paid for British hostages, while the knife wielded by the man who has been called Jihadi John will be parried – or so they assure us – by targeted air strikes against Islamic State forces, while our “commitment to the region” is re-emphasised in other ways.
So, our passivity – the passivity of civilians who depend on a professional army to assert our moral will, and the passivity in my case – and quite possibly yours – of citizens who have long since recoiled from the spectacle of this interminable conflict worthy of Orwell’s 1984: the so-called “war on terror”. In 2003, when the majority of the population opposed the invasion of Iraq, our government went right ahead, in the process confirming the sclerotic character of our ailing representative democracy. Inasmuch as Iraq is now a failed state, 2003 might be the year it began to disintegrate – or perhaps 1991 when Operation Desert Storm was launched to “liberate” neighbouring Kuwait. Then again, since successive Iraqi governments had been struggling to suppress Kurdish and Shia insurgents for the half-century before this, maybe Iraq began falling apart in the 1940s? But if the 1940s, why not a scant two decades before, when Iraq’s straight-line frontiers were established by the victorious allies, so slicing this arbitrary entity into being from the cooling corpse of the Ottoman Empire’s caliphate?
I set down this familiar postcolonial threnody not to force upon you the old liberal-internationalist nostrum culpa, but to draw your attention to the nature of our inextricability: so long as our government goes on dabbling in the region, and western oil companies continue to dibble for Iraqi oil, we are all kneeling in the desert, staring at the serrations on that knife; the very personal and intimate nature of these murderous beheadings calls to our attention – try as we might to repress it – the cold impersonality of the murders committed in our name; for, just as in recent decades the west found it profitable to outsource manufacturing production to low-wage economies, so our own moral accounting has in the short term benefited from a form of outsourcing: western governments no longer find it expedient to perpetrate violence closer to home (it makes for bad PR and restive electorates); yet in a globalised world the exercise of “legitimate” violence is the one monopoly they continue to operate. Perhaps one way of looking at the Middle East is that it’s one of the most productive “bloodshops” we have, a reliable supplier of conflicts that give the west a showroom within which to demonstrate its overwhelming firepower.
I agree, it doesn’t seem that way when you witness (and surely “witness” is the correct term) an insane man with blood on his hands, ranting into a passerby’s phone camera, having just attempted to behead Lee Rigby, an off-duty soldier, in a suburban London street. On 22 May, 2013, the two avenging Michaels, Adebolajo and Adebowale, armed with knives, cleavers, and that most potent symbol of modernity and mobility, a car, gave us a foretaste of this new phase in a conflict that – or so the prime minister has recently assured us – will last for generations. And why shouldn’t it? Because the presence in this country of a substantial Muslim population that feels, quite as intensely as its co-religionists in the Middle East, the humiliation of the umma, is rendered wholly problematic by a general refusal on all sides of the debate to acknowledge the truth: which is that mass immigration is predicated on the unswerving and interlocking logics of neoliberalism, globalisation and greed. Just as our governments outsource violence, and our businesses outsource production, so our ageing and deskilled population desperately requires a steady influx of the hungry and the competent to keep the whole show on the road.
The rhetoric the coalition has adopted in response to the implosions of Syria and Iraq, and the way these power vacuums have sucked in a number of would-be British jihadists, shows an intensification of the paranoia that has tormented the west ever since 11 September, 2001. Of course, the nice young lad in the corner shop who’s secretly plotting a terrorist attack is the lineal descendant of the red who used to slumber silently under your bed, or the Nazi spy who eavesdropped in your train carriage – when it comes to paranoia about enemies within, the British public has been match-fit since the late 1930s. That’s why it’s impossible to gauge the full range of our responses to the Islamic State atrocities without apprehending the nauseating disjunction between how connected we are and how impotent. It’s surely this psychological double-bind we’re tangled up in that makes us feel either a passionate sympathy for these men who are physically bound and about to suffer such barbarism, or indifference to their fate. We witnessed the emaciated corpses piled up like broken manikins beside the train tracks that led to Sobibór, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau; we saw the Vietnamese girl running along the muddy road, naked save for a cloak of napalm; we goggled at the poor souls who flung themselves from the smoking flanks of the twin towers – we’ve endured an entire lifetime of silence and passivity in the screaming face of annihilation, so naturally we’re well prepared to watch a video of a man having his head cut off.
For my own part, I first saw a man being beheaded when I was 15. The blade was a sheet of plate glass rather than a knife, but I saw it sever the man’s head, I saw that head fly into the air, I saw the man’s headless body crumple, and I saw the severed head come to rest with its wide-eyed and inscrutably dead expression. That this beheading took place in a cinema, at the climax of a horror film – the Omen – is, in terms of the queered problematic of our relationship with violence, part of the point. That point being: for the remainder of my life I’ve never needed to imagine what such an act might look like – I know already. I’m well aware the evidence of whether screen violence affects our moral and psychological wellbeing is conflicted – well aware, too, that if there’s one thing the liberal consensus in our society abhors it’s censorship of any kind; whether that be censorship of entertainment, or news reporting. But surely that’s part of our problem right there: we conflate different kinds of information – and their attendant imagery – because we have a compelling need to see ourselves as completely free; free to peek at the cultural smorgasbord, seeking out anything to titillate our jaded retinas – that this complete freedom necessarily comes with complete responsibility is something we conveniently tend to forget.
It was the late Andrea Dworkin, writer and feminist, who fundamentally changed my mind about another form of passive visual fodder: pornography. Her argument – especially when backed up by her very considerable and charismatic person – that pornography, far from being victimless (or some assertion of free speech), is in fact a virtualised crime scene in which producers and consumers come together to manipulate young women – and some young men – in the process wounding them emotionally, and sometimes physically, struck me and entered me with great force. Why? Because it was pushing at an unlocked door: I, like many another occasional consumers of pornography, never really managed to suspend disbelief – we knew they weren’t really enjoying themselves at all, that their ecstatic expressions were really the rictus imposed on them by rank exploitation. My conversion by Dworkin was in the mid-1990s, long before the web was spun worldwide and caught us all in its tacky filaments, but while I may have looked at pornography since, I’ve never been able to with a dormant conscience – let alone a clear one.
In addition, I’ve been increasingly alive to the ways in which other forms of visualisation are equally collusive. We may wish to believe that the sophisticated re-enactment of violent disincorporation, torture and murder for the benefit of the folks back home is at worst entertainment – and at best an element in the creation of filmic art (where would Scorsese be without a meat cleaver?) – but the fact remains: at the level of pure phenomenology, you are what you think; and if a sizeable proportion of your psychic content consists in such imagery, you are proportionately responsible for its propagation. It might be sophisticated to rely on the assumption of our own and others’ sophistication, saying: “Oh, yes, I know it’s a bit much – but people aren’t idiots, they can distinguish between real and fake violence,” but such fine discrimination is quite irrelevant when the realm of the unreal becomes coextensive, point-for-point, with the world in which the first-person shooters – whether they fight for the British army or Islamic State – are devotees of first-person shooters.
The ubiquity of the image in our lives, and the new ontology of imagery – first described by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard in the 1980s, and termed by him “simulation” – is the stage on to which Jihadi John and the other Islamic State murderers have made their swaggering entrance. Baudrillard’s contention was that with images so ubiquitous – and our reactions to them so instantaneous – a new world ordering of reality had come into being: the hyperreal. Lee Rigby’s botched decapitation may have been a trailer, but the hyperreal thing – when it came – was already well prepared for: on 19 August, James Foley was murdered, on 2 September Steven Sotloff was murdered, on about 13 September David Haines was murdered, on 3 October Alan Henning was murdered and on about 16 November Peter Kassig was murdered – this much we know, because the Islamic State propagandists, whatever other dissimulations they may be engaged in, have no reason to lie about these very publicly orchestrated atrocities. Indeed, such was the timing of the terrorists’ threats to kill these men, their attendant demands – addressed personally to Obama and Cameron – and the subsequent uploading to the web of what appeared to be their snuffing-out videos, a media-debauched onlooker could almost be forgiven – so accustomed are we to viewing contrived suffering – for believing this was an early-season reality gameshow whose producers had relocated the action from jungle to desert. Yes, I’m an Islamic State Hostage Get Me Out of Here! was compulsive viewing; true, nobody could actually see the desert tucker trials, or hear direct and in real time about the humiliation of having to shit while handcuffed to somebody else, but the important point is that no one who paid attention could be in any doubt that these things were actually going on.
However the question remained: should one, as a conscious, compassionate and engaged person actually look at these videos? One impulse to view the atrocities could be a search for moral validation: Yes, I really am utterly revolted by this; and I can definitely tell the difference between this and entertainment; QED, I must be a decent person. But any attempt to place the beheadings within such an ethical calculus flies in the face … of our own nonplussed faces. Because we’ve already tested ourselves against the video of Daniel Pearl’s beheading in 2002 – and should we have had any queasiness about the relation between the fictive and the real representations of this atrocity, there was a feature-length treatment of the sorry affair, directed by Michael Winterbottom and released in 2007. Even the al-Qaida operative who voiced over Pearl’s murder was savvy to our predicament; warning viewers that if their governments didn’t meet the terrorists’ demands – in this instance for the release of Guantánamo prisoners – such scenes would be repeated “again and again”.
And ours is the culture of the repeat, the freeze-frame and the slow-motion action sequence; ours is the highly advanced civilisation that developed the capability to put a camera on the nose of a laser-guided bomb so that, like Major “King” Kong (the deranged cold war warrior played by Slim Pickens in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove), we could “ride” – albeit virtually – the ordnance all the way down to its computer-selected target. It was this bizarre phenomenon, debuted on British television screens during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, that first alerted us to the full inception of an entirely new form of warfare. The Gulf war was also typified by feedback loops of mediatisation: US military planners reacting to information gleaned from CNN reporters in Baghdad, and those reporters then reporting that reaction. Baudrillard’s infamous series of essays, beginning with The Gulf War Will Not Take Place, were published in the French press in real time to coincide with the dissemination of imagery the philosopher believed constituted the hyperreal. By instantaneously controlling the collation and dissemination of imagery, the US military arrogated the power to make a movie about a global crisis at the same time as it created the crisis itself. This capacity for “fast history” was no mere prêt-a-porter propaganda, but a logical sequel to the virtualisation of the battlefield itself: electronic warfare and the use of computer simulation were precisely what allowed General Schwarzkopf et al to present the conflict as “clean”, “surgical”, and involving remarkably little loss of life. The images of military installations disappearing in a silent puff of smoky dust were bruited about, those that might have conveyed the horror of the Iraqi conscripts strafed in their thousands during the so-called “Turkey shoot” wreaked by American and Canadian forces on Highway 80 were nowhere to be seen.
Baudrillard’s main point about the Gulf war was that the only way to achieve an effective moral response – given its hyperreal nature – was to interrogate that reality, because none of its representations could any longer be considered as value-neutral mimesis. War reporting has always exhibited biases, but these were now effectively submerged in a continuously unfolding narrative of power and money. We would’ve done well to remember this when we logged on to the Daily Mail’s website and saw Alan Henning’s face staring at us framed in the deep-blue desert sky. We would’ve done well to have considered its full consequences before, elsewhere, we directed one little arrow-point to another little arrow-point and started the film running. As it was, by watching the videos of the hostages’ decapitations we laid ourselves open to the most profound and viciously circular revulsion: our chain was most definitely being yanked – on one end were western politicians decrying barbarity, on the other the Islamic State terrorists performing it; the trouble is, was, and will remain: they’re pulling in the same direction.
What is it we think about when we see a man about to have his head severed? Why is it that this particular form of execution so utterly disturbs and revolts us – surely any kind of premeditated murder is equally evil, and the suffering incurred in its enactment can only ever be open to a lesser charge?
If truth is the first casualty of war then conviction must be the second; I don’t imagine all of the men-in-black who strike attitudes for the camera in the Syrian desert are genuine believers. According to hostages who’ve been freed, the English-accented Jihadi John is the leader of a small gang of western-born jihadists who act as jailers and video producers; a grotesque sidebar to all of this is that his accomplices have, of course, been dubbed Paul, George and Ringo. John himself is, apparently, highly ideological, intelligent, and – which perhaps goes without saying – brutal. Besides orchestrating the hostages’ humiliation, torture and execution, Jihadi John has also been responsible for negotiating with possible ransom-payers; and it’s when operating in this capacity, surely, that any religious motivation for his actions must melt away to be replaced by the hyperreal dictates of Baudrillard’s simulacrum. And yet, when we see a man about to have his head severed what we feel, surely, is the recrudescence of our own dormant Judaeo-Christian worldview. The idea that the head is the seat of reason is almost universal in human cultures, but perhaps only in the west are we quite so wedded to a conception of our heads as repositories of a non-material reality more significant than the external world. This dualism may have become uncoupled from religious belief, but it remains fundamental to the western philosophic tradition; so much so, that when we fixate on those vulnerable heads, we cannot help suspecting the Islamic State’s evil Beatles of intuiting our thoughts and bespoke tailoring their grotesque mise-en-scène for us, and us alone.
For they know this is the disincorporation we most fear: the separation of the sphere of mind from that of the body – along with Descartes we retain certain knowledge only of this: I think, therefore I am. Moreover, when we accept that just as our meting out of violence on their co-religionists is ideologically motivated, so is theirs on us, the very headiness of decapitation still distracts us from just how many correspondences between us and them come together in a single action: the serrated blade drawn across the windpipe. We can be forgiven, surely, for wishing to sweep to one side our own long history of beheading; one that begins with swords and axes, develops through the invention of the Halifax Gibbet (the first medieval mechanical method of decollation), and ends 37 years ago when the guillotine fell for the last time in Beaumettes prison in Marseilles, severing the head of convicted murderer Hamida Djandoubi. Our own twisted conceptions of this method of execution stretch all the way from prehistory into the present: even as Charles Stuart knelt on the scaffold erected outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall in 1649, the regicides still believed that by beheading him they were symbolically – as well as actually – toppling the state.
If anything, in the west today we cogitate still more and act still less. The US military – with its British counterpart riding on its coat-tails – smites the benighted of the Middle East, while we sit and watch. The unwillingness of our governments to follow through and actually rule the populations they seek to subjugate is surely a correlate of our own passivity: they, like us, prefer to watch a simulacrum of imperialism rather than do the real thing. The collision between the most primitive and visceral violence and the most up-to-date media make us profoundly queasy: ever since these beheadings began, the twittersphere has been full of chirruping about Islamic State’s “sophisticated” use of camerawork and their information technology skills. It’s as if by emphasising the high production values of these snuff movies we somehow manoeuvre their makers back into our own pixellated fold, making of them just another group of innovative webheads. In all the scores of news stories I’ve read or heard about the beheadings, the emphasis on the technology of their visualisation has been egregious – yet surely it’s our own uneasiness that this registers: we know we need to get out more; we know we should stop slumping and staring and toggling and swiping and key-stroking. The jihadists get out – and they take their iPads with them; the use of the web to radicalise young British Muslims and recruit them to the cause is an established fact: if the medium is the message, the message in this case is a general blurring between the virtual and the actual; between thoughts and speech acts, between words and deeds.
We too stare at the reflection of our own heads outlined by the screen – then we click on the button and it dissolves into another image of another head about to be decerebrated. We stare into the evil abyss even as it stares back at us. In 1991, Baudrillard wrote: “The hostage has taken the place of the warrior. He has become the principal actor, the simulacral protagonist, or rather, in his pure inaction, the protagoniser of a non-war.” Responding to the new business opportunities offered by the web, the Islamic State terrorists understand their hostages first and foremost to be commodities: their videos are primarily neither sickening infotainment, nor ideological statement, but a means of facilitating online shopping: You paid for that hostage to be released … so we thought you might like to pay for this one … Seen this way, the sadistic drawing out of the victims’ deaths is simply what the market dictates, given the proven elasticity of our demand for their lives. The west outsources not only its violence, it also hires private contractors to do the dirty deeds on its behalf – while through the looking glass, al-Qaida, Islamic State and the other Wahhabist terrorist groups franchise their own brands to any gang of murdering rapists (or wayward British Muslim youths) who cares to apply. Yet despite this business drive, and the notionally bottomless thawb pockets of their Saudi backers, there is a definite limit to the amount of territory Islamic State can control – one they’ve just about reached.
Not that this will prevent western governments from further interventions; the air strikes on Islamic State targets may have the disagreeable side-effect of bolstering the Syrian tyrant, but our military’s terms of engagement are dictated – as I hope I’ve demonstrated – not by the facts on the ground, but the writing in the sky. New anti-terror measures have been introduced in the UK to fight the “blowback” from the conflict: British jihadists heading home are to be surveilled; while the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has announced that a new permanent British naval base will be built in Bahrain, and admitted that this is – at least in part – a direct response to Islamic State. As for Sir Nicholas Houghton, the chief of the defence staff of the British Armed Forces seemingly confirmed the government’s willingness to meet simulation with simulation when he said this: “Rather than being seen as a temporary deployment to an area for a specific operational purpose, this [naval base] is more symbolic of the fact that Britain does enjoy interests in the stability of this region.”
Second, third and fourth-generation British Muslims, growing up under its postcolonial aegis, must be confused by a society with no tolerance for the loss of its own soldiers’ lives that yet trades incessantly on this blood sacrifice and memorialises the fallen in the form of a moat full of pottery poppies. As they reach adulthood, and come to understand the British government has for decades actively colluded with the regimes in Riyadh and Islamabad that sponsor Islamist terror groups, they must be yet more perplexed. Travelling to Syria to fight, they must be further confused by the volte-face occasioned by this hyperrealpolitik: the British public has no stomach for practical measures to unseat the Assad regime, yet urges impractical ones to punish individual decapitators, such as Jihadi John, while passively accepting that their fellow citizens can be imprisoned for thought crimes. Once again, passivity is our key mode of being: we sit there, watching our enemies and listening to them inveigh against our decadent and commercialised lifestyles; then we execute a few deft keystrokes and either scrutinise people copulating, or engage in the pseudo-activity of a videogame, or possibly buy something, or perhaps share an image of a cute kitty with our friends (something the jihadists aren’t averse to either). You may have thought the opening passage of this essay was gratuitous in this sense: it trespassed on the feelings of those close to the murdered hostages, and in so doing committed solecisms of, at the very least, taste. But blowback doesn’t really do justice to the viciousness of the circularities we see worming about these men’s severed heads; no, what we couch potatoes are suffering from is the most acid imaginable reflux, as we chew the cud of our addiction to the pornography of violence and its consequences.
Filling in the gaps is what we do in our own severed heads – and our heads are severed: we live in a disembodied realm where, unable to move let alone act, we instead exercise our inalienable right to feel outraged. Even being compelled for a couple of minutes to actively sympathise with these men’s predicament was too much for us – we don’t want the responsibility it necessarily entails, it’s too uncomfortable; it forces us to think – it may even force us to act. I don’t accept the Islamic State’s invitation to a beheading because I have no wish to collude with their evil purpose, or the nefarious purposes of those that nominally oppose them, yet historically have been only too keen to foment violent Islamism. I won’t watch the beheadings because I know in so doing I would become conscious of our own isolation, as we kneel in our own virtual desert, keenly aware of the world’s eyes upon us, the mocking witnesses to our solipsism, confined as we are in our own overcrowded heads … This is what it feels like: the knife …