On Friday 26 September British MPs voted by 524 votes to 43 to back UK government plans to bomb Islamic State (IS) on account of its ‘staggering brutality’.
A week earlier the wife of the British taxi driver held hostage by Islamic State had appealed to his captors to find it in their hearts to release him. Alan Henning remains on IS’s death row, facing the possibility of execution following the televised beheading oftwo Americans and one British citizen.
A few days after her appeal, Islamic State sent Barbara Henning a recording of her husband pleading for his life. Since she had only recently entered a heartfelt plea for mercy on his behalf, the IS response seems peculiarly heartless.
But if there is a staggering absence where you’d expect their hearts to grow, what is it that has led to such heartlessness among IS militants?
The staggering brutality of the West, is their answer; inflicted on (Sunni) Muslims everywhere to such an extent that their own form of staggering brutality is the only course of action left open to them.
But the West has been brutal to non-Western peoples for far more than a hundred years, promoting or suppressing them in its own interests, and not counting the cost (to them) – all this without often prompting such brutality in return.
On this account, the particular character of Islamic State remains unaccounted for.
Neither does the region’s natural environment offer a credible explanation. The desert sun was equally relentless seven thousand years ago as it shone down on ‘the cradleof civilisation’ in the territory now occupied by Islamic State. Likewise, the brutal heat ofthe midday sun may account for crucifixion as an ancient method of execution, but it does not explain why IS has only now set about resurrecting it.
Neither imperial history nor the forces of nature can explain the ‘staggering brutality’ of IS.
Perhaps the IS brand of staggering brutality has been prompted by iconic images of‘staggering brutality’. Could it be that IS personnel have become saturated with violent imagery, prevalent throughout Western and now global culture, provoking them into a militantly puritanical backlash on the one hand, and on the other hand inviting thesimultaneous enactment of ultra-violent fantasy?
There may be some truth in this. For example, the televised beheadings carried out by ‘Jihadi John’ are not just killings on camera; they amount to killing for social media – more narcissist than terrorist.
But this cannot be a sufficient explanation. By definition, media images can only mediate. Even if they appear self-sufficient – a world unto themselves, they actually exist in the middle, between one pre-existing thing and another.
Accordingly, even if IS acquired its brand of brutality more from media profanity than holy scripture, the question remains: what – if neither imperial history nor the force ofnature – are the first order factors which have led to a second order response in theform of media-oriented violence, up to and including the iconic images produced by Islamic State?
There is no space here to explicate fully my nominations for these primary roles. In this short think-piece I can only name them as implacable capital, the global, social force which is indeed socialising but at the same time inhuman and dehumanising. And thede-humanisation of politics, i.e. the demise of the collective activity which previously served to re-humanise us in opposition to capital; now reduced to the zombie politics ofminority managerialism and mass disengagement.
Thus in between the longstanding agency (capital) which regularly reduces human beings to objects, and the newly intensified absence of agency (zombie politics) which again reduces us to objects, there emerges a set of cinematic killings in which human subjects are subjected to ‘staggering brutality’.
Step forward ‘Jihadi John’, media icon, and the staggeringly photogenic brutality of IS.