ISIS and The Limits of the Grotesque: The Anniversary Edition

Saturn Devourng His Children

The essay below was published in June 2015, when ISIS was still on the move and the greatest threat I saw (as an historian) was the danger to cultural patrimony. A number of blogs published during that period exhibited a worry that ISIS was the radical embodiment of Islam’s natural iconoclastic view of history, which sees the period before the Prophet as as aberrant and dark (Jahiliyyah ( جاهلية‎‎ ǧāhiliyyah/jāhilīyah or ignorance) and that all cultural tokens from that period  regardless of beauty, provenance, or antiquity–as idolatrous symbols of religious error.  The attack on these symbols extends from the destruction of the ancient buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, to the assault on Palmyra.

As ISIS’s territory shrinks, or seems to be shrinking, the culture commandos have decided to embrace a more diffuse and harder-to-control experiment, one that relies on individuals or small groups being “self-radicalized” against the Other, the vast numbers of non-Muslims who live in European and to a lesser extent American cities. It is still unknown whether this  last ditch effort to bring holy war to the “Crusaders” will have any permanent effect on the success of ISIS.  My guess is that it is a symptom of failure and contraction:  the flailing spasms of a movement suffering from a lack of good leadership and clear strategic goals. After all, the difference between a caliphate–a concept charged with theological and political significance in the minds of most Muslims–and murder is vast.  ISIS now seems to be  in the diminished position of needing to claim credit for te most vicious and successful of these attacks, making the perpetrators ex post facto “soldiers” in the army of God.

The following comments from June 2015, however, still have some relevance: Europeans and Americans, not to mention Indonesians, Israelis, Pakistanis and others–have probably reached saturation point with respect to the narrative of violence that ISIS has created.  The bloody and horrific images  coming out of the Micdle East, once confined to reports of the Arab-Israeli conflict, have now spread over the whole map of the Middle East and North Africa and far beyond, to Paris and Nice, to Brussels and Orlando.  Obama, Merkel, Hollande and Elio di Rupo merely look exhausted and from a political standpoint ineffectual.  The natural response to their  piled on clichés (“Our thoughts go out…”) and threats (“We will not let this stand…”) is ennui, not amazement.   For the great majority of people who see this violence on a computer screen or television, it becomes another episode in a series of stories with the same plot and the the same villains.  It has lost the element of surprise and it has ceased to  captivate us; it dulls our moral interest.  It has become normal.  The question then becomes, How can an enemy whose actions are predictably vicious awaken moral outrage sufficient to transact their defeat–especially when”defeat” in the conventional, measurable sense (the sort American conservatives rally for) is impossible and in the martyrdom culture within which it exists, not defeat at all?


STALIN  did not actually say “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.” But had he said it, he would have been right.

The mawkish anticipation of new and better terror after September 11, 2001 is one of the saddest commentaries on the rubber-necking proclivity of the human soul: the part that delights in seeing hurricane damage, fatal car crashes, planes lost from radar, and manned spacecraft decimated in the noonday sky. And, yes, beheadings and bombings.

While some of these catastrophes are what theologians like to call “natural evil”—things that happen without our being able to prevent them—like earthquakes and avalanches—and another portion accidental– there has been no shortage of what theologians (yet again) like to call “moral evil”: the man-against-man form of catastrophe. And as we all know, a reliable source of this kind of evil is religious extremism.

Interestingly, we used to call natural disasters “acts of God” (as insurance policies sometimes still do) and moral evil “man’s inhumanity to man.” That was until we realized that we did God no favours by saddling him with Nature’s quirkiness and that moral evil is nothing other than human decision-making at its most contemptible.

According to Alan Bullock (Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, 1993) the two leaders separately killed upwards of 15,000,000 non-combatants. Of the 5,000,000 Jews killed by Hitler, only about 170,000 were German Jews, the majority being exterminated in areas that would finally fall to the Soviet bloc. The number of people killed by ISIS varies wildly from between 60,000 to 170,000 using systematically unreliable sources. The number of ISIS fighters killed by all forces, including the US-led Coalition, has been put at 10,000. These are statistics, which as we know (according to either Disraeli or Mark Twain) are the superlative degree of lying. More significantly, however, statistics often do not horrify. They are meant to horrify but their real value lies in propaganda—to encourage the enemy to think his side is down in the score or to encourage voters to think their side is up.

In the long run, catastrophe is a matter of optics, not numbers—though numbers can help in the visualization of catastrophe if they are strewn on a battlefield or found floating in a flood plain. The 9-11 apocalypse was all the more effective because of its lack of visual morbidity: everyone knew that thousands of people were trapped in the inferno, but apart from a few isolated shots of people jumping from the 60th floor of the World Trade Center tower, the affect on viewers did not come from numbers but from the visualized reality of fire and pluming smoke–the instruments of death. This was scale and magnitude not witnessed since Hiroshima, and in terms of immediate effect as measured by viewership not even then.

Lacking the ability (as of now) to reproduce the grand and violent premiere of the Third Millennium, the new terrorists have resorted to different optics: torture, mass execution, beheadings of westerners, and the destruction of sacred archaeological treasure, valued more in the West than in the regions where it is situated. While the sheer number of these atrocities may be significant, they are far more significant because they are not statistics but symbolically grotesque occasions of horror. They are, in fact, market- tested ways to evoke horror in a way that the decimation of a Shi’a village or two will not do. It is maximalized optical downsizing, from the level of epic to the level of epithet, from the grand to the well-constructed small—in short from the statistical and abstract to the tragic and personal.

However. There comes a time in the rubbernecking business when the horror recedes or rather appetite wanes.. The sight of a head being held aloft by a masked man speaking the dulcets of central London begins to bore us. The sight of a hundred Yazidis, face down in a ditch created to be their mass grave and shot in the head, has been seen one too many times. Execution by bullet is suprisingly quick and dull, like swatting a fly and too clinical to be good theatre. The sight of sledgehammers being used on Assyrian icons is of interest only to the 3% of the population who know where ancient Assyria was and why anyone should care about its treasures, most of which have long since been carted off to the museums of Europe by academic thieves and explorers in a competition for colonial prestige. The only questions that can be posed is, Are these people savages? The answer is yes. Turn the page.

In other words, after a while, the outrageous ceases to be outrageous. One too many heads will have been severed. One too many truck bombs will have gone off on the way to a peace-loving, unpronounceable, faraway market town. Just as the line of traffic that clogged the road when the smell of death was crisp along the highway–the ambulances racing, and the twisted metal contorted into a death trap—the lookers and gawkers and commiserati will begin to move on. They will lose interest. This one is like the last one. Besides, they have to be someplace before 5 pm. They will lean on their horns, frustrated by the mess they have helped to create by their devotion to catastrophe.

The problem with the optics of terrorism is that we seem to be hard wired to reach of state of ennui about such things: Not another beheading. Not another village gone down the drain. Not another four hundred girls rounded up and fucked into conversion. It’s for the psychologist to explain why these peak experiences of the terror we are witnessing cannot be sustained or expected to hold our attention. But it must have something to do with the sense that we have seen this movie one too many times now. We know how it comes out.

The bad news is not for We the Curious but ISIS because there is every chance that the members of this community take themselves seriously and have begun to believe in their own invulnerability (and the attention span of onlookers and potential recruits). It is bad news because the recruits will sense the loss of affect before the leaders in Iraq and Syria realize they have lost the battle for religious hearts and murderous minds. They too will begin to wonder what happened to the audience, why the visual pornography they are peddling as part of their recruitment campaign has begin to look dull. The amplified chants will continue to ring above the beleaguered towns of Syria and the oases of Mesopotamia, but they will be hollow and fewer people will listen. ISIS will simply fall apart.

Not because any military operation will drive the last nail into the coffin of their irrelevance but because the onlookers will have become tired of the show. They will want the mess they have helped to create untangled. They will want to move on. It seems to me that is where we are, or are fast approaching, in this drama.

One thought on “ISIS and The Limits of the Grotesque: The Anniversary Edition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s