Reporting about the Islamic State inevitably means watching its videos, but that’s not something I would wish on anyone. The group has created a public theater of death on the Internet — beheading people, drowning them, burning them, breaking their bones.
This extreme brutality is part of the Islamic State’s brand. It is meant to horrify, and it succeeds. The ultraviolent images serve to intimidate enemies and, to a disturbing extent, motivate young recruits. The jihadist “knights,” as they imagine themselves, have created a distinct form of modern communications warfare.
But such public displays of cruelty are hardly new or unique. People sometimes describe the Islamic State’s actions as “medieval” because they recall the public torture that was once common in the city squares of Britain, France and other European nations.
The Islamic State’s innovation has been to put this sort of mayhem online. The audio is narrated with Koranic phrases and backed by Arabic chants known as “nasheeds.” But the video images evoke a barbarism that transcends religion or culture. The jihadists stand alongside the German Nazis of the Holocaust and Torquemada and his confessor-priests in the Spanish Inquisition. The jihadists probably think they are emulating the U.S. waterboarding of al-Qaeda members. That was torture; it wasn’t a grisly public execution.
If you mute the chanting, you can see the fellowship that the Islamic State truly embraces. The group is the latest evidence of a near-universal human capacity to barbarize those seen as “others,” as nonbelievers, and treat them as a different form of life.
Over the past few weeks, the Islamic State has released several especially disturbing videos from Iraq. I’ll describe them by quoting the language used by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private monitoring service that collects and translates jihadist material.
A video from Nineveh province shows the execution of 16 suspected spies “by drowning them in a cage, shooting a car in which they sit with an RPG and immolating them, and beheading them with explosive cord wrapped around their necks.” Another video from Fallujah shows the execution of four alleged gay men by throwing them from the roof of a building.
The macabre images are celebrated by the Islamic State. The group’s al-Hayat Media Center last week selected the Nineveh burning, drowning and beheading as No. 1 on its top-10 list of videos from Iraq.
What is the root of these unspeakable actions? Philosophers and anthropologists have studied the question as a way of assessing human nature in its most raw and uncivilized form. Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor of literature, explored in her 1985 book, “The Body in Pain,” a process she described as “the conversion of real pain into the fiction of power.”
In medieval times, the venue for this show of power was usually a gathering place that was almost literally a theater. The sense of theatricality continues. “It is not accidental,” Scarry writes, “that in the torturers’ idiom, the room in which the brutality occurs was called ‘the production room’ in the Philippines, the ‘cinema room’ in South Vietnam, and the ‘blue-lit stage’ in Chile.”
French philosopher Michel Foucault saw the level of brutality in punishment as an index of the evolution of society. Gruesome public executions were common in Europe until the late 18th century. Slow, painful deaths were often part of the spectacle. The guillotine, which we now regard as cruel, was seen at the time of the French Revolution as humane because it was a “machine for the production of rapid and discreet deaths.”
Foucault described in his 1975 book, “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” the pre-modern penal ethic that now seems to have been embraced by the Islamic State: “Not only must people know [the punishment], they must see with their own eyes. Because they must be made to be afraid; but also because they must be the witnesses, the guarantors.”
European societies became modern and civilized when they replaced these bloody rituals with penal statutes that regarded prisons as “correctional” institutions, or “reformatories,” or “penitentiaries,” which Foucault warned had their own repressive character.
With their weird mix of modern and pre-modern, the Islamic State has revived the old practice of torture as a public exhibition — and given it the sheen of a video game.
We should separate audio and video when thinking about the Islamic State. The sounds may be drawn from Muslim tradition. But the images have no religion or foundation except as evidence of the tragic human capacity for taking pleasure in the suffering of others.