Media, Politicians should stop Letting ISIL Manipulate them

By Juan Cole

Ever since George W. Bush invaded Iraq and created the circumstances under which al-Qaeda could take root and flourish there from 2003 forward, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (which later styled itself the “Islamic State of Iraq”) has taken captives and has beheaded them on film. It was doing this in 2004

These acts of public brutality against a helpless individual are intended in part to announce that despite their military superiority, Westerners are not 10 feet tall and can be cut down to size. They announce leadership and encourage angry young men to join ISIL rather than one of its many rivals. They also push Western publics to demand reprisals. Reprisals in turn can be used by the radical group as proof to its followers that it really is being unjustly targeted by the big bad superpower. It is a passive aggressive form of terrorism.

For these reasons, I don’t typically talk about kidnappings or beheadings of captives at this blog. It is an artificial phenomenon carried out precisely for people to talk about ISIL.

In the UK, the killing of the aid worker David Haines by ISIL comes at a time when the government is divided. Foreign Minister Philip Hammond had said last week that the UK army military would not be aerially bombing ISIL. The PM David Cameron heard about this and contradicted it publicly. This show of disunity on the part of a prominent America ally is the sort of thing the “Islamic State” group is going for. Syria could actually be bombed in part because of ISIL’s barbarous action.

It seems to me that editors should refuse to play along with this sick game.

The fact is that almost no news organization covers the killing of American troops in Afghanistan any more. If it happens it is on page 17, and this had been the case for years. So let’s get this straight. The Taliban can actually kill US troops without our headlining the fact. But the slaughter of an innocent captive is front page news. These are editorial decisions, not acts of nature.

Related video:

RT: “‘ISIS killing far more Muslims than they can admit’

20 Responses

  1. Unfortunately the dramatic beheadings, intended to provoke media coverage both for their grotesqueness and because they confirm the dominant media narrative of Muslims as barbarous savages, generate precisely the response ISIL seeks. Expansion of bombing campaigns inevitably generate an abundance of local victims ISIL, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the villain of the moment can in turn use to generate recruits and support. Of course this facilitates expansion of conflict and assures there will be additional reporters or aid workers or aircrews in line for beheading. Both the victims of bombing and the victims of beheading thus play their sad, grisly parts in furthering a cycle of death and destruction assuring the continuance of conflict for the benefit of others.

    The same is true of Israel and Hamas. Generally forgotten is that at one time Israel supported Hamas as an alternative to the PLO. More recently, however, it has been useful to have Hamas as an enemy to be trotted out at Israel’s convenience. Three Israeli teenagers murdered? Must have been Hamas, a response generating hundreds of arrests, inevitable killings, and the certainty of retaliatory rocket fire. That in turn provides the rationale for a major attack on Gaza. That Prime Minister Netanyahu knew Hamas was not involved in the killings is beside the point. He sought an opportunity to mobilize domestic support for a confrontation providing cover and legitimacy for further expansion on the West Bank while generating pressure for collaboration by the United States. He got what he wanted on both fronts and now leaves a wounded but defiant Hamas to be used again in the future. The rest of us are pawns both parties of the conflict use to stir outrage and support against the barbarities of the other. American bombing of Syria will produce more recruits for ISIL and more advances and beheadings by ISIL will assure demands for expanded military operations in the Middle East.

    • Good post. The other thing most Americans don’t know is that Hezbilla did not exist before Israel invaded Lebanon in the early ’80s.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Cole, for your valiant effort to hold up your King Canutian hand and command the tide not to roll in. “If it bleeds, it leads,” especially if it’s gruesome and atavistic. Prayers for your instinct to spread, but…

    On the other hand, any reason to pay any attention to the headline on the video? As to what attracts all those people, now including “girls from good families,” to run away to join ISISILIQ? What social and psych impetuses move what should be comfy, well fed citizens of Orwell’s states to go enlist for their identities with the “successful” head-cutter-offers? Gee, what kinds of dissatisfactions and disaffections draw Good People into the Horde? And gee, by what “policies” and “interests” was the ground prepared for these dragons’ teeth to germinate and surprise!!! sprout so suddenly?

    Waiting on our collective failure to stop burning, and to control Ebola, and to stop the geometric proliferation of those other fatal viruses, AK-47s and M-4s and RPGs and SAWs and MANPADs, etc. to finish what a few of us started, and too many of us get off on and dive into…

  3. A little naive, surely?

    Western media and politicians promote these “propaganda of the deed” videos because they serve the purposes of powerful media and political figures in the west (usually to help manufacture consent for military action, for various ulterior motives). Not as an oversight or through naivety.

  4. Todd Gitlin

    ISIS wants to be feared, not loved. But they may have misread Machiavelli. Plainly they agree with M. that it’s preferable to (1)

  5. Todd Gitlin

    feared than loved. But didn’t read this far: “Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he doesn’t win (2)

  6. Todd Gitlin

    “love, he avoids hatred…” That said, what’s ISIS’s longer game? is. As you write they succeed in dividing the West. Also, (3)

  7. Todd Gitlin

    they think they’ve more to gain from beheadings (recruits, capture of Western weapons, rally anti-Western sentiment) than lose. (4_

  8. Precisely! Western media and government reactions to these beheadings seem totally out of scale. No question these murders are horrific and certainly devastating for anyone who knows, loves, or cares about these individuals. Yet those killed had chosen to put themselves in harm’s way, UNLIKE the many, many innocents and civilians who have been murdered since 2003 by all sides in the conflicts. ISIS has discovered a highly, highly useful tool to inflame Western media, governments, and populations.

  9. While they are promoting these hate-encouraging emotions and enthusiasm for more war, the mainstream media dutifully avoids applying the barbarism label to actions by our “friends” that are clearly barbaric.

    Mark Levine has a summary of our “allies” in the war against ISIS – link to

  10. I think you should talk about it in terms of a notion that I have observed… “A ten year rule”. The crazes of the ISIS were teenagers when George W Bush’s administration were proudly showing their shock and awe campaign in Iraq on TV. The crazies that did the 9/11 were teenagers when George H Bush (the senior) was proudly showing the “turkey shoot” of Iraqies in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict. Then there were some that had seen the Israeli brutality in Beirut and Lebanon few years earlier.

    Older people see these things as confirmation that they should just stay away from everything. But some among the millions of teenagers seem to make taking revenge as their mission in life. They do what we see. I hope President Obama is smart enough to stop this whole cycle.

    • You make an excellent point about the young jihadis reacting to shock and awe from earlier previous western imperial jihadis. Round and round it goes, and with news media stupidly blundering along with its usual witless standards.

  11. ISIL beheads people because it freaks out Americans for some totally irrational reason.

    Remember that the guillotine was considered a “humane” way to kill a human, so why is a knife any worse? Humans have killed other humans in far more painful ways for thousands of centuries (remember the Aztecs?).

    It is long past time for people to understand that the method of a person’s death really does not matter because regardless of the method, the person is dead.

    I know it sounds cruel to dismiss an individual death, but in a world where we regularly kill tens of thousands, why does a single death matter to the general population? Sure it matters to the persons close friends and relatives, but why should anyone else care? We all have deaths in our circle of friends and family (so far I have lost parents, a wife, a brother and multiple friends – I miss them, but have no anger over it).

    So why get upset by the death of a single person we do not ahve a close connection to?

    And even worse, why should the death of a few individuals cause a nation to do so much harm to itself?

    It is time to have a better perspective on the deaths happening in the ME. Yes they are sad, but no cause for the US to spend treasure (which we do not have) and blood.

    As a few lonely voices have said, if ISIL is so bad, then it is time for the Saudis , Jordanians, Iraqis and the rest in the ME to spend their treasure and blood to defeat ISIL, NOT the US.

    We should just ignore ISISL

    • “Remember that the guillotine was considered a ‘humane’ way to kill a human, so why is a knife any worse?”

      Spyguy, I hope you will never have to find out why beheading with a short blunt knife is far worse.

      • You missed the point.

        Regardless how a person dies really does not matter. People in the west put far too much thinking into the method of death like it really matters.

        Regardless whether a person is tortured over weeks or dies with a quick snap of the neck, they are DEAD and feel nothing.

        When we try to imagine the death process, we are just injecting our own fears onto a perfectly natural process that happens to EVERY HUMAN.

        I know I will eventually die and once I die, that will be the end. I do not worry about the process, because it will end and then I will not care.

        The point is, the method of dying DOES NOT MATTER and people should NOT get all freaked out about it and do stupid irrational things.

        • Regardless whether a person is tortured over weeks or dies with a quick snap of the neck, they are DEAD and feel nothing

          This simply absurd. By the same logic the Holocaust didn’t matter either, It is the pain that matters, and the termination of a life half lived.

  12. Er, doesn’t Saudi Arabia behead prisoners every day of the week? Maybe the US public needs to see a few of those…

    • Simple Mind, your nick seems to be wisely chosen, if you only now come to the realization that Saudi Arabia’s barbarism and promotion of Wahhabism is the source of all this evil.

  13. Beheading is seen as a violation of the “modern”, Western person in the same way that many of the indignities the US & Israeli occupations imposed on Moslems were hated as violations of the Moslem person. It’s all about perceiving an insult by the other side so we can say that they hate our very existence and thus intend to utterly destroy us, instead of having negotiable policy goals that may be based on our own past misdeeds.

    However, that being said, we must ask this question: when did Americans gain the entitlement to be able to go anywhere in the world without consequences? Or for that matter, agents of Wall Street exploitation, military advisers tilting a playing field in a foreign war, aid workers unwittingly propping up a bad regime, etc? I mean, before WW2 celebrity journalists like Henry Stanley and Lowell Thomas risked their lives in lawless places precisely because the American public knew that they were lawless, that large parts of the globe were off-limits to those unable to defend their own persons. That’s why Indiana Jones (and movie serial adventurers in general) made no sense in the postwar world, where every inch of land was declared officially part of our bloc, the enemy bloc, or the neutralist bloc, and anything that happened anywhere was closely monitored as an event that might tilt the scales between them. Maybe that was just too ludicrous to endure?

  14. When 3 from the West are beheaded, it’s considered WWIII.

    When the West blows endless 50-person wedding parties to smithereens via drones, hipsters keep sipping their lattes.

    We’re hypocrites. We can’t understand why relatives of those we kill might not like us.

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