The beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State in Syria
and Iraq was much more than an altogether gruesome and tragic affair: rather, it
was a very sophisticated and professional film production deliberately
punctuated with powerful symbols. Foley was dressed in an orange jumpsuit
reminiscent of the Muslim prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.
He made his confession forcefully, as if well rehearsed. His executioner, masked
and clad in black, made an equally long statement in a calm, British accent,
again, as if rehearsed. It was as if the killing was secondary to the
message being sent.
The killing, in other words, became merely the requirement to send the message.
As experts have told me, there are more painful ways to dispatch someone if you
really hate the victim and want him to suffer. You can burn him alive. You can
torture him. But beheading, on the other hand, causes the victim to lose
consciousness within seconds once a major artery is cut in the neck, experts
say. Beheading, though, is the best method for the sake of a visually dramatic
video, because you can show the severed head atop the chest at the conclusion.
Using a short knife, as in this case, rather than a sword, also makes the event
both more chilling and intimate. Truly, I do not mean to be cruel, indifferent,
or vulgar. I am only saying that without the possibility of videotaping the
event, there would be no motive in the first place to execute someone in such a
In producing a docu-drama in its own twisted way, the Islamic State was sending
the following messages:
Welcome to the mass media age. You thought mass media was just insipid network
anchormen and rude prime-time hosts interrupting talking heads on cable. It is
that, of course. But just as World War I was different from the Franco-Prussian
War, because in between came the culmination of the Industrial Age and thus the
possibility of killing on an industrial scale, the wars of the 21st century will
be different from those of the 20th because of the culmination of the first
stage of the Information Age, with all of its visual ramifications.
Passion, deep belief, political protests and so forth have little meaning
nowadays if they cannot be broadcast. Likewise, torture and gruesome death must
be communicated to large numbers of people if they are to be effective.
Technology, which the geeky billionaires of Silicon Valley and the Pacific
Northwest claim has liberated us with new forms of self-expression, has also
brought us back to the worst sorts of barbarism. Communications technology is
value neutral, it has no intrinsic moral worth, even as it can at times
encourage the most hideous forms of exhibitionism: to wit, the Foley execution.
We are back to a medieval world of theater, in which the audience is global.
Theater, when the actors are well-trained, can be among the most powerful and
revelatory art forms. And nothing works in theater as much as symbols which the
playwright manipulates. A short knife, a Guantanamo jumpsuit, a black-clad
executioner with a British accent in the heart of the Middle East, are, taken
together, symbols of power, sophistication, and retribution. We mean
business. Are you in America capable of taking us on?
It has been said that the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1918 in
Ekaterinburg by Lenin's new government was a seminal crime: because if the
Bolsheviks were willing to execute not only the Czar but his wife and children,
too, they were also capable of murdering en masse. Indeed, that crime presaged
the horrors to come of Bolshevik rule. The same might be said of the 1958 murder
of Iraqi King Faisal II and his family and servants by military coup plotters,
and the subsequent mutilation of the body of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said by a
Baghdad mob -- events that presaged decades of increasingly totalitarian rule,
culminating in Saddam
Hussein. The theatrical murder of James Foley may appear as singular to
some; more likely, it presages something truly terrible unfolding in the
postmodern Middle East.
To be sure, the
worse the chaos, the more extreme the ideology that emerges from it.
Something has already emerged from the chaos of Syria and Iraq, even as Libya
and Yemen -- also in chaos -- may be awaiting their own versions of the Islamic
State. And remember, above all, what the video communicated was the fact that
these people are literally capable of anything.