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 manner.
In producing a docu-drama in its own twisted way, the Islamic State was sending the following messages:
- We don't play by your rules. There are no limits to what we are willing to do.
- America's mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay comes with a "price tag," to quote a recently adopted phrase for retribution killings. After all, we are a state. We have our own enemy combatants as you can see from the video, and our own way of dealing with them.
- Just because we observe no limits does not mean we lack sophistication. We can be just as sophisticated as you in the West. Just listen to the British accent of our executioner. And we can produce a very short film up to Hollywood standards.
- We're not like the drug lords in Mexico who regularly behead people and subsequently post the videos on the Internet. The drug lords deliver only a communal message, designed to intimidate only those people within their area of control. That is why the world at large pays little attention to them; in fact, the world is barely aware of them. By contrast, we of the Islamic State are delivering a global, meta-message. And the message is this: We want to destroy all of you in America, all of you in the West, and everyone in the Muslim world who does not accept our version of Islam.
- We will triumph because we observe absolutely no constraints. It is because only we have access to the truth that anything we do is sanctified by God.
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.