My children are in school. For longer than they’ve been alive, their country has been at war.
And yet, for them, war remains abstract and largely invisible, because it’s been so relentlessly stage–managed to keep its true face hidden. Instead of a real sense of what war is, they get action movies and shooter games. When they see anything of war, it is itself a kind of movie: selected, spectacular imagery that fits a narrative and an agenda. The agenda is for war to go on. For the massive transfer of wealth that war allows and promotes to continue unabated.
Looking at the gruesome videos from Al Qaeda or ISIS, one might see them as a contrast to our controlled, sanitized presentation of war — as if they perversely displayed the full measure of its actual horror. If our media act like a superego, the videos seem to come straight from the id — a grotesque message from the abyss of human cruelty.
But then, you realize that the two faces of war are joined. Censorship is the other side of pornography. Western spin fuels Jihadi gruesomeness. By obfuscating our violence — our drone strikes, our secret prisons, our “enhanced interrogation techniques” — we lure radical “Islamists” into flaunting their own. Conversely, by forcing us to stare at our countrymen being murdered, they give us an excuse to stay on the war path. The only winner is war itself. (With sexual imagery we seem to trade roles: the more we flaunt it, the more our “Islamist” Other screams “haram.” The more we objectify women, the more they imprison them in the name of “virtue.” The roles are switched but the game is the same. The parties are specular and codependent.)
We are a society of spectacle: We can turn anything into a movie, a game or a TV show. But terrorism is also about spectacle. It’s about the manipulation of media through shocking events. We are the audience, captive and addicted, primed by a diet of casual violent entertainment. Watch an ISIS video and you will see Hollywood aesthetics at work. Watch it on Youtube, and you might have to watch a commercial first.
That’s why we have a choice to make. We can sit back and enjoy the show until the bitter end. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end. We do.) Or we can change the rules. Become a radically critical, noncompliant, subversive public. A public that will watch on its own terms or not watch at all. A public that will break the wall, document its own reality, invent its own future. A public that will shake off complacency, glibness and pseudo–irony to create a new aesthetic of life — where war makes no sense and violence is a discarded legacy.
It will take time. We will get it wrong before we get it right. We will be misled. But there will be hope.