Last week, the ISIS forces currently active in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, beheaded an American journalist. His crime was being American. And a journalist. It also seems to have been relevant to the logic of the murderers that his brother was in the US Air Force.
They also hacked his computer so that they could inform his parents what they were doing in advance of broadcasting it live on the internet.
This is a terrifying innovative kind of atrocity. The people involved have the technical expertise and attention to detail that suggests they would be most valuable if they were to become actual Muslims and dedicate themselves to social care of some kind or another. Instead they wage war for concepts and power, assert authority through the language of caliphate and jihad.
But the reaction in the media around me has been astonishing. The evil has been discussed as if it is a deep mystery about which no questions can be asked. Nobody has thought to quote a character from a Terence Malick movie and ask, “Where did it come from?” Instead we use big clunky words we have spent decades bankrupting like “evil”.
The answer to the deepest level of that unasked question invariably lies in theology, the thick accounts of creation and redemption as can be found in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Maybe that’s why we don’t spend any time asking it?
The surface level answer to that question is the War on Terror. And before that, the war on Soviet forces in Afghanistan and before that, the disassembly of the British Empire and before that, the British Empire. My historical knowledge doesn’t go beyond that, which is one of the consequences of being raised in the penumbra of the British Imperial force.
To stop the terrorists from achieving their aims, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter tweaked their algorithms to discourage people from sharing the video. This raises three important ethical questions:
- What does it mean when we gladly let publicly traded corporations explicitly filter our news for us?
- What does it mean when we need algorithms to counteract our desire, without which we would trade snuff movies on public websites?
- What does it mean that certain forms of murder are opposed and certain forms of murder are celebrated?
That last question is the critical one. We like to believe in moral progress. Even if you would reject that suggestion if I asked you in a YES/NO format, the commonplace call on us to recognise things in the light of “this day and age”, to disparage things we don’t like as “medieval”, and to imagine a moral trajectory (the arc of history) that modern people can discern indicates we do believe in progress. We believe we’re making progress. Thus, in this day and age, the medieval tactics of ISIS need to be opposed because the arc of history bends towards liberation.
The liberation we promise will be announced with bombs.
That is the response of our political leaders to a snuff movie made by soldiers from a phony caliphate. We will invade Iraq. Again. We’ll drop bombs on Syria. Again. We’ll sponsor the first bunch of men organised enough to oppose ISIS to do civilization’s work for us. Again.
But let us remember the preaching of our political masters: Cultures that feel the need to televise such slaughter don’t deserve the title “civilized”.
Your Correspondent, Is a big fat loudmouth, and can walk when he has to