Julia Tierney
Last updated: 9 February, 2015

“It’s more difficult to be outraged by the deaths we cannot see”

The consensus on my Twitter feed is that the Islamic State’s burning-alive of Moaz al-Kasassbeh is their most horrifying filmed execution to date. I will have to take their word for it because after watching the ritualistic beheadings of twenty-two Syrian pilots I cannot bring myself to view another one. 

Some say that the shooting down of Moaz’s plane while it was bombing Raqaa will destabilize Jordan’s participation in the international coalition against ISIS. Others argue that the revulsion against Moaz’s killing will undermine ISIS’s domestic support in Jordan, whose 2,000 fighters make it the third largest Arab contingent after Saudi Arabians and Tunisians. King Abdullah has vowed an “earth shattering” response, and only hours after the release of Moaz’s videotaped execution al-Qaeda prisoners are being moved to the prison where capital punishment takes place, including failed suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi whose hanging is slated to take place at dawn the next day. 

MOAZ’S BODY was covered in bruises, indicating that he had been tortured, and his orange jumpsuit was doused in gasoline and then he was theatricality killed. Why does ISIS resort to such violence? This is a question often asked after the brutal beheadings of the American, British and Japanese hostages, and probably should be asked more often when images circulate around the internet of the thousands of Iraqi troops they massacred, the accused adulterers they stoned to death, the homosexuals they threw off buildings and those they crucified in Raqaa’s public square, which is surrounded by severed heads. Is there a strategy to such savagery when their videos are so sophisticated that analysts speculate that they required post-production technological prowess worth hundreds of thousands of dollars?

“Why does ISIS resort to such violence?”

The Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas argues that there is a logic to the Islamic State’s violence. Although they have engaged in indiscriminate killing in a sectarian style (against Shiites, Yazidis and Christians), their most vivid violence – the one that most resonates in our minds like the images of James Foley on his knees or Moaz al-Kasassbeh in the cage – is primarily selective, designed to project resolve and catalyze recruitment into its ranks. 

Alastair Crooke traces the brutality of their violence to a 2004 treatise on The Management of Savagery, which warns away from “softness” and equates jihad with “violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening (others), and massacring.” Crooke explains that the management of savagery is the liminal period between the waning of one power and the consolidation of power of another, and thus “the beheadings and other violence practiced by ISIS are not some whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy.” The treatise reiterates the importance of persevering in this violence, and especially to publicize it. In its words, “those who have not boldly entered wars during their lifetimes do not understand the role of violence and coarseness against the infidels in combat and media battles.” 

Yet the Islamic State is far from the most violent of myriad violent actors in the Middle East. The Assad regime has killed more than 200,000 people in almost four years of civil war; and an additional 200,000 have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. By contrast, the number killed by ISIS is 10,000 (or the tens of thousands…there’s no consensus), but the competition between these statistics is itself disturbing because whenever ISIS’s brutality makes headlines it’s always pointed out that Assad has killed many more. The difference is that ISIS’s violence is more publicized, both by their propaganda and the publicity garnered by beheading Western journalists dressed in orange jumpsuits reminiscent of Guantanamo detainees. It’s more difficult to be outraged by the deaths we cannot see, whether those tortured to death in the darkness of Assad’s prisons or those indiscriminately massacred by his bombs.

“The Islamic State is far from the most violent of myriad violent actors in the Middle East”

On the imbrication of violence and imagery, Susan Sontag writes, “an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real.” And so perhaps that is why the Obama administration is blocking the publication of the photographs accompanying the recently-released Torture Report, and why we have very little photographic evidence of the violence that the United States has inflicted on the seven predominately Muslim countries the past two presidents have bombed. Somehow the violence of the Islamic State is deemed savage, while our retaliation is termed surgical, but despite the shock and awe of our technological violence, there is nothing humane in killing from 30,000 feet, compared to holding another person’s head in your hands and sawing off their head with a small knife, except as Michael Mann puts it, “we moderns prefer indirect, callous killing at a distance.” 

There is an intimacy to ISIS’s violence, something terrifyingly hands-on in the way their unmasked executioners stared back into the camera in the video when they beheaded those Syrian pilots and the suffering so evident in Moaz al-Kasassbeh’s incineration. Their videos are meant to evoke such intimacy, to incite terror, to entice their enemies into war. It may have been their takeover of Mosul that captured the Obama administration’s attention, but it was not until after the horror of James Foley’s beheading that they started bombing ISIS’s stronghold in Syria. They forced Jim to condemn his country’s violence in the Middle East when really they wanted to compel the United States into even deeper violence. And in this their management of savagery has succeeded. 

WITHIN SYRIA AND IRAQ, the United Nations writes that ISIS has made “calculated use of public brutality” to ensure submission. Beyond the borders of the Islamic State its brutality has also been calculating. Their violent provocations have drawn the United States into yet another war, one where it is fighting against nihilistic insurgents but ignoring the infinitely more immense violence enacted by the Assad regime. Perhaps this is something to think about the next time another ISIS video causes our blood to boil, because although the number of hostages in ISIS’s hands diminishes I fear that Moaz’s death will not be the last.