Steven Sotloff’s murder and decapitation is a tragedy in itself, but it also marks a turning point both for journalism and the communications strategy for the world’s most murderous insurgencies. Terrorists these days are spending so much effort on video production techniques that some analysts suspect that both Steven Sotloff and Jim Foley may have been murdered at the same time, possibly as early as August 15, and the videos kept on hand to be released later at a time when they would have the maximum impact. The terrorists’ objective, these analysts believe, is not to demand ransom but to provide new material for an ever expanding social media network designed to recruit more and more alienated youth to enlist for Armageddon. The videographers who promote this gore are being touted as evil new masters on the social media scene.
It is no secret that until a few weeks ago, President Obama wanted to pull as many US forces as possible out of the Middle East. The video of the grisly execution of Steven Sotloff, coming just two weeks after Jim Foley’s murder, manages to render that all but impossible. What ISIS, the self-styled “Islamic State of Syria and the Levant,” hopes to accomplish is still a bit murky. The homicidal maniacs who run the organization may reason that a continued US military presence in the region is a great recruiting tool for the cause, but they are likely to pay a heavy price. What is clear in all this is that communications–sending a message–ranks up there with heavy weapons in the contemporary terrorist plan for battle. Communications can cut both ways, though, especially when the message is based on unrealizable fantasies and self-delusions. As the saying goes, the purpose of literature is to make sense out of the world around us. Most events in the real world do not make much sense at all.
To a certain extent, the gun-slinging, Wild West, mentality that characterized the Bush-Cheney years and that ultimately led to the US failure in Iraq was due, at least in part, to an equally unrealistic perception of reality. The Bush-Cheney fantasy imagined a simpler time, loosely situated in the shoot-em-up Old West, when men were men and acted resolutely. It was a vision heavily promoted in Hollywood films. What everyone seemed to forget is that Hollywood’s job is to create dreams and fantasies that help us to escape from reality, not engage in it. ( Public Broadcasting’s Frontline WGBH, presents a documentary, entitled, Losing Iraq that does an excellent job at highlighting the differences between fantasy and reality that produced the current disaster in Iraq). ISIS may find that its delusional vision of reality leads to equally suicidal consequences for those who follow its warped reasoning. To a certain extent, it already has.
For its part, Washington seems to have a clearer vision now, but If the US finally decides to commit itself to setting things right, it will soon discover that dealing with ISIS will be anything but business as usual. As it makes clear in its social media campaign, ISIS intends to create a new model for international villainy, the petroleum-funded, terrorist state. It is no longer just another insurgency since it now occupies territory, can levy taxes and has access to natural resources, namely oil, that it can use to finance itself. As with Saddam, there is a satanic aspect to ISIS as well. In the words of Dick Cheney, it has opted to explore the darker side. It seeks to exercise power through unrestrained brutality and awfulness rather than logic or humanitarian promises of a better life.
In the meantime, the Obama administration is stuck with trying to make sense out of a situation that makes no sense at all. Despite the fact that Syria has mortally wounded itself in a pointless civil war, its lingering president, Bashar al-Assad amuses himself with hit songs on iTunes and refuses to leave. In his struggle to hold on to the remaining scraps of the largely artificial, jerry-built, post-Ottoman construction that his country has become, Bashar has adopted an approach that is just as dark as ISIS and Saddam. It is hard to see how this battered land, filled with anger and hate, can return to any kind of normalcy under its own power. In that context, it is not hard to see why the White House hesitates before engaging yet again in this violent quagmire. Syria and Iraq, even more than other countries, have entered a new era that demands new solutions.
Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, unluckily, fell victim to this unpredictable environment in which no one is safe. As Ishaan Tharoor, a former Time Magazine editor, noted in a Washington Post blog, Steven Sotloff was a gifted writer and an inquiring mind dedicated to understanding the Middle East. Despite his efforts, he fatally misjudged the full extent of the personal danger that confronts anyone venturing into the overheated vortex of Middle East politics.
Sotloff had survived a number of dangerous assignments before his kidnapping in Syria, but he clearly failed to grasp the extent of the derangement lurking inside the twisted brains of the psychopaths who constitute ISIS. In a characteristic passage about an earlier trip to Egypt, Sotloff wrote:
“When I told my Egyptian friend Ahmad Kamal that I wanted to go to the Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Nasser City, a pallid look gripped him. ‘Don’t go there!’ he pleaded. ‘They are fanatics who hate foreigners. Americans like you are in danger there.’ After an hour of fruitless conversation over endless glasses of sweet tea, I rose, shook Ahmad’s hand, and headed straight to the lair where he believed I would be devoured.”
Like Salman Rushdie before him, Sotloff’s fatal error may have been his failure to grasp the full dimensions of the reality that he had tried to capture in his own writing. But in all fairness, he was also a victim of the fast changing quicksand of contemporary journalism that is increasingly reshaping itself as a lethal blend of news mixed with entertainment.
In the 1960s, 70s and even the 1980s, insurgents tended to treat journalists with respect, or at least tolerance, because like everyone else, they wanted to get their message out in the hope that the larger world might eventually understand their motives, no matter how twisted. That tolerance began to evaporate with the introduction of 24-hour, all-news, cable TV networks. Suddenly world leaders, tyrants and rebels alike, no longer needed reporters to get access to the airwaves. They could communicate to the public directly by going on air in a live CNN or Fox News televised interview, usually with an anchorman or presenter who barely understood the implications of what was being said. Why experience a grueling and possibly humiliating interrogation by a wily journalist when you can control the message yourself? TV gave dictators a chance to become their own Hollywood producers.
Instead of a vehicle for reaching a larger audience, the foreign correspondent, with a few exceptions at a handful of the largest news organizations, has effectively been reduced to little more than an annoying gadfly to be swatted aside, or if kidnapped, a potentially money-producing item to be sold as a hostage to the highest bidder. ISIS has been particularly successful at mastering this new landscape, so much so that he has driven Al Qaeda’s current chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, onto the sidelines. No fool, Zawahiri knows that being a player means staying in the headlines, which in the current context means showing a propensity for even greater violence.
In this fast changing environment, today’s war reporter is not only a dispensable item in the eyes of tyrants and assorted Machiavellian villains, but he has also suffered a notable devaluation in the eyes of his own editors and publishers, who increasingly treat him as an unnecessarily costly expense. The formerly dashing war correspondent, in short, is fast being replaced by the hapless stringer, who is increasingly expected to finance his own way to dangerous places, and who is all too aware that he will be cut loose at minimal cost if the situation suddenly turns bad.
The advent of social and increasingly viral media in the last few years has pushed the model even further. Now the tyrant or psychopath no longer needs a cable TV network to get his message out. He can effectively create his own media outlets. All he has to do is commit an act that is unspeakably outrageous. If he is bestial enough, his message will go viral and social media will distribute it for him. At the very least, he will get the attention of the crowd that regularly tunes into road kill blogs, cannibalism websites or any variety of other locations on the Net that cross the normal boundaries of sanity in search of even greater sensationalism. In the end, what can be more grotesquely outrageous than a 21st century snuff-video with a decapitation by a masked hoodlum, who may or may not be a former Egyptian rapper from the East End of London?
All this is possible because we live in an increasingly virtual world in which the emotional numbness and paralysis that results from an addiction to escapism demands more and more powerful stimulation. Increasingly, we find that anything goes, no matter how heinous or diabolical. Just check the racks of ultra violent computer games for teenagers at your local shopping mall. The bottom line is that we get the full emotional impact while imagining that we are safe because we know that what happens on the screen cannot really hurt us as individuals, or so we believe.
In their memorial declaration to reporters, Sotloff’s parents said that their son had always preferred Hollywood director John Ford’s vision of life to the more violent imagery of Sam Peckinpah. Of course, both presented us with visions of reality, which were only imaginary. Both directors were expert at presenting impressions of life and its meaning, with different variations on the Hollywood ending. Unfortunately for some, Steven Satoff included, the real world remains all too real, and in contrast to the virtual fantasies that the Internet and Hollywood offer up to us, reality plays for keeps.