Regardless of the audience numbers for the latest ISIL video, it is inevitable that much of the world will have built up a deeply disturbing collective mental picture of the Jordanian fighter pilot being burnt alive in his black cage. That mental picture is the stuff of nightmares. Whether or not we saw the video, titled Healing the Believer’s Chests, we can imagine the dying man’s agony and his cries as the fire consumes him and his body combusts.
That is an ugly and agonising word picture of poor Lt Maaz Al Kassasbeh’s final moments. How much more powerful would a television grab be? And how much more shock and horror would the full 22-minute ISIL video generate? Taken together, words, pictures and audio do the devil’s work for the death cult that is ISIL. It may be time to bring down the curtain on the extremist group’s street theatre. We must, as Britain’s tough-talking prime minister Margaret Thatcher, famously said of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and others of its ilk, “find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend”. The IRA, of course, was an armed organisation committed to ending British rule in Northern Ireland.
Thatcher’s remark provided crucial indication of the way her government was resolved to go. Just a few years after her speech to the American Bar Association, her government imposed a broadcasting ban that prevented the IRA’s political mouthpieces in Sinn Fein from taking to the airwaves to explain motivation, methodology, morality, or most anything at all. The British government’s thinking at the time was simple and fairly straightforward. Groups that employed violence as a means to a political end were exploiting the media. These groups were the enemies of democracy and they were subverting the whole system by using one of the key features of democracy – an open media.
There was some consternation over the prohibition and a number of surreal outcomes, not least that actors were used to voice over key IRA/Sinn Fein players, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and others. And there was some joking, in Britain’s trademark fashion, about the absurdity of it all with at least one comedy show famously portraying a supposed Sinn Fein spokesman sucking in helium before going on air so that the broadcaster could comply with the government’s wishes and “subtract credibility” from his remarks.
The IRA was not defeated by the ban; that took the September 11, 2001 attacks and the end of funding from Irish Americans. (Burning the pilot might similarly rebound on ISIL because it is aimed at Muslims and few will countenance such an atrocity.) With hindsight, there is increasing appreciation of the disabling effects of turning off the oxygen of publicity. It is a powerful thing, feeding the flames of fear and hatred stoked by violent acts. Portraying, explaining or describing gratuitous violence creates another news cycle that spins off itself, which results in ever wider arcs of narrative and counter-narrative and amplifies the horror.
Years later, Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian, would praise the merits of turning off the oxygen. Describing the anarchy perpetrated by the antiglobalisation protesters when they arrived in Genoa in Italy in 2001, determined to disrupt the G8 summit, he wrote that the media was “an umbilical part of the script … the anarchists (whoever they are, however many of them there were storming the barricades) wanted the oxygen of publicity; so, more peacefully, did the tens of thousands of protesters who travelled in to make an often bewildering variety of separate points”. The result was ritualised demos that spewed inevitably into ritualised violence. They became, Preston said, “mere spectator sport for the cameras of globalisation”.
ISIL is providing the same sort of spectator sport for those cameras of globalisation and the social media networks that throw an arc round the global village. With every beheading, every gruesome new brutality, every new perversion of all that is good and decent and human in Islam and Christianity and Hinduism and Judaism, they make us all the carriers of oxygen that keeps them alive.
With dreadful prescience, US president Barack Obama said something notionally akin to Margaret Thatcher’s “oxygen of publicity” remark, just a couple of days before the stomach-churning horror of the young Jordanian’s death on camera. He told Fareed Zakaria on CNN that it was important to “maintain a proper perspective” on ISIL. Describing it as “an entirely backward-looking fantasy that can’t function in the world”, Mr Obama said it had “no governing strategy. It can talk about setting up the new caliphate, but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually in a sustained way feed people or educate people or organise a society that would work.”
That may be a slightly self-serving view. After all, ISIL does hold considerable territory in Syria and Iraq and there is some suggestion that its courts and local security measures are keeping some sort of order. On the whole though, as disillusioned former fighters now reveal, everything in ISIL-held areas is governed by fear.
But the wider world does not have to live that fear. It’s fine to cover the military campaign against ISIL. And we know that the group will keep up the offensive through social media, but it’s unlikely that, say, the manner of the poor pilot’s death would have become yet another chilling episode in the global horror show had the mainstream media not publicised it so massively. It is time to declare a self-denying moratorium and deprive ISIL’s death cult of that life-giving oxygen.