Islamic Terrorists Control Our Minds
We've been having a pretty enlightened public discussion about domestic abuse these days courtesy of the National Football League. The league wasn't eager to sponsor this conversation any more than star players Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson were looking to become brand ambassadors for brutality. Instead, video of Rice's domestic battery and pictures of Peterson's beaten child forced the conversations. They seem likely to force changes in the NFL, as well. They may even influence broader behavior.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that Islamic State, which mixes extreme violence with the very best of seventh-century religious ideology, has recognized the power of imagery to influence us. The group is hardly the first, of course. But Islamic State clearly recognized the value of ratcheting up the horror. It doesn't take much in the way of technical sophistication, intellectual force or political power to behead three men incapable of defending themselves. But putting the violence on video -- and online -- has transformed the acts from evidence of the group's weakness, perversion and backwardness to a testament to its global communications prowess.
Like all skillful political communication, the videos send distinct messages to different audiences. To potential recruits, the executioners apparently embody the rise of a new order vanquishing a corrupt and crumbling civilization. Americans, needless to say, generally identify with the victims. And that's what is terrifying.
The New York Times/CBS News poll published yesterday shows a sharp decline in public support for President Barack Obama's handling of terrorism. Obama's approval ratings have been on the skids for months, so a new decline in the terrorism category doesn't prove that American public opinion has been shaped by the Islamic State videos. But 57 percent said they didn't think Obama was being tough enough on a group that more than 57 percent probably couldn't have named prior to the videos. CNN reported last week that "Seven in 10 Americans believe ISIS has the resources to launch an attack against the United States," though the poll didn't disclose where respondents had acquired their expertise on terrorist resources. Likewise, a Pew poll earlier this month showed a decline in public confidence in the government's efforts to reduce the threat of terrorism. In the same Pew poll, the percentage of Americans saying they were "very concerned" about the rise of Islamic extremism in the world soared from 37 percent in July 2011 to 62 percent this month.
As the extended panic after Sept. 11 revealed, we are easily frightened. (Yes, Sept. 11 was terrifying, but it didn't have to be so disabling.) Being easily frightened can mean being easily manipulated. At the behest of the Obama administration, this week Congress has debated providing aid to Syrian rebels who have been fighting for years now. Perhaps, given the vicious rise of Islamic State, the administration would have reached that strategic turning point regardless, concluding that a deeper U.S. engagement was required.
But the ability of extremists to operate a video camera seems central to the shift in U.S. public opinion. Unlike the public debate on physical abuse and football players, this debate was orchestrated -- a grisly product of public relations. In effect, Islamic State wanted us to watch, and we complied. Americans may believe Washington ignores them, but Islamic State bet otherwise -- that U.S. democracy would prove impressively responsive. Sure enough, our representatives are highly attuned to our insecurity, especially in an election year. (Now, it seems extremists in Australia have learned by Islamic State's example.)
Reading Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times today, I was reminded of another terrorist group that made news just a short while ago for its mass kidnapping of Nigerian girls. Lately, Boko Haram has been booted from the news by bloodier fare. "Those girls are still missing," Kristof wrote, "and Boko Haram has gained even more ground in northern Nigeria."
No video, no cry.
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Frank Wilkinson at email@example.com