Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable become intolerable once the idea of escape from them is suggested.
- Alexis de Tocqueville
Grainy, dark, and pixilated, the picture was featured on the front page of the Washington Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the BBC and as the feature picture of every major media acronym’s webpage.
And it didn’t come from one of the hi-tech hi-fidelity cameras that had escorted in terrorism’s first appearance on the world stage but from the same small device that’s, by now, likely resting in your own pocket. The camera-phone pictures snapped – or, more precisely, clicked – by the terrified Londoners trapped inside the Underground train struck outside Kings Cross Station captured both the first-person terror of a victim of the attack and a novel permutation in the evolution of terrorism.
The first images from the site of a terrorist attack were for the first time not produced by international media coverage, but instead produced by the cameras on passengers’ cell phones, “the latest innovation in the grim art of terrorism documentary.”1 And in this instance, they begin to flow from their users’ cell phones and out into the world only fifteen minutes after the first Underground explosion.
This marked a dramatic departure from every act of terrorism that preceded it, the instantaneous creation of user-controlled media marked the turning of a new page in the story of terrorism. Despite all the media coverage following the events of 7/7, the most salient points about the assault were summarily missed in the coverage that was paradoxically breaking for countless consecutive hours following the bombings.
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The first point was an intrinsic part of the coverage itself. The media had its usual array of breathless reporters making their on-scene commentary, attempting to be at once erudite and timeless. It also had its cut-aways to in-house terrorism experts who offered their impulsive and largely unfounded speculation about who or what had carried out the attacks. During all this, one little-noticed picture silently captured the world’s attention and all that was salient and novel about the terrorist attacks – while simultaneously shifting the very nature of media coverage forever.
In the same way that the new broadcasting technology of the 1970s – the mini-cam, the battery-powered video recorder, and the time-base corrector – magnified the global audience of a terrorist attack exponentially, the emergence of the camera phone as a medium in the theater of terrorism marks another step in the development of modern terrorism. No longer does the terrorist have to court the attention of major media outlets, giant and often intransigent, stubborn corporations.
Media coverage is now self-assembling and instantaneous.
Today it would be impossible for the aftermath of a major explosion in any public area to go undocumented by the unwitting masses, always clicking fastidiously away on the cameras embedded in the cell phones that the majority of us now carry. The video images coincidently recorded of the first plane making impact on 9/11 will perhaps be a final homage to the era of the modern hand-held camera as the prime surrogate of Symbolic Terror. From here on out, society itself will serve as the medium through which acts of terrorism are first broadcast to the rest of the world, where they bloom their contagion of fear and unease.
And unlike the 3/11 attacks, which were inspired by the terrorist’s go-to medium since Munich and the hijackings of the 70s, the 7/7 attacks relied not on television broadcast but instead on the mass medium which has largely taken its place. Nearly sixty-percent of us now get our news primarily from the internet instead of from the printed page or the talking television head, so it should come as no surprise that the internet has muscled the television aside as modern terrorism’s most capable and effective recruiter.
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It would probably be a good idea to skip lunch and have a light breakfast that day, but if you really want some insight into the present state of modern Islamic terrorism simply pull up Google and type in: beheadings and infidel. Or for even more vivid results, try the same thing on You-Tube. Other choice search terms to mix into your query would be: Iraq, Daniel Pearl, al-Qaeda recruitment, and jihadist videos.
The ghastly cornucopia of grisly violence you’d stumble into owes its existence in part to the growth of terrorist-related websites as a whole, which grew from about an even dozen in 1998 to well over forty-four hundred in 2005. The feature that’s pulling the highest number of visitors to the Islamic extremist segment of this total is the downloadable database of beheadings, which like nothing else “demonstrates how an archaic practice has taken on the aspect of a public sacrament with the help of modern technology.”2
Much like the appeal of the recent blockbusting splurge of ultra-violent feature-length films, these beheadings pull on the most visceral of their viewers strings. Tweaking a part of our psyche that’s suppressed as we go about our daily business in a peaceful society. A tweaking that appeases our most primal instincts. But for the Muslims ascribing to, or even curious about, fundamental salfi interpretations of Islam the appeal goes well beyond this primal arousal and ventures into the realm of communal sacrament.
In the forty-seventh Sura of the Quran, Muslims are instructed to strike off the heads of their opponents when they are encountered on the battlefield, an injunction first embraced by Mohammed when he ordered the decapitation of seven-hundred Jewish men who were conspiring against his nascent community in Medina.
From that point on beheadings became the go-to method for capping a victory on the battlefield, from the medieval Crusades through Algeria’s war of liberation in the 1960s, right up to the present when it is still Saudi Arabia’s preferred method of capital punishment. A Muslim viewing a beheading online gets not only the same primal rush we all get from a cinematic gore-fest, but the rush that comes from the sense of a shared identity.