Islamic State’s hot emotions and cool calculations

In the case of ‘Islamic State’ there is a marked contrast between the emotions necessary to commit the atrocities for which they are known and the emotions necessary to create those staged videos of the deaths of their captives.

Islamic State is a swirling vortex of disgust, contempt, anger and hate which cuts a swath wherever it goes. What connects these emotions is a negative evaluation of their victims that is driven by the ideology that has captivated these young men and women.

Anger is typically directed at a person’s actions rather than his or her fundamental characteristics. Hate is typically directed at those whom we believe to possess fundamentally evil qualities. They are hated not because of what they have done but for who they are. We want those we are angry with to suffer because they have hurt us. We want those we hate to die because their continued existence poses a threat to us and the intrinsic nature of their evil traits makes it impossible change the object of our hatred. To cause such suffering and death these Islamic Statists must be in the grip of anger and hatred and be devoid of compassion for their victims. This vortex of emotions spreads by contagion. Like a forest fire it can leap improbable distances.

So it is not quite true to say that Islamic violence is ‘senseless’. There is a certain logic to it, albeit of the emotional kind.

Contrast these ‘hot’ emotions with the cool calculations evident in the series of videos in which captured hostages are seemingly executed, beginning with James Foley (last August), up to the video purporting to show the killing of 21 kidnapped Egyptian Coptic Christians. No anger or hatred here.

These videos are clearly staged. There is no camera in the crowd capturing a real execution. Victims are arranged for the benefit of the camera, as if on a film set or in a studio. Jihadi John holds a knife in his left hand, not because he is left-handed, but because protagonists are always positioned to the right of a movie screen. Evidence of digital manipulation connecting events at different times in different places abounds. As in a Hollywood movie, there is no ‘where’ or ‘when’ in these Islamic State videos.

There is a common pattern of events surrounding these videos. First there is the warning, i.e., the appearance of the hostage and a statement of the conditions that must be met for his release. Then a letter from the hostage to his family will be disclosed, or a desperate, pleading letter or video tape from one or both of the hostage’s parents, or we will be told of a rescue attempt that almost succeeded, but didn’t. Almost immediately, it is headline news that the hostage has been executed after all and we are presented with the pained face of a grieving parent or sibling. The sequence of events is cunningly diabolical. Hopes are raised only to be dashed. The emotional knife is twisted bit by bit, ever deeper.

As in a Hollywood movie, the director’s intent is to stimulate certain emotions in the Western viewing public—to shock, disgust and horrify; above all to use these emotions to elicit a particular course of action from us and our governments. To this end, these IS videos have been remarkably successful.

Consider: The execution, if that is what it was, of two British and two American hostages is all it took to disarm critics of the return of Anglo-American forces to Iraq (unthinkable but six months ago). The execution of the downed Jordanian pilot, lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh, simultaneously gave renewed intent to Jordan’s air strikes against IS while undermining public support for them. The execution of 21 Egyptians in Libya brought Egypt and Libya into the war against IS. Finally, the realization that IS is on the shores of the Mediterranean has caused panic in Rome.

Let us note that these are reactions to highly choreographed videos, not to any direct communications from an IS leader or to strategic actions of forces on the ground. In each case our rulers have responded exactly as the director of these IS movies intended. One would hope for a little more emotional intelligence, but Islamic State is running this show.

Whoever is behind these IS videos, and my views on that are in past posts, they have a good understanding of Western emotions, and they are divorced from the emotions of those acting in the name of this ‘Islamic State’. It is almost as if they were separate groups of people.