Good terrorists know what people want.
Or rather, like any half-decent team of advertising creatives, they know how to get the average punter’s attention. And as tastes change and sensibilities evolve in the satellite states of the Great Satan, these Mad Men know how important it is to stay in touch with the infidel zeitgeist, so as to best deliver The Fear, brand-approved and piping hot. Their modern-day digital propaganda is a distorting funfair mirror, shoved into our faces by a feckless media, and designed to reflect back at us the worst fears of our collective unconscious. This is not to suggest that ISIS’ ranks are filled with sociology PhDs, however; some things are just easily divined from the cultural miasma, and through fiendish intuition.
Anne Manne’s recent book, The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism, is the latest attempt to pin a tail on the pandemic of narcissism that’s swept the western world over the last forty years, turbo-charged by social media and evidenced in everything from selfies at Auschwitz to Kevin Rudd and Kanye. Manne recognises that narcissistic states range across a broad spectrum, from the self-important office conniver and the inveterate Facebragger at the lighter end, to extreme avatars like Lance Armstrong and Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik at the other; and that all of these characters are the product of both individual psychological factors and broader cultural influences. The upshot of this plague of self-absorption, she argues, is a withering of empathy and communality, a concern which has been around since Christoph Lasch’s ground-breaking 1979 book The Culture of Narcsissism, which was the first to focus on the impact of consumerism and changed child rearing practices on this virulent outbreak of “I” disease. Manne argues that the problem has only intensified in recent times, particularly with the ascent of neo-liberalism and its cherished credo of economic self-interest, as the dominant political ideology.
And it’s in this context, I think, that ISIS’ beheading videos should be seen as a linear, adaptive progression. For these abhorrent snuff films now stand revealed as one of the great viral marketing campaigns of all time, but for reasons transcending their sheer atavistic brutality. At root, paring back the Islamofascist window dressing, they are a symbolic attack on libertarianism, and the sanctity of the individual, as is held holy today in all aspects of our politics and mass culture. These guys have realised that they no longer need to commit mass, indiscriminate murder to get our attention. A single act of horrific, barbarous violence, committed against an individual, and filmed using the modern visual grammar we’re accustomed to, is just as effective.
Viv Albertine, former guitarist with the remarkable all-female British punk band The Slits, remarks often in her recent memoir that, in the end, Thatcher won. Punk was the soundtrack to the death of the post-war Keynesian consensus, but what rushed in to fill the vacuum was abhorrent to these young pseudo-anarchsts. Albertine, like many of her contemporaries, watched on in horror as the collaborative, politically charged and fiercely anti-materialist “scene” they’d founded gave way in the early 1980s to bands showing up to record company meetings with suits and briefcases. And the idea that there is “no such thing as society”, or the collective, is apparent in everything we see around us today. Which is why Tony Abbott’s “Team Australia” messaging has such sinister irony, as at the heart of his government’s neo-conservative blueprint (penned by Howard, ex Thatcher and Reagan) is the conviction that, economically at least, there is no team, and no common weal. The market will be the final arbiter of what’s right and wrong, and the market sees no need for things like universal healthcare and subsidised, affordable tertiary education. Which is why, to quiet a skittish electorate still coming to terms with the idea it’s now everyone for themselves, it’s necessary for neo-conservative governments to drum up a bit of nationalistic hysteria every now and then – the new opiate of the masses.
But for Abbott to invoke this notion of “Team Australia” in regards to a supposed domestic terror threat of apocalyptic proportions is particularly laughable, when you consider that during the punk period in Britain, whilst the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon, the son of Irish immigrants, took “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen” to the top of the charts, the IRA were busily blowing up pubs, cars and cabinet ministers – even Prime Ministers – in and around London. The Sex Pistols were a lightning rod for controversy during their brief career, but despite singing explicitly about the IRA and UDA, albeit it purely in the sense of cut-up and collage, Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) was never accused of being a terrorist sympathiser. Imagine the frothing outrage from the likes of Bolt and Jones if a son of Muslim immigrants started singing confrontational songs about ISIS and KSM.
Terrorists no longer need to follow the IRA playbook however. They don’t need to blow up major public buildings and cause mass loss of life. All they need do is show one horrific act of violence towards an individual, thus offending the ghost of Ayn Rand, and governments and the media will a) instantly recognise a ragtag religio-fascist street gang as a geopolitical “state”, and b) venture back into the military quicksands of Iraq. As the Muslim de-radicalisation expert Anne-Azza Aly remarked on Q&A last Monday night, terrorism (and counter-terrorism) has always been about theatre, and effective terrorists have always been in touch with the type of theatre that chimes with the spirit of the times. And that spirit is now fiercely individualistic and narcissistic. Whereas 9/11 occurred at a time when social media was still in its infancy, and Twitter wasn’t even thought of, today’s acts of terror play to the solipsistic fears of the individual. It’s not about whether your mother, father or siblings will be killed in a marketplace bombing; it’s about whether you’ll be the random person chosen to be ritually executed in Martin Place, or hacked to death on a London street. These guys have got us sussed. There’s no “I” in team; the “I” is all that matters.