It has become so commonplace, no one gives it a second thought: nothing tells us more about a terrorist’s radical leanings than the jihadist videos and extremist sermons that show up on a playlist of an individual who turns to violence, or so we are told.
As the Washington Post reports:
In a few months, starting last August, the YouTube account in the name of Tamerlan Tsarnaev took on an increasingly puritanical religious tone. It moved from secular militancy to Islamist certainty.
Through YouTube we catch a glimpse of the inner workings of the terrorist’s mind.
What’s curious about this belief is that it goes unchallenged in a context where it is also the largely unchallenged conventional wisdom that violence on the screen, if it comes from Hollywood, has little connection with violence on the street.
There is, supposedly, some mysterious dividing line that cleanly separates the images which entertain from those that indoctrinate.
I don’t buy it.
From 1986 to 1990, the writer, Brian Keenan, was held hostage in Beirut. Even though he was a British passport holder (Irish as well), the Thatcher government left him to rot because they refused to talk to terrorists. If there was a silver lining to that neglect it was that Keenan produced an extraordinary account of his experience in An Evil Cradling.
Having taught at the American University of Beirut for about four months before his abduction, Keenan had had plenty of opportunities to see the fighters who roamed the streets of Lebanon’s war ravaged capital and he made this observation:
The man unresolved in himself chooses, as men have done throughout history, to take up arms against his sea of troubles. He carries his Kalashnikov on his arm, his handgun stuck in the waistband of his trousers, a belt of bullets slung around his shoulders. I had seen so many young men in Beirut thus attired, their weapons hanging from them and glistening in the sun. The guns were symbols of potency. The men were dressed as caricatures of Rambo. Many of them wore a headband tied and knotted at the side above the ear, just as the character in the movie had done. It is a curious paradox that this Rambo figure, this all-American hero, was the stereotype, which these young Arab revolutionaries had adopted. They had taken on the cult figure of the Great Satan they so despised and whom they claimed was responsible for all the evil in the world.
Just as much as America is condemned because of its oppressive power and its support for oppressors, its culturally unbound iconography is revered for its legitimization and romanticizing of violence.
Which makes me wonder… As analysts sift through the digital trails left on YouTube and elsewhere that shine light on what might have inspired the Tsarnaev brothers, what about their favorite movies?
As far as I’m aware, Netflix doesn’t have much on jihadist themes but it surely has plenty of movies that would feed the hopes of someone imagining they could get away with an audacious crime; that they could outgun the cops during a hair-raising chase through the streets of an American city; that the rebel with a cause sometimes wins.
If the Tsarnaevs’ YouTube choices tell us so much, then surely their movie choices do as well.