Why always YouTube? Which were the terrorists’ Netflix picks?

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.

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7 thoughts on “Why always YouTube? Which were the terrorists’ Netflix picks?

  1. delia ruhe

    I wouldn’t expect terrorists-in-training to watch romantic comedies, but the evidence for violent pop culture as the fuel for violence off the screen is too inconclusive. Too many placid Europeans and Canadians consume violent movies and video games to settle the question one way or another. Even I own every violent movie Schwartzenneger ever made–and I don’t watch them to imitate his fashion sense, as those strutting boys in Beirut appear to do with Rambo. Rather, whether he intends it or not, virtually every one of Arnold’s movies is a sendup of traditional masculinity. (Dolly Parton does the same for traditional femininity.)

    In other words, there are too many uniquely individual uses for violent movies to make them the scapegoats for violence in the streets. If Hollywood quit making them, I’m sure terrorists would find some other congenial artform to hum along with–like YouTube videos.

  2. Paul Woodward

    I’m actually trying to make a subtler point here — not a simplistic Hollywood causes violence argument. It is that if we are going to look at the cultural influences that shaped the Tsarnaev brothers, then we should look more widely than the stereotypical factors that supposedly foster radicalism. And to the extent that they are perceived as in part acting out some darker American dreams it becomes less easy to treat both the brothers and what they did as the ugly manifestation of a foreign intrusion into the tranquility of American life.

    Also, on the broader issue of violence on the streets, Hollywood isn’t the root cause but neither is it an incidental factor. It has an instrumental role in popularizing specific weapons, like the Glock.


  3. hquain

    Behind all this public theorizing lies a ridiculously simple concept of human behavior. We’ve got him — now we need a *motive*! As if, in cases where you have lots of evidence, as in introspection or thinking about friends, you ever find a single unambiguous cause behind speech or action.

    The subtlety and importance of Woodward’s insight, I believe, is that it generalizes away from this TV-level narrative. Why did the brothers do what they did? Maybe we can’t really answer such a question, but we can see that in many ways they acted out an indigenously American plotline.

  4. Paul Woodward

    Let me add another wrinkle of subtlety here — it’s not to my mind that subtle but it seems to elude many people’s minds. In this quest for motives and root causes there seems to be the implication that the seeds of terrorism are deeply embedded in the terrorist’s being — an evil kernel waiting to sprout. But in all likelihood, two years ago Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was no more a terrorist-in-the-making than any of his classmates.

    The need to isolate and identify terroristic traits says as much about everyone else as it says about the terrorist. We want to convince ourselves that the terrorist is utterly exceptional — that ordinary people are not capable of doing horrific things. Yet throughout history, war has taught us otherwise.

  5. Ian F Clark

    That sense of Rambo emulation, which seems to affect the shabby chic Salafi also seems to have a bearing on the domestic Rambo wanna be, which is one extra reason why automatic-look-alike weapons should be banned. To hell with the amendments…where’s the common sense?

  6. Phil Sheehan

    If “placid Europeans and Canadians consume violent movies” without turning violent, they also consume (currently) a much blander national narrative. Rambo, whether as tragedy or farce, is prototypically American. And it is in the American milieu that we must examine the effect of violent movies.

    Accept that or reject it, we also need to consider the “convert” syndrome, the lightning strike on the road to Damascus. Very often, it is late arrivals, those who find their truth in adulthood, who are most intense in defense of and efforts to spread that truth.

  7. Paul Woodward

    That’s very true. Nothing fires up self-righteousness more intensely than the upgrade from a pre-conversion ego to the ego-endorsed-by-God. Getting born again (into whatever faith) is a dangerous enterprise.

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