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The Visual Politics of Terror

NEW YORK – The British artist Damien Hirst once referred to the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center as “kind of an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually.” Now, 13 years later, Western governments, while able to describe in strategic terms the threat of the Islamic State to the Middle East, are still struggling to come to terms with its visual assault in the global media.

Like Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Islamic State appears to understand the impact that lurid images of violence can have on the public imagination. The irony, of course, is that the Islamic State’s exploitation of images of “pornographic” violence is at odds with the Islamists’ own condemnations of visual stimulation in other areas of life. Indeed, their videos take sensory titillation to its limit. Like an algorithm designed to access an adversary’s digital network, the Islamic State’s carefully staged videos, featuring the beheadings of American and British journalists and aid workers, have penetrated the Western psyche.

That psyche has long been primed to receive shocking imagery. Now, the electronic media’s weakness for graphic violence has become the Islamic State’s strength.

The visual politics of terror may seem primitive, but its practice can be as sophisticated as its effects are profound. Like ancient conquerors, who erected new temples on the sites where the vanquished had their own, the destroyers of New York’s Twin Towers used visual terror to strike at the heart of their enemy’s value system. That is what terror aims to do: destabilize the foe’s normative reality. Once the security of the familiar world is challenged, and its inner sanctums have been invaded and shaken, a space may be cleared for occupation.