The Islamic State has taken its propaganda cues from modern dystopian fiction. It should have paid closer attention.
- By J.M. BergerJ.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
One of the most popular tropes in dystopian fiction is the “violent spectacle.” Immortalized in recent years by The Hunger Games series, the concept is simple: A corrupt society uses some public display or broadcast of violence to manipulate the masses.
But it’s never been purely fiction. The concept of providing the masses with an experience of intentionally shared violence has, from time to time, also surfaced in the real world. In its heyday, the Roman Colosseum hosted mock battles and public executions that drew massive crowds. And during France’s Reign of Terror, tens of thousands were executed, many in public, with the clear intent to intimidate.
But only recently have we seen a quantum leap toward what fiction writers, since at least the 1960s, have been imagining in the “not-too-distant future”: broadcast technologies that allow violent spectacle to be commoditized and streamed directly into people’s homes.
The Islamic State, with its executions packaged as entertainment and available from any smartphone (and, on occasion, even performed before local populations in actual Roman amphitheaters), has turned the concept into reality. On June 14, Islamic State achieved a new milestone when a terrorist who pledged allegiance to the group live-streamed his confession from the home of a French police captain and his family, after killing both of the adults in the house. Before too long, we will almost certainly see a live-streamed terrorist attack, complete with graphic violence.
To understand this emerging phenomenon of broadcast violence, it is useful to look at the generations of writers and filmmakers who saw it coming — and to understand what they got wrong.
One of the earliest such visions came from author Robert Sheckley, who imagined a global murder game called the “Big Hunt,” invented to channel humanity’s violent impulses away from world-destroying wars. First written as a short story titled “Seventh Victim,” it was later adapted for radio, and most famously for film as The 10th Victim, a darkly satirical take starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress.
In the movie, the game’s masters explain that the Big Hunt “is mankind’s safety valve. If the Big Hunt had existed in 1940, Hitler would certainly have become a member, and there would have been no World War II. Indeed, the Big Hunt has done away with war by giving man’s violent instincts a competitive outlet.” Players in the Hunt become celebrities, hounded by paparazzi, and Andress’s character cuts a deal to carry out her killing on television as part of a commercial for tea. “The only thing people like today is the spectacle,” one character observes.
The concept took a leap forward in 1974’s Rollerball, (not to be confused with the far inferior 2002 remake) also based on a short story. In this 21st-century future, the governments of the world have fallen to authoritarian corporations. The most popular form of entertainment in history is rollerball, a violent cross between roller derby, American football, and basketball. While this future society has done away with war and poverty, rollerball is not just some outlet for violent impulses. Its purpose is more insidious. “The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort,” John Houseman’s corporate executive character explains. Rollerball, he notes earlier, “is not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in.” The corporate hierarchy remains strong by subliminally quashing individual ambitions in the game’s escalating, bloody spectacle.
A common theme running through these books and movies is that political stability can be achieved by channeling humanity’s capacity for violence into a controlled outlet. Roger Corman’s clunky Death Race 2000, rushed into production in 1974 to steal some of Rollerball’s box office luster, makes the case with a heavy hand (the cartoonish “Mr. President” covers all of the exposition in a 90-second speech), leaving the intellectual underpinnings to the imagination. In the 1987 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Running Man, violent game shows help distract people from the misery of living in a dystopian hellscape where the economy has collapsed and tyranny reigns. In 2006’s cult classic dystopian satire Idiocracy, justice is dispensed through combat to the death with monster trucks.
The exact objectives of the dystopian spectacle vary, but the consequences are always the same: pacifying the general population by catering to humankind’s bloodthirsty inclinations. And while most of these stories end badly for the dystopian regimes in question, the fault is almost never in the spectacle itself. None of these books or movies disputes the fact that the spectacle functions as intended. It controls the masses, until the spectacle itself is undermined by an individualist hero who refuses to accept its terms. “Let the game do its work,” Houseman’s character advises in Rollerball. And he’s not wrong. The system works right up until it breaks.
The Hunger Games series, which debuted in 2008, takes a more grounded approach to the spectacle, but with much the same results. In the books and movies, the annual Hunger Games are a psychologically sophisticated combination of spectacle and punishment, in which children from the poor working-class districts of North America are forced to fight each other to the death in an annual event on live television. Poor viewers in the districts are transfixed with horror and fascination, while wealthy residents of the capital watch to satisfy their blood lust and drama. The games work as intended; they are only threatened when Katniss, the protagonist, subverts the rules. In some ways, it’s the most realistic take on the spectacle.
At the other end of the spectrum, The Purge movie series, launched in 2013, takes the concept to its furthest extreme. One night a year, over the course of 12 hours, all laws are lifted and every imaginable crime is permitted in the United States, thanks to the innovation of the “New Founding Fathers.” Those who do not directly participate in the ensuing orgy of violence lock themselves in their homes and watch it on television.
The annual “purge” leads to a reduction of unemployment to 1 percent and the virtual elimination of crime for the rest of the year. But it becomes clear in the opening minutes of the first film in the series that the purge is no equal-opportunity affair. The poor and people of color are killed in disproportionate numbers, while the upper classes hide safely in their suburban fortresses. The movie’s overt attempt to generate moral indignation over this inequality is subtly undermined by its unquestioned assertion that the purge works as intended, creating a near-utopia 364 days of the year, albeit at a severe moral cost.
(Indeed, despite its earnest effort to deliver a warning, the movie has inspired imitators. During a period of heightened tensions in Baltimore in 2015, after an African-American man was killed in police custody, teenagers at a Baltimore school circulated fliers calling for a “purge” to begin at local mall, even announcing a specific starting time. At least dozens of what the media described as “school-age children” answered the call, looting and clashing with police for hours. Users on social media picked up on the event and egged rioters on, with posts like “Let the #purge begin” and “Baltimore going purge.” At least 15 police officers were injured, and 27 people arrested prior to the National Guard’s arrival. In May 2016, an Indianapolis man also carried out a spree of violence inspired by the films, murdering three people at random. He told an associate he was “purging.”)
In each of its fictional iterations, the dystopian spectacle comes undone due to unexpected complications emanating from the participants, usually in the form of rule-breaking or unaccountably exceptional performance. Although the spectacle contains the seeds of its undoing, it never simply fails to pacify the masses.
But as the 21st century matured into adolescence, widely broadcast violence became a grim reality rather than a thought experiment. The internet didn’t invent snuff films, but it provided new ways to distribute them. In the beginning, even online, this activity was confined to dark corners. Al Qaeda in Iraq began distributing scores of hideously graphic execution videos starting in 2004, but their circulation remained relatively limited.
It took al Qaeda’s successor, the Islamic State, to bring the dystopian spectacle to fruition. Starting in about 2012 and escalating through 2015, the group began issuing professionally produced videos showing the execution of prisoners of war and Western hostages. These videos were precisely the kind of content that dystopian writers had long predicted. Unlike al Qaeda’s earlier attempts, the videos were filmed in high-definition, using multiple cameras and edited professionally with a theatrical flair. They didn’t just portray a terrorist act; they told a story and reveled in its brutality. Other videos showed combat in an immersive manner, as Islamic State fighters wearing head-mounted GoPro cameras drove around Iraq and Syria on killing sprees modeled on first-person shooter video games. And they were widely distributed using innovative online techniques. You could view the spectacle from the comfort of your home, or from your phone, even. Aggressive social media campaigns meant that you could end up seeing one of these videos even if you didn’t seek it out.
Like its fictional predecessors in Rollerball and The Hunger Games, the Islamic State sought to up the ante as its political position deteriorated in 2015 and into 2016. When its trademark beheadings stopped generating banner headlines, the group resorted to burning a prisoner to death, filming the process in an elaborate video filmed in an arena-like setting. Later installments showed prisoners being drowned. Photographs showed gay men in Islamic State-controlled territories being thrown from tall buildings. In several videos, children carried out executions. Islamic State branches in Afghanistan wrapped detonation cord around the necks of prisoners and blew their heads off. Islamic State fighters in Yemen smashed prisoners’ skulls using huge rocks. The group routinely published sports-page style stats on the number of attacks it had carried out, and how many people it had killed.
But the reality of dystopian spectacles hasn’t lived up to what the science fiction authors imagined. As in the dystopian societies predicted by the futurists, Islamic State has promised that the violence was part and parcel of creating a perfect society. Unlike the fictional regimes, it could not deliver on its promise. The utility of these violent spectacles differed from the futurists’ predictions. While the videos had some effect in deterring internal rebellion, the Islamic State did not promise an end to war. Quite the opposite: It courted a war that would continue to the end of time. Its spectacle did not purge violent impulses from its viewers through the power of emotional catharsis. Instead, the videos excited Islamic State fans, moving some to sign up as fighters and others to carry out acts of shocking brutality in their home communities.
While early installments seized some viewers with a morbid fascination, as the procession of gore continued, the relative few who initially tuned in began tuning out. A very small hardcore constituency continued to cheer and share in the gore vicariously, but most turned their eyes away in revulsion. Islamic State posted lists of thousands of Westerners, urging followers to play along at home and kill them, but found few takers.
Within its territories, the Islamic State has locked down outside information, destroying satellite dishes and restricting internet access. In true dystopian fashion, it has flooded the vacuum with its own propaganda, displaying it in kiosks and improvised theaters, and running violent videos on a continual loop in the offices of its so-called government. The entirety of the group’s bloody spectacle has never been televised. Public executions by stoning and crucifixion have been common. Photos emerged of children playing in streets strewn with severed limbs and heads.
Some adherents of the Islamic State were initially attracted to its retributive violence against those who disagreed with its extremist interpretation of Islam, but they were less enthralled when they saw the same brutality exacted on Sunni Muslims unfortunate enough to get in the organization’s way, including women and children. Others simply tired of living among the horrors and fled.
These real-world manifestations show that dystopian spectacles are incapable of performing the social function that authors imagined. The concept of shared violence as catharsis runs through the dystopian genre and may be an intrinsic part of the genre’s appeal. But in the end, the psychology of the dystopian spectacle has proven false. Its real-world manifestations have resulted only in a trail of bloody bodies.
The reality of dystopian spectacles is now starting to move beyond what fiction could imagine. The emerging trend is not the commoditization of broadcast violence by authoritarian regimes. In an era where everyone carries live-streaming devices in their pockets, more and more people are now crowdsourcing such spectacles.
In 2015, two men live-streamed themselves driving around Sacramento with a gun, “hunting” a third man who they believed was involved with one of their girlfriends (they didn’t catch him). A teenage girl in Ohio live-streamed the rape of her 17-year-old friend in February 2016, neglecting to call 911 because she was getting so many “likes” on social media. Around the same time, anti-government extremists filmed, posted and live-streamed their seizure of a wildlife refuge in Oregon and a subsequent standoff with the FBI. After one of the occupiers was killed resisting arrest, the FBI released video of the shooting to quell conspiracy theories about an assassination, and even synchronized it, picture-in-picture, with video taken by the occupiers as they attempted to flee the police.
Beginning in April, the pace of incidents began to increase. Audio of a man beating his partner streamed live after he accidentally left a channel open. Two French teenagers beat a drunk man and streamed it live. A Tampa man live-streamed a standoff with a SWAT team on Facebook. And a 19-year-old French woman live-streamed her road to suicide for hours, followed by a trail of “likes,” culminating when she threw herself in front of a train as over 1,000 people watched online.
This groundswell of self-starters may be less expected than an institutionalized violent spectacle, but it is potentially just as destabilizing and perhaps even more horrifying. One thousand people represent a drop in the bucket on the world stage, or even in most cities, but they make up a small mob, with all the attendant group dynamics. The affirmation, or even the approbation, of these remote participants can trigger extreme responses in those who are putting on the show. And the sudden surge of incidents in early 2016 suggests we have only seen the beginning of this phenomenon.
Now that the example has been set, more will follow. The dystopian premise — that humanity’s violent impulses can be channeled and pacified through vicarious experience –ultimately fails in the real world. Violence begets violence. Whatever demons drive us are not sated by the spectacle, they are amplified.
Photo Credit: Universal History Archive / Contributor