ISIS Atrocity Videos: Training the Next Generation

According to recent news reports from CNN and the Christian Science Monitor: ISIS groups are teaching young children about their cause using particular kinds of videos. These videos display beheadings of hostages, among other atrocities.

What kind of group would find this is a good idea? We know the answer to that question. The answer is that only a group of deprived, chaotic, and enraged human beings would subject its children to such images. The purpose of these images is to terrify children, induce traumata, and generate PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Within the aura of PTSD one cannot think; one cannot discern past from present, one cannot distinguish former enemies from friends and family.

Why would that be these parents' goals? Because they themselves live in permanent states of excitation, trauma, and rage. That rage may have many sources. For some it may be experiences of the wars that have swept across Iraq and Syria these past decades. For others it may be particular to their own stories and their own families.

While the sources of this excited rage are variable, the consequence is the same: an addiction to violence and to perpetuating terror in others. In that hyper-aroused state spreading their addiction to terror to their children and to others by social media is a form of pleasure. That guarantees another generation of traumatized, unthinking children who if not helped will grow up to mimic their elders. Among the millions of young people around the world who view ISIS atrocity videos a few will find them fascinating. In the bloodshed and triumphalism celebrated in these videos they will find a solution to their fragmentation and yearning. They are called out of individual despair to lives of heroic sacrifice for the good of a 'religious' ideal. Suicide in a lonely apartment is shameful and ignored by the world; suicide as a godly warrior is, ISIS says, heroic. It is an act of martyrdom broadcast across the world.

No doubt there are specific grievances felt by some members of ISIS. However, the most visible feature of ISIS propaganda is their love affair with violence. This helps account for their fascination with atrocity videos, including videos that show them doing heinous actions. Unlike typical war criminals, who hide their crimes, ISIS broadcasts their actions. These are brilliant, even if perverse advertisements for ecstatic relief. Atrocity videos are the inverse of spiritual healing; they are designed, with great skill, to deepen the wounds of the viewers. Most of us find them ghastly; we feel sorrow, disgust, and yearning for revenge: we want to destroy those who delight in killing the innocent. Propagandists have always known this. Typically one nation ascribes atrocities to its enemies: their enemies attack the innocent; their enemies profane what is holy; they desecrate bodies. To undo those crimes we must go to war. In contrast, ISIS's propagandists celebrate perpetrators not victims of atrocity.

This helps explain the success of their propaganda efforts. By producing new generations of traumatized children who grow up to be enraged adults ISIS perpetuates itself. By inducing fascination in those who yearn to shed blood and to die for something greater than themselves ISIS draws thousands of young people to its war.

Atrocity propaganda has a third, important value for ISIS. By displaying its criminal treatment of innocents it induces some people to condemn everyone remotely tied to the religion of Islam. In that way a tiny fragment of a great world religion magically speaks for the hopes and dreams of 1 billion normal people. When Westerners react to ISIS as if it were genuine Islam they strengthen ISIS. Primitive thinking that generates atrocity provokes primitive thinking in us. By claiming to be devout Muslims ISIS propagandists compel some non-Muslims to sink into an equally primitive error: ISIS 'Muslims' are cruel, therefore all Muslims must be cruel and untrustworthy. When millions of people share that error ISIS records its greatest triumph. We cannot deny ISIS's ability to distort the minds of some chaotic, young people; we can deny them the ability to distort our thinking.