Shock and Awe Terrorism

Ms. Camille Pecastaing, Orlando: An Act of “Shockism”

The word “terrorism” entered the lexicon in the late eighteenth century. What was then a neologism has since become such a familiar term that its meaning has been stretched rather thin. Current events demand that our vocabulary be expanded to acknowledge an essential distinction between terrorism and what could be called “shockism.”

Terrorism uses violence to set in motion a political dynamic. “Shockism” uses violence to induce revulsive publicity. There is some overlap between the two. Both have recourse to indiscriminate violence toward civilians. Sometimes terrorists use shockism for publicity. Sometimes “shockists” claim a political agenda, because passing as terrorists is likely to amplify their publicity impact. But they should not be confused, and it is critical to understand that the hateful acts that make the news today—such as the recent mass shooting in Orlando—are one part terrorism and two parts shockism.

The attacks of 9/11 are a good example of the hybridization between shockism and terrorism. Like the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 was terrorism, with a clear political message sent to the US government. But like the Columbine massacre, it was shockism, designed to impress global minds with an extraordinary, if politically futile, performance. It is this dual nature of 9/11 that, in the years since, has furthered the confusion and cross-pollination between terrorism and shockism. As a result, terrorists who could have had a genuine political strategy occasionally lost their bearings, and engaged in expressionist atrocities that ultimately hurt their cause. Conversely, social outcasts in search of acknowledgement have framed their lethal performance in Islamist terms, hoping to appropriate some of the fame Al Qaeda acquired on and after 9/11.

Since the mid-2000s, the so-called “terrorist” attacks in Europe and the United States have been of the performative, shockist kind. The perpetrators were psychologically or socially unstable, and plotted and executed mass killings to give a purpose and finality to their lives. There is no need for a political and geostrategic analysis here; a socio-psychological diagnosis suffices. Shocking is a form of personal expression relatively common among social marginals, both in isolation and in clusters. In fact, each generation produces cliques of teenagers and young adults who invent fashions and lingoes and adopt provocative behaviors to offend those around them and escape anonymity. Think of zoot suiters, mods, hippies, punks, and rappers; and think of those who, like skinheads, gangbangers and riotous soccer fans, find in violence their distinctive trademark. The street brawls and rioting of hooligans, like the mass killings of terrorist wannabes, express an identity that desires to stand out in the frighteningly vast social landscape. Performances derive their power from the relation with an audience. It is not just the action of the performer, but also the reaction of the public to it that, together, create an event. If the goal is to provoke the most intense reaction—be it abhorrence—violence will generally do that. You simply need the courage to live (or die) with the consequences.

Killing is a moral statement that elevates the assailant over his victims. It is not part of a global plot, but the gory street performance of a lifetime, an act of pure self-gratification within one’s own cultural frame of reference. The fact is that each attack, however pointless, has inspired and legitimized the next. The Fort Hood shooter (2009) inspired the Boston Marathon bombers (2013) who inspired the San Bernardino shooters (2015) who likely inspired the Orlando shooter (2016). A similar trail can be found in Europe, one tragedy feeding into the next. The killings will not increase in frequency, but they have no reason to stop as long as the psychological and cultural environment is what it is.

The Muslim world exhibits such a formidable array of violence that blood and death are central to our ideas of the region. And the immediate and intense reactivity of Western political elites, media, and public to any kind of violent Islamified performance is guaranteed to preserve its appeal. It will not be easy to do anything about the region, but it would be worth withholding from suicidal provocateurs some of the attention they crave.

Rather than raising hysteria over guns it would be much more productive if the social and political elite could find it in themselves to focus on the socio-psychological nature of the perpetrators of mass violence. A different reaction is needed, one that would deny the prepetrator of a mass shooting the sort of sick gratification he and his imitators desperately seek.

The progression from civilized young men to barbaric savages depicted in The Lord of the Flies is not what we see in Orlando killer Omar Mateen or the killer at Fort Hood, The Sarnaev brothers or the San Bernadino shooters. These aren’t people who needed several steps to approach their final evil performance. They went quickly from civilized to savage all too easily and naturally.

It’s interesting that Ms. Pecastaing left out the Aurora Theater shooting from her list of each atrocity begetting the next one. Ofd course, James Holmes is not a Muslim and his awful performance does seem to have been different, an act of pure evil with no political context that we know of. That bout of savagery seems not to be a blend of terrorism and shockism, but rather one hundred percent shockism solely for the purpose of publicity and revulsion.

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