‘Islamic State’; The New Jesse James

June 13, 2016

by Martin Odoni

Owen Jones is a guy I agree with more often than not – though not always – and true to form, I would like to express agreement with him again. What I agree with is his decision on Sunday to storm off the set at Sky News at the end of an increasingly bitter discussion of the horrendous massacre in Orlando.

Now Jones will know his own mind better than anyone else will, and so he hardly needs me (a blogger he has doubtless never even heard of) to explain his reasons for leaving the set. Indeed, he has briefly written his reasons in the Guardian. But I thought I would add my tuppence-worth, as there was an aspect of the way the segment was being discussed that I found bothersome in other ways.

The segment was one of those routine features on TV news broadcasts that I never quite understand the need for – a look at the daily newspapers. Seeing a news studio has its own work to do, why it would want to use up airtime giving exposure to other outlets has always been a bit beyond my grasp. The discussion focused on the way the Daily Telegraph had summarised the atrocity, but there was a strange sort of ‘overbearing coyness’, oxymoron though that may sound like, on the very, very obvious homophobia of Omar Mateen, and its clear motivation for the attack.

Now, I am sorry, Sky News (no actually I am not, I will never meaningfully apologise to the Murdoch media, for reasons that regular readers of this blog will be well aware of by now), but Jones’ anger is quite correct. The presenter seemed to be unaccountably desperate to turn the Orlando attack into a kind of ‘everyman’ incident, rather than speak of it as the attack on the LGBTQ community that it undoubtedly was. As Jones tried to say during the conversation but was repeatedly cut off, if Mateen had attacked a Synagogue instead of a gay club, it would be described without hesitation as an attack on the Jewish community. No need would have been seen to call it an ‘attack on everyone’ or an ‘attack on human beings’. That would not only have been needlessly vague and obscure, it would also have been dishonest as it would disregard the important reality that some communities are treated worse than others.

Watching the conversation unfolding, I got the toe-curling impression that the presenter was almost too embarrassed to acknowledge the LGBTQ community as a community in its own right. Too embarrassed to respect and acknowledge the identity that was so viciously assaulted on Sunday. Did he almost think anyone outside that community would just not be interested unless he could give the attack a ‘heterosexuality-related’ veneer, by only referring to the victims as ‘human beings’? That is condescending to both the LGBTQ community and the wider public; does he honestly imagine that people do not know that gay people are as human as the rest of us? (Well all right, some people out there genuinely refuse to acknowledge it, but thankfully they are a receding minority.)

My distaste for this silly ‘I-don’t-know-how-to-talk-about-gay-people-without-blushing’ attitude was amplified as the presenter uncritically regurgitated the Telegraph‘s irresponsible leap-to-conclusions that this was an attack organised by Daesh – from which he tried to fit Orlando in with the Paris Attacks last November. In fact, although Omar Mateen appears to have had past links to terrorist groups – and indeed he may even have committed the attack in the name of Daesh – all the evidence so far uncovered indicates that he was operating alone. Mateen planned the attack himself, he obtained the weapon himself, he carried out the massacre himself. He was a member of Daesh because he had simply decided that he was. There is also no doubt from prior comments he made to co-workers that Mateen was driven by a primitive loathing for homosexuals.

Therefore the context Sky News and the Telegraph were presenting was, characteristically, very misleading; an attempt to brush aside embarrassing, awkward homophobia, and replace it with some fashionably stirred-up islamophobia. Introducing Daesh into the discussion adds fuel to the ‘Islamic State bogeyman’ semi-fantasy that too many in the West are becoming excessively afraid of. The same phenomenon was happening in the years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC, in the shape of the ‘al-Qaeda‘ semi-fantasy. ‘al-Qaeda’ is an organisation that, in the sense people normally think of it – a unified worldwide network of terrorist cells – does not even exist and probably never did. It was never even called ‘al-Qaeda’ until Governments in the West started using the term, due to a partial mistranslation of an intercepted Jihadist communication. This organisation’s power and reach was so hysterically exaggerated after 9/11 that many people all over the West genuinely feared that it was poised to conquer the world.

Just like ‘al-Qaeda’ before it, Daesh/ISIL’s reach and strength are being heavily overstated, and Sky News’ attempt to portray every moment of violence by a Muslim as “another dastardly scheme by Islamic State!!!” (complete with verbal-images of a stereotype Arab tweaking his moustache and grinning devilishly) is deceitful.

Unfortunately, Sky News are certainly not the only ones doing it. The campaign to Leave the European Union has plumbed nauseating new depths of indecency, taking cynical advantage of the Orlando massacre with a completely dishonest, scaremongering post to social media. It was so deceitful and so indefensibly libellous that even the ineffable Nigel Farage has distanced himself from it. But some people are genuinely taken in by it and really imagine that the atrocity could be replicated here unless borders are closed. That is in spite of the fact that the massacre was committed in the USA by a 29 year-old man who was born in the USA, who was brought up and educated in the USA, who spent his entire life living in the USA, and who obtained the gun in the USA under the laws of the USA that freely allowed him to carry it in any part of the USA. Where immigration, of all things, comes into the massacre, which appears instead to be yet another consequence of the insane absence of gun controls in the USA, is not entirely clear. The discussion is being turned into the wrong issue, doubtless to the delight of the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association. They want people panicking about Muslims, not worrying about the very real destruction caused by the USA’s out-of-control gun culture.

This ISIL/ISIS/Daesh hysteria conforms to a familiar historical pattern, and oddly enough, it is partly another American one. Paranoia against ‘ISIL’ is akin to the old ‘Jesse James’ syndrome in 19th Century America, in which, every time a train or coach was held up in the Old West, the terrified victim could never accept that it was just any old thief stealing his every worldly possession. Oh no no no, it had to be Jesse James! Jesse James was the most famous criminal in the Old West, he was terrifying just when he was spoken of, so when anyone was terrifyingly robbed at gunpoint, it had to be Jesse James.

Ten years ago, every time a Muslim – possibly even every time someone Asian-or-Arab-looking – fired a gun, it could never be that it was just an ordinary criminal. Oh no no no, it had to be ‘al-Qaeda’! ‘al-Qaeda’ was the most famous terrorist organisation in the world, it was terrifying just when it was spoken of, so when anyone saw a terrifying violent death, it had to be ‘al-Qaeda’.

For ‘Jesse James’ and ‘al-Qaeda’, we now substitute ‘Islamic State’.

But never mind the labels. Every time we go through these ‘bogeyman’ fantasies, it is the same ghost story we are re-living, over and over, only with the characters renamed. The thing about ghost stories is that they are normally only believed by children, so those of us who are not children really ought to grow up, and stop believing such over-simplified narratives.

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