Mulhall column: The rhetoric of terrorism
In 1644, at the height of the English Civil War, Parliament contemplated licensing the press. Having dissolved the Star Chamber, Parliament grew increasingly irritated as everyone with access to a printing press began opining, creating a 17th century mini social media emergence without Facebook or Twitter.
To oppose government licensing of publishers, the English poet John Milton published a speech in pamphlet form titled Areopagitica. In it he wrote, “Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably.” Milton argued the value of free speech saying, in part, good and evil are intertwined. Reading one reveals the other.
Surely Milton would never have envisioned the lengths an American comedian would go several centuries later to prove him right.
Last May, Kathy Griffin posted a video of herself holding a prop resembling the bloodied severed head of President Trump on her Instagram and Twitter accounts. She captioned the video “there was blood coming out of his eyes, blood coming out of his … wherever,” echoing a comment candidate Trump made about Megyn Kelly’s moderation of an August 2015 Republican presidential debate.
Griffin’s video parrots terrorist beheading videos that became tragically commonplace just over a decade ago.
The first of these beheading videos portrayed the slaughter of a Wall Street Journal South Asia Bureau chief in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 1, 2002, by the hand of 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM).
Two years later, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who formed al-Tawid wal-Jihad in Iraq, took KSM’s grainy, arguably unsophisticated videography to a then-state-of-the-art production level, distributing footage of 10 beheadings — three American — between May and October 2004 to the budding Qatar-based news agency Al Jazeera and, for even broader consumption, the Internet.
These beheadings were not by the swift blow of a sword, ax or guillotine, but by the comparatively slow slicing and sawing of a live victim’s neck with a common knife. The footage typically ended with the terrorist in the pose Kathy Griffin borrowed — the vanquisher parading the victim’s head by the hair — followed by dishonoring the victim with the placement of his head, empty stare to camera, on his chest-down corpse, steadied between shoulder blades and zip-tied wrists.
If you’ve never seen a Zarqawi video, they’re not titillating. The Arabic narrative needs no subtitles. The terrorist’s message could not be clearer. Butchery transcends the spoken word.
So what does it say when an otherwise thoughtful individual who no doubt champions equality, tolerance and multiculturalism chooses the rhetoric of terrorism to protest a sitting U.S. president? Three answers come to mind.
First, ideology is not theology, but the rhetoric of terrorism blurs this otherwise obvious distinction. Kathy Griffin and her terrorist counterparts may not stand on the same ground, but the sand beneath their feet definitely is the exact same temperature. Zarqawi eliminated life on a theological basis; Griffin devalued it on an ideological one. The likeness is greater than the contrast, an unholy conflation of theology and ideology prevalent in secularism.
Second, a mock presidential beheading video is not a real presidential beheading video. It’s protected free speech. Ask anyone.
In Schenck v U.S., Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes limited free speech, writing you can’t falsely shout “fire” in a theater. Echoing Milton, Holmes continued in the same paragraph, “The question in every case is whether the [expressions] used … create a clear and present danger [to] bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
If Ms. Griffin’s video is free speech, we’re left with Milton’s solace that her video reveals what good isn’t. While channeling a modern incarnation of mortal human debasement, perhaps surpassed only by using passenger airliners as tactical weapons, may not be yelling “fire” in a theater, it pushes the line between good and what Holmes and Milton deemed substantive evil.
Finally, using the rhetoric of terrorism evaluates life by thought. The value of a person’s life is a function of what that person thinks. Converse to American tradition, this substitutes like-mindedness not just for liberty, but for life itself. The extent to which a viewpoint deviates from a preferred doctrine of superiority — theological, ideological or hybrid — determines an individual’s value, and, by extension, the value of the individual’s life. It’s quite discriminatory.
You’d think the rhetoric of terrorism would cross a line, a boundary of humanity that, once breached, provides no real way back, yet the news cycle has moved on, and not even the two Jims — Devine (#HuntRepublicanCongressmen) and Hodgkinson — fail to stanch media yawns over Griffin’s video.
In a 2004 letter intercepted in Iraq and attributed to abu-Musab al-Zarqawi by the U.S. State Department, the infamous terrorist described his plans to destabilize post-war Iraq by inciting sectarian violence: “[Shi’a Muslims] in our opinion are the key to change. I mean that targeting and hitting them in religious, political and military depth will provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies and bare the teeth of the hidden rancor working in their breasts.”
Were John Milton alive today, perhaps he would agree Griffin has more in common with Zarqawi than barbaric videography.
Mitch Mulhall is a longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.
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