(Top image: the child ISIS had murder a man in a recent propaganda video)
The so-called Islamic State has seemingly done the impossible: earlier this month it released what is arguably its most shocking and abhorrent atrocity video yet.
This is quite a statement, of course: ISIS has made a lot of truly shocking and abhorrent atrocity videos. Some of these depict mass beheadings, burnings, drownings and stonings – all in horrible high definition close-up. The new video, titled "Made Me Alive with His Own Blood", features the murder of a broken and defenceless man at the hands of a three-year-old boy. A. Three. Year. Old.
There is something unedifying about rating ISIS videos for their shock impact, just as there is something off about marvelling at their "slickness" and sophistication when it comes to propaganda. But the latest atrocity video represents a qualitative shift in depravity, and it is important to understand why and what it means.
It is well known that ISIS has created a vast and sophisticated apparatus for recruiting and indoctrinating children into its brutal ideology, and this isn't the first time ISIS has used children as executioners in its videos. One of these, released in January of 2015, showed a ten-year old Kazakh boy shooting to death two men accused of spying. Another, released in July that same year, showed boys as young as 13 or 14 executing 25 Syrian soldiers in an amphitheatre in the ancient city of Palmyra.
But this latest atrocity video features not a boy, but a very young child. This is new: a radical innovation in political atrocity that goes beyond the paradigm of what we conventionally understand as terrorism. For this isn't terrorism, commonly understood. This is horrorism: a form of violence so monstrous and transgressive that it corrupts our most fundamental notions of what it means to be human and civilised.
According to the political philosopher Adriana Cavarero, who has written a book on the subject, horrorism "has nothing to do with the instinctive reaction to the threat of death", and everything to do with "an instinctive disgust". Horrorism, in other words, arouses not fear or terror, but rather a deep repugnance that sickens us to our stomachs.
And few things are as disgust-evoking as the image of a three-year-old shooting to death a helpless and traumatised man. There are two central reasons for this. First, it violates our deepest beliefs about the innocence of children. For ISIS, the militarised child reflects the power and durability of its ideology: the caliphate may be shrinking, but its essential foundations are in good condition. For everyone else, this child represents the defilement of a purity to which we accord an almost sacred status.
Second, it presents a grotesque asymmetry: between the smallness of the killer and the magnitude of the deed he is forced to commit. It just doesn't add up: murder is such a heinous act, and yet here is a killer who has only just learned to walk and can barely hold a gun.
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The image of the infant jihadist unnerves in other ways, too, subliminally reminding us of that most horrifying of all monsters: the demonic child. In Evil Children in the Popular Imagination, the English scholar Karen J Renner estimates that there are over 600 films in which "some kind of arguably evil child" is portrayed, with almost 400 made since 2000.
One of the most disquieting movies in this genre is Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Shining. The central character of the movie – Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicolson – descends into madness and tries to kill his wife and son. But it's the son, Danny, who is the more unnerving presence, seemingly in communion with a silent and ominous supernatural force. He sees and hears things. And what he sees and hears is horrifying, like the two little Grady girls down a hall, who in one second invite him to come and play, and in the next lie on the floor in a pool of blood, having been butchered to death. Or like the elevator whose doors release an ocean of dark blood.
Children, as Stephen King has observed, can be "uncivilised and not very nice". They are unruly and impressionable, and in some ways strange and "other". So it's not surprising that they serve as a repository of our fears. The monstrous child motif in horror movies mercilessly plays on these. And so, it seems, does ISIS, with its endless stream of videos featuring the so-called "cubs of the caliphate".
One of the biggest stories on ISIS since it came to global prominence in mid-2014 centred on three British teenage schoolgirls who had absconded to Islamic State-controlled territory in February of 2015. One classmate described the girls as "studious, argumentative and driven". The youngest, who was 15 at the time, apparently used to be a fan of the reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Another had reportedly danced "in her teenage bedroom" the night before she left for Syria.
Yet, for all their reported ordinariness, the girls had somehow fallen under the "spell" of ISIS to become "jihadi brides". According to Britain's then-Prime Minister David Cameron, they had been "radicalised in their bedrooms". Keith Vaz, the then-chairman of Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee, said in a special hearing to which the families of the girls were invited that what had happened was "every parent's nightmare".
This story, despite the haziness of the details about the girls' motives and how they became radicalised, was instantly generalised into a moral fable about innocent children and their vulnerability to ISIS's ideology. But what it really resembled was a script from a horror movie about teenage girls and demonic possession: a shadowy, evil force had inscribed itself into their minds – via an electronic screen – and turned them into sex-mad, husband-chasing, ideological fanatics, whose parents could no longer recognise them. They were once just "ordinary teenagers". And then they entered the jihadist twilight zone and became "jihadi brides", whose mouths frothed with monstrous bile.
As the caliphate shrinks, ISIS's ability to conduct large-scale terrorist attacks will correspondingly diminish. But it will continue to horrify us with its sickening videos of jihadist children, stirring up deep, primordial fears about our own mysterious and ever-so impressionable children.
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