Atrocity stories are a staple of war propaganda. Harold Lasswell, writing in 1927, understood that they are a necessary ritual to motivate an otherwise reluctant public with images of a murderous aggressor. For the enemy to be perceived as satanic, he must be represented as “atrociously cruel and degenerate in his conduct of the War” (Propaganda Technique in World War I, MIT Press edition, p. 81).
Accordingly, beheadings of captive Westerners by the Islamic State provoked the public to support the Obama administration’s bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.
The logic of war reduces to the premise that you must destroy such an enemy by military force. You cannot negotiate with evil.
Atrocity stories are told selectively, according to perceived interests of state, as determined by political authorities. Liz Sly reported in the Washington Post, October 20, 2014, on the international silence following a vengeful three-day period of beheading, crucifixion, shooting, and shelling. In this case, the Islamic State killed 700 members of a Shaitat tribe in a remote village of eastern Syria. But Iraq, not Syria, was the administration’s main focus at the time. Thus, the momentary silence: tactical selectivity on the propaganda front.
Given the gruesome image of beheadings, it comes as quite a surprise to learn that the Danes are dialoguing with the West’s satanic foe. Well, not all Danes, but some of them—including city officials in Aarhus, who are trying “a soft-handed approach to returned Islamist fighters” (Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet, Washington Post, October 19, 2014). What’s that about?
It seems as though Aarhus officials believe that more can be achieved by providing returning jihadists with counseling, education, and jobs than by locking them up. They are treating them as wayward youth instead of as terrorists. They’ve gone so far as to work with a local mosque to open a community dialogue. The mosque has hosted conversations among police, city officials, and returned fighters and constructive debates on the relationship of religion to law and freedom of speech.
The mayor of Aarhus is intent upon showing these young people that his city is sincere about dialogue. Now there’s a novel idea.