Revulsion over the video made by ISIS of the savage execution of a captured Jordanian pilot has eclipsed a reality that’s even more remarkable than the barbarism the film celebrates: That it’s an intensely crafted piece of video, the work of people with a sophisticated understanding of the power of visual propaganda and a keen grasp of the uses to which advanced media can be bent in advancing their cause and winning new followers.
The video is no mere snuff film. It’s nothing like the grainy, almost pornographic movies that ISIS—the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—made last year of the beheadings of journalists and aid workers.
This is in a whole different league cinematically—a 22-minute morality play constructed almost like a trial, woven from film, animation and informational graphics, and given a texture, a pace, and a narrative coherence that’s shrewdly crafted, chilling, and thoroughly contemporary.
In it, the Jordanian pilot, 26-year-old Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, is portrayed as a tool of a multinational cabal united against ISIS. He is linked visually to the destruction of civilian targets and the horrific deaths of children, who are repeatedly shown burnt and mangled.
Kasasbeh is made to face, literally, buildings on a deserted city street that were shattered by the air war he waged. And finally he’s put to death in a harrowing execution that he almost seems to accept.
The video opens with images that portray Jordan’s King Abdullah II as a Western stooge, hobnobbing with President Obama while Jordanian soldiers train with their U.S. counterparts. Footage of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq is shown. Then comes a montage showing Jordanian F16s alongside facsimiles of engineering blueprints, which dissolve into orange balls of flame as the warplanes’ munitions hit their targets.
We first see Lt. Kasasbeh in documentary news footage of his Dec. 24 capture, which gives way to a closeup in which he’s speaking to the camera, sitting in what looks like a studio set. For the next nine minutes, he speaks, apparently describing operational details of his mission. He’s filmed against a black background, and he wears an orange jumpsuit, which thanks to Guantanamo has become the de facto uniform of the forsaken and the doomed; he has a black eye and small cuts on his face.
His talk is illustrated and interrupted by informational graphics, which offer an animated reconstruction of his fateful mission, line drawings of the GBU laser-guided weapons he and his comrades purportedly used, icons of the various warplanes used against ISIS and the flags of the countries flying them, trajectories of planes originating from deep in the Arabian peninsula, showing their mid-air refueling rendezvous points, map coordinates, and techno-looking displays of telemetry read-outs used for targeting.
Suddenly the image of a warplane from the rear, soaring toward its target, explodes into multiple images of detonations and fire, and in the center of the screen is film of a tiny diapered infant, a respirator held over its face, the plane advancing toward it. More images of destruction, intensifying, then pictures of terribly injured children, torn, dismembered, charred, some dead, others not.
Again we see Lt. Kasasbeh in his orange jumpsuit and sandals, only now he’s outside, wandering through ruins, seemingly dazed, and behind him is a line of camouflage-wearing soldiers, their faces masked, assault rifles held in robotic diagonals across their chests. Then the scene cuts to chaotic images of nighttime rescue crews pawing through ruined buildings, then back to the prisoner and the grim chorus of soldiers, an operatic touch, as the camera comes in tight on his face. Is his expression one of remorse, or just terror? Who can say.
Soon it’s over. He’s pictured next in an outdoor cage, where he watches the approaching line of flame and he’s burned alive, and finally his incinerated body and its makeshift prison are both crushed into the earth, annihilated, by a bulldozer, the entire sequence followed by a montage of photos and names of other Jordanian air force officers whose death sentences ISIS pronounces.
It is a nasty piece of work. Let me make two points. The pilot’s capture, imprisonment, and execution were carefully managed in order to produce this video. Whatever benefit ISIS leaders might have derived from a ransom or a prisoner exchange was deliberately rejected in favor of the propaganda value they figured they’d reap from using him as a prop in this film. That means the video doesn’t just record a reality that would’ve happened anyway; the video is why it happened.
Second, and just as disturbing, this is powerful stuff. The authors have carefully harnessed well-wrought multi-media skills to the task of deflecting attention from their own record of monstrous brutality toward helpless civilians, and toward making an act of unimaginable cruelty seem just and fitting.
I would hope that this country, where most of the techniques they adopted were pioneered and refined, has an adequate response in the same media realm where this battle of ideas and imagery is being waged.