Watching ISIS Immolations Makes Us Complicit in Its Theater of the Grotesque

While we are distracted by dramas on TV, untelevised horrors go on, and whether we watch or change the channel, we are part of the evil as we try to survive.

Hadani Ditmars
Hadani Ditmars
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Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh standing in a cage just before being burned to death by his captors from ISIS.
Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh standing in a cage just before being burned to death by his captors from ISIS.Credit: AP
Hadani Ditmars
Hadani Ditmars

The stage-managed drama of ISIS’ latest horror video reminded me of many things: a snuff film for crazed ideologues; a medieval spectacle of ritualized violence and ultimately a bad Hollywood B movie.

But it also had an element of theater of the grotesque – the Latin-American cousin to theater of the absurd that was perfected by Argentinian playwright Griselda Gambaro. Her work, inspired by la Guerra Sucia and the political violence that lead up to it, would seem ripe for revival in light of our terrible, new dirty wars.

In case you did not share the unique pleasure of encountering her work during your undergraduate years, you can rely on a handy theater website for a succinct description:

"Gambaro’s work breaks with realist drama. Her characters often find themselves in an absurd, yet nightmarish predicament and through her inventive black comedy, Gambaro’s audience consistently becomes an unwitting participant in the bullying, cruelty, torture and violence which takes place on stage."

One of her best known plays "Las Paredes" (The Walls) concerns the interrogation and dehumanization of an innocent young man boxed into an increasingly confined and shrinking space, who must “confess” his crimes.

While the 1964 play is about Argentinian generals, it rings true today in many ways.

Watching the ISIS images of the horrific execution of the young Jordanian pilot and then re-reading the play about the innocent young man slowly swallowed by iron bars, I couldn’t help but feel that on some level we are all those young men, trapped in metal cages.

We, the "99 percent," are pinned by a "1 percent" that wants to make us “with them or against them,” when in reality we are all on the sidelines, watching the bad cinema unfold. And yet, as with the Gambaro play, our gaze makes us complicit.

Our collective guilt and innocence plays out on a world stage that is increasingly televisual and increasingly surreal (old-fashioned theater feels more compellingly “real” to me than watching CNN). And yet we have entered a brave new world of barbarism.

A world where an anonymous click of a mouse or the drop of a drone can seal a fate. A world where the weak have no protection and the strong have bankers and lawyers and dictators on their side.

Let us mourn a world where international law once mattered
Or at least let's pretend it once existed. A world where our naked aggression is not sugarcoated by technology. A world where the actual is distinguishable from the televisual.

Let us compare obscenities, shall we? Many of them are less televised than others. Not just the memory of bombs in Hiroshima or napalm in Vietnam that burned victims alive or the ongoing campaign of violence against Muslims in Burma that effectively does the same. Let us remember white phosphorus in Gaza, and in Falluja, that melted flesh. (It’s okay, you can look away from the stage now, I know it’s hard to watch).

Let us recall in horror that the carnage in Syria has gone on unabated now for years, that the number of orphans and widows and refugees rivals Iraq – a country that has endured decades of war and conflict only for its people to be conflated with their tormentors. And that countries like Jordan – where poor Muath al-Kasaesbeh was from – have borne the brunt of three successive waves of refugees: from Palestine, from Iraq and now from Syria. Let us remember that nothing happens in a vacuum, that blowback policies endanger everyone, and that unspeakable violence can often turn a tidy profit for the enterprising and the privileged.

Let us remember that while we are distracted by revenge dramas on TV, untelevised horrors go on. Some of us may be more complicit in all of this than others – through our tax dollars, or our silence. But most of us are just trying to survive.

We are all on that stage, defending our innocence in the face of absurdist extremes, clinging to the iron bars for protection, even as they are closing in on us.

Let us remember the scene in Gambaro’s "Las Paredes," where the young man hears a scream off-stage and compares the sound to “somebody about to surrender his soul,” and let us not be so quick to surrender our own, even in this ongoing theater of the grotesque.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of "Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq," a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book is a political travelogue of ancient sites.

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