When President Obama delivered his farewell address, he took stock of his achievements, including his push to close the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (Gitmo).
His signature efforts, however, appear on the verge of reversal as President Trump recently declared that torture works: It should not be stepped back and “we must fight fire with fire.”
Curiously enough, the notion of “fighting fire with fire” is echoed within the practice, rhetoric and visual output of ISIS.
Gitmo remains in operation despite a long list of abuses against inmates. In one particularly gruesome case described in the CIA’s 2014 torture report, a detainee on a hunger strike was forced to undergo the infusing of hummus into his anal cavity.
A number of medical doctors were quick to point out that this type of force-feeding—a practice made more palatable to the public with the label “rectal rehydration and feeding”—bore no discernible benefits for the fasting inmate. To the contrary, it is no more than a grisly form of sodomy.
For those who remember the infamous photos of Abu Ghraib, the American military prison in Iraq, this sexualized form of torture within U.S. detention centers appears to reveal Gitmo’s masochistic pedigree stretching back more than a dozen years.
From Abu Ghraib to Gitmo, a number of obscene images have been seared into our minds. We can easily conjure visions of stripped and defiled bodies, rendered symbolically headless by black hoods, piled atop one another like slabs of raw meat, or made to stand with hands outstretched for prodding and electrocution.
Other “stock images” that have sailed across our screens are populated by rows of prisoners, clad in jailbird-orange jumpsuits, forced to kneel to the ground, or solitary inmates clinging to the bars of their isolation cells.
Prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca and other U.S. military prisons in Iraq coalesced with the formation of ISIS. As the militant group emerged on the world stage, it crafted its own origin tales. Along the way, it made use of the stock images, upping the ante by bringing them to life.
The militants, together with their operatives and sympathizers, have crafted slick graphics and videos purposefully made for quick distribution via the Internet. Thanks to ISIS’s mastery of clickbait tactics, their images of violence, death and torture went viral on social media platforms, especially in 2015.
Viewers looked on as the militants captured prisoners, including the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were forced to wear orange jumpsuits and kneel to the ground before their decapitation.
Others, like the captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, were also made to wear orange jumpsuits as they stood in jail cells and were torched to death. We have seen still other hostages reduced to orange bodies floating in metal cages as they are dunked and drowned in pools of water.
Left aghast by these spectacles of extreme cruelty, onlookers and pundits were quick to label ISIS a “medieval” and “barbaric” entity—a horrid “Islamo-fascist” throwback to dark and uncivilized times. Some scholars attempted to offer correctives, stressing that during the medieval period, Islamic societies experienced a “Golden Age” of science, learning and long stretches of peaceful cohabitation among Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Still others have been quick to note that ISIS is “viciously modern.” For their part, the majority of Muslims have denounced the actions of ISIS militants, going so far as to refuse to recognize them as belonging to the Islamic faith.
What many of these explanations tend to overlook is that ISIS’s production of gruesome visuals forms part of a hypermodern-branding strategy that does not speak in soliloquy.
These images tempt their viewers, to the point of making it difficult to turn away. They dare our eyes to detect in those orange jumpsuits and metal cells the material furnishings of the American military–penal complex, and they scheme to suggest that the carnage left behind by ISIS mimics the human debris scattered about by America’s “War on Terror.”
In this eerie game of role reversal, actors trade places, and captors become captives.
At a purely iconographic level, such images twist and turn in a deadly tango. This parasitic visual tactic points its finger back toward a very specific host. It unleashes a fury ignited by the ethos of one-upmanship.
ISIS’s strategy of revenge through brutal images, rhetoric and deeds should not come as a surprise, however. After all, its founder and leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was held in the Iraqi prisons of Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, the latter renowned as ISIS’s birthplace and “terror academy.”
ISIS’s self-images first raged across our screens roughly two years ago, when the group emerged as a force to be reckoned with, and its most ferocious visuals remain foundational; since then, such images have declined to a trickle.
On the one hand, this dwindling (but not disappearance) in violent imagery is due to the jihadi group having successfully achieved its goal of creating a formidable profile—clinching its particular “brand,” if you will. On the other hand, its visual propaganda has been seriously curtailed thanks to American technological and military efforts to decimate its communication systems and personnel, among them ISIS’s chief propagandist, who was killed by U.S. strikes in September 2016.
Today, we are hearing calls to deny ISIS access to Twitter. Such tools of mass communication no doubt must be carefully controlled. Similarly, it goes without saying that detention centers can play an important role in disrupting threats at home and elsewhere in the world.
As our conversations now tackle the urgent necessity of reforming prisons and releasing an enormous population of inmates on the domestic front, we also must seriously ponder the deleterious effects of the U.S. military–penal complex abroad. Dismantling—or at least diminishing—these loci of disenfranchisement and radicalization would be one way to stop feeding the loop of violence.
We may find it preposterous to enter into a dialogue with ISIS, to read and decode the images it has been sending to American viewers. To do so would be at our own grave peril.
Now more than ever, we must pay attention to what ISIS is trying to tell us through its visuals: namely, that it was born and bred into vengeance within the American military-penal complex.
In the end, ISIS warns us that if we continue to fight fire with fire, we must prepare ourselves for a long and vicious war of “tit for tat.” This war certainly will not be won through increased incarceration and torture, or an entry ban on Muslim refugees who have been rendered homeless and stateless by ISIS.
Christiane Gruber is associate professor at the University of Michigan. Her primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written two books and edited a volume of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalog of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles, The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual culture and postrevolutionary Iranian visual and material culture, about which she has written several articles. She is currently writing her next book, The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images.