Ever since the ISIS murderer and propagandist ‘Jihadi John’ was revealed to be a British engineering graduate called Mohammed Emwazi, our news media has been saturated with reports about his school days, his personality, and the possible causes of his radicalisation: he ran into a goalpost as a kid; he went to school with Tulisa…
The coverage grates. Its full of cod-psychological comments from former pupils at his school, noting the fact that he was a ‘loner’. Reading these quotes, I’m reminded of one of the insights from Serial, the podcast phenomenon about the murder of a Baltimore schoolgirl Hae Min Lee in 1999. That series makes the point that people are susceptible to a confirmation bias in their memories. When told that someone is a murderer, people naturally recall those incidents where the person acted weird or like a ‘loner’. But alternatively, those who are convinced that the convicted person is innocent remember him as friendly and outgoing.
I think we lap up these reports about Mohammed Emwazi’s character because they reassure us that we could never be like him. In portraying him as an inately disturbed person, we avoid having to deal with the question of whether it is society, or culture, or religion that breeds these monsters. We avoid the awful possibiblity that we too could be brainwashed into unspeakable acts of violence.
Does this reporting help solve the problem of ISIS? I think not. Whether Emwazi was a sullen loner or a friendly extrovert, he is still out in Syria murdering charity workers with glee. All this sensationalism does is fuel his notoriety and raise his profile, which is precisely what he and his fundamentalist friends want.
It is worth linking once again to Charlie Brooker’s report on how best to reports acts of violence – without senstation, and focussing on the victims. Instead of the perpetrator.
The focus on Mohammed Emwazi takes the opposite approach, and may even prompt other troubled young men to choose the path of notoriety that ISIS offers.
A final thought: This coverage helps our own propaganda too. It builds up a new bogeyman, a personification of a complex threat in one brown face. Since Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011 the media and our Governments have been in dire need of such a figure. Now they have one. Expect Mohammed Emwazi to be cited as a cautionary tale by every politician and commentator advocating an increase in defence spending and an expansion of the surveillance state.