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Virginia Postrel on Glamor and Terror

4 minute read
Virginia Postrel

No sooner had rolling stone put Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, looking doe-eyed and rock-star disheveled, than critics denounced the editors for “glamorizing terrorism.”

“The cover of Rolling Stone is meant for glorifying rock stars, icons, and heroes NOT murderers!” protested a typical reader in the article’s online comments thread. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino decried the magazine for its “celebrity treatment” of Tsarnaev and for sending the “terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their ’causes.'”

Unfortunately, Islamist terrorism doesn’t need Rolling Stone to make it glamorous. For the right audience, apparently including Tsarnaev, it already is. Understanding the nature of that glamour could offer clues to discouraging future terrorists. But first we have to acknowledge that terrorist glamour exists.

The novelist Salman Rushdie recognized the connection in a 2006 interview. “Terror is glamour–not only, but also,” he said, arguing that many terrorists “are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic … The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people’s lives.”

The interviewer was flabbergasted, but Rushdie was correct. Glamour is about much more than celebrity, sex appeal or shiny dresses. It’s a product of imagination–and a powerful form of persuasion.

Glamour gives its audience the feeling of “if only”–if only I could belong to that group, wear that dress, drive that car, date that person, live in that house. If only I could be like that. By embodying our longings in a specific image or idea, glamour convinces us, if only for a moment, that the life we yearn for exists. That dream can motivate real-world action, whether that means taking a resort vacation, moving to a new city, starting a band or planting a bomb with visions of martyrdom. What we find glamorous helps define who we are and who we may become.

Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone story on Tsarnaev points to several sources of glamour that have nothing to do with celebrity: the allure of military action, utopian causes and a lost homeland and identity. All these things speak to desires that go deeper than fame. “It is not uncommon for young Chechen men to romanticize jihad,” Reitman writes, describing “abundant Chechen jihadist videos online” that show fighters from the Caucasus who “look like grizzled Navy SEALs, humping through the woods in camouflage and bandannas.”

To be a jihadi warrior, these images suggest, is to be a man. Martial glamour is as ancient as Achilles. It promises prowess, courage, camaraderie and historical importance. It offers a way to matter. The West once recognized the pull of martial glamour–before the carnage of World War I, the glamour of battle was a common and positive phrase–but it ignores at its peril the spell’s enduring draw, especially for those who feel powerless and insignificant.

Unlike traditional soldiering, Islamist terrorism provides a sense of belonging even to those operating independently of a larger group or cell. “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all,” Tsarnaev wrote as he hid from authorities. Taking up the greater cause allows an alienated youth to feel part of something special, even as his personal problems dissolve in the larger whole. Radical jihadism taps into the glory of “changing the world” as surely as any other political movement.

It’s easiest to imagine an ideal life in a time or place you know only from selective images, whether that’s Ernest Hemingway’s Paris, Ayn Rand’s Galt’s Gulch or Carrie Bradshaw’s New York City. For political movements, the distant ideal may be a future utopia, a past golden age or a faraway homeland. With its dreams of a restored caliphate, Islamist terrorism combines utopia and a golden age. For second-generation immigrants in secularized and non-Muslim societies, it may also draw on the glamour of a distant homeland. A friend told Reitman that Tsarnaev “would always talk about how pretty Chechen girls were” even though he hardly knew any. “I want out,” Tsarnaev tweeted in March 2012.

Critics who fear that putting terrorists on magazine covers may encourage future violence have a point. Fame is a spur. But Islamist terrorism draws on much more complex and powerful forms of glamour than a desire for rock-star treatment. Dispelling that magic is both harder and more essential than denouncing Rolling Stone.

Postrel is the author of The Power of Glamour, to be published by Simon & Schuster in November

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