The Glamour Of Jihadi Terrorism


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.

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Virtuosity And Beauty: A Precarious Mix?

In classical music the combination of virtuosity and glamour has most often been associated with attractive opera stars, conductors, or soloists who play instruments such as piano and violin. The attire of such soloists when they perform is often extraordinarily glamorous, as I written before. Their publicity photographs often highlight their physical attractiveness. A more recent trend is to produce videos. Here is an interesting video of Korean violinist Chee-Yun in the process of being photographed for potential publicity shots. (Chee-Yun’s fabulous hair has been featured in a Korean Pantene commercial.)

Another violinist, Vanessa-Mae (of Thai-Chinese heritage, born in Singapore, and raised in London) began to study piano at three and violin at five. She amassed her hours of practice early, and was recording professionally by age thirteen. In her teenage years she began to combine her virtuoso skills as a violinist with her interest in pop music. She took full advantage of her exceptionally beautiful face and figure by using glamorous makeup and provocative costumes, and launched a popular music career that has made her one of the wealthiest young entertainers in Britain.

She is a controversial performer because some of her hit recordings are arrangements of well-known classical works combined with a techno-style dance background. There is an example of this below, in which her live-performance version of Vivaldi includes a dance-beat, an electric violin, a sexy costume, and bodily movements that are anything but “classical.” (In the video she inadvertently demonstrates how to slip gracefully in high-heels. Another example of her mix of classical, techno, and sexy presentation is her version of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Whether it is fun and exciting or a tawdry bastardization is a matter of debate and taste.)

Hercules_Gallicus Whatever one thinks of how Vanessa-Mae has used her virtuosity as a violinist, there is no question she earned her skills through thousands of hours of arduous practice. In some of her music videos Vanessa-Mae portrays a young woman in peril, or operating in a mobster world, or isolated in cold, remote locations. These videos evoke the long-standing theme that a person can become a prisoner of their extraordinary skills, partly because these skills become ties that bind others to the person that possesses these skills, and vice versa. At left is one of the many Renaissance representations of Hercules Gallicus in which he conquers not by brunt strength, but by eloquence. And as a skilled rhetorician there are chains running from his tongue which bind his audience to him, and vice versa.

The virtuoso performer is also bound to the continued hours of practice that are necessary to maintain those skills. In the 1970s young Czech violinist Václav Hudeček become so famous in his country that he attained rock-star-like status. But in his own words, he didn’t have time to lead a wild lifestyle. “Violin is a very difficult instrument…if you want to play Brahms’ violin concerto, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, very beautifully, you have to practice, you know. Not all day long, but five, six, seven hours a day.”

When you hear stories of virtuoso performers burning out or losing their edge, you have to imagine not only the thousands of hours spent building their skills, but also the ongoing hours of practice required to continue to perform at a virtuoso level. Fame might give you the opportunity to party in high style (especially if you are strikingly attractive), but to actually do so could soon lead to decreased performance ability. We can all think of cases in which the achievements of an athlete or performer thrust them into the limelight, and then they spent so much time enjoying their new found fame that their skills rapidly declined.

George_Best_1968 An perfect example of this was 1960s British soccer star George Best. Many people consider Best the most brilliant soccer player Britain ever produced, but he is just as well known for having squandered his talent by living a playboy lifestyle. Best’s bio reveals his obsessive pursuit of soccer skills as a child, but it also reads as a cautionary tale for anyone whose virtuoso skills bring sudden fame. His career at the top lasted only six years before his pursuit of “birds” and booze eroded his skills. Best himself understood that fame and his good looks had played a part in undermining his career, providing him with opportunities to party and drink that he was unable to resist. He joked ironically, “If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pelé.”

George Best was one of the first celebrity footballers, and women threw themselves at him. As he joked, “I used to go missing quite a lot... Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.” (He was not exaggerating.) At times he didn’t seem to regret his escapades, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” Because he could not discipline himself to stay in shape for soccer, or to stay away from alcohol, he became a difficult, less productive teammate who was soon out of the sport. He died at age 59 of complications after a liver transplant.

GQ magazine named George Best one of the 50 most stylish men of the last 50 years, but there is no question that the temptations of a playboy lifestyle destroyed his talent. If his virtuosity had been some evidence of virtue, then he lost that virtue when he neglected to continue to hone his skills. As the biography posted at the International Footballer Hall of Fame notes “George Best had squandered one of the rarest and most precious football talents ever seen in favour of a self-indulgent merry-go-round of birds and booze.” After describing some of the amazing goals that he scored in his few years at his prime, the bio ends, “the only tragedy George Best has to confront is that he will never know how good he could have been.”

[Photo of Maria Sharapova by Chris Gampat used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

Beyond Clarity And Efficiency

Reading-on-the-platform With the widespread availability of books on tape and CD, we can, if we choose, hear many novels read to us by experienced readers, some of whom are excellent. In her post about the power of the written word, Kit Pollard muses that “sometimes it’s nice, as a reader, to do a little interpretation.” Her thoughts remind us that when someone performs words they inevitably interpret them, and that other interpretations, including our own, are possible.

Compared to words in print, a performed rendition adds tone and inflection. Imagine reading that three women are sitting together in a restaurant when a fourth woman enters. One of the seated women (I’ll call her Stephanie) remarks, “Doesn’t she look pretty?” Without more information we have to guess whether Stephanie’s remark is a sincere compliment or a snide insult. But if we heard the tone and inflection of her remark, or if we knew Stephanie better, we would likely know her intent.

The absence of tone makes writing dialogue in fiction challenging. Playwrights and screenwriters sometimes use parenthetical remarks to suggest a performance tone to actors. Within the film trade these are sometimes called “wrylies” because “(wryly)” has been a much used parenthetical instruction. Experts on writing plays and screenplays advise eliminating wrylies as much as possible. (Shakespeare’s plays contain almost no interpretive instructions.) If script writers insert numerous wrylies, professional actors often respond by going through the script and marking them out. Actors often feel that the way that a line should be performed will vary depending on how they as actors choose to portray the characters. As one website advises, “Try to cut out all the wrylies you can. Actors hate 'em. Directors hate 'em. They think you're trying to do their job.”

Authors of novels frequently provide information about various characters’ thoughts or the tone of the dialogue. Thus a novelist might write: “ ‘Doesn’t she look pretty,’ Stephanie said wryly.” But editors often advise novelists to avoid adding too much interpretive information. Doing too much of this can rob readers of the chance to interpret for themselves what a character’s behavior reveals about them. Thus the frequent admonition to writers to “Show, don’t tell.” But “telling” can be useful and efficient. Finding a successful balance between showing and telling is one of the challenges of writing.

Sitting-reading This discussion raises the question of whether written prose can be glamorous without some special means of presentation. In my experience prose itself can be glamorous, but the vast majority of prose clearly is not. To be glamorous, prose has to move beyond clarity, efficiency, and grammatical correctness. Glamour in language requires paying attention to subtle nuances of meaning. It also requires paying close attention to the sound and rhythm of words and word groups. Most writing within legal, government, scientific, and academic communities reveals a deaf ear for the sound of language, as Kit remarked of the typical writing of economists. Some fiction and non-fiction writing is glamorous, but most is not.

Even when we read silently, we tend to hear the sound and rhythm of what we are reading in our minds. I suspect that some form of sensuous perception or imagination is likely to be a factor in everything that we find glamorous. Certainly, if a passage of prose would fail to resonate if read aloud, it will fail to resonate in the mind when read silently. It is far easier for language to be informative, meaningful, and even exciting than it is for it to seem to cast a spell. Achieving the latter is rare. Yet, when language is alluring, we can often recognize this immediately. When starting to read a novel, for example, if the writing has been done with extraordinary care and imagination, we may find ourselves falling under the spell of the author’s captivating use of language as soon as the first sentence, paragraph, and page.

["Reading on the platform" photo by Flickr user Moriza. "Sitting reading" photo by db*photography. Both used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]

The Allure Of Change

Manarola While picking up a few extras in Whole Foods I heard Fiona Apple's rendition of “Across the Universe.” In the store all I could understand of the text was John Lennon’s recurring refrain, “Nothing’s gonna change my world.” Hearing this focus on permanence brought to mind Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s contrasting saying, which focuses on change: “You can never step into the same river twice.” And, sure enough, the world soon changed for me in a small, annoying way when I stepped on some gum in the parking lot.

The village shown at left is Manarola, one of five villages that nestle in isolated coves along a small Mediterranean coastal region of Italy called Cinque Terre (Five Lands). The oldest villages date from around the 11th century, and the youngest from the late 12th century. The rocky cliffs rising from the sea are so rugged that the towns were isolated from each other, reachable only by sea or by strenuous treks over rugged terrain. To farm the steep hillsides, the residents built stone terraces, and in the process are said to have moved more tons of stone than were used to build the Great Wall of China. My wife and I hiked some of the coastal hiking trails, and to see the picturesque results of this labor is both humbling and ennobling. (See the photo below.)

 The first modern connection to these towns was a railroad into the village of Vernazza in 1870. During World War II railroad tunnels and cliff-side paths were blasted, creating easy connections between all the villages.

Terraces-cinque-terre Today, for the modern tourist, despite becoming better known since the 1990s, it remains an area of incomparable charm, having been shielded from modern development for centuries.The region has been designated a World Heritage Site to help preserve its beauty. (WHS has some stunning photos.)

Now trains make several daily runs through the villages, and the region’s allure brings in many tourists from the outside world. And the desire to experience something different runs both ways. The allure of the outside world means that many young people from the region now commute to work in the city of Le Spezia. I wonder how many young people will choose the hard life of maintaining and farming the terraced hillsides.

Allure can work on a small scale as well. Once a path had been blasted into the seaside cliff, the former impassable barrier between the villages of Riomaggiore and Manarola became a leisurely twenty-minute walk. The path soon became known as the Via Dell'Amore (Lovers’ Walk). Think about the sense of mystery that having that path available must have created. “Could the man (or woman) of my dreams be waiting for me in the next village?” The locals say that making that short walk changed many lives.

[Photo of Manarola by Flickr user fachxx00. Terraced hillside photo by Flickr user alaina.marie. Both photos used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

Magical Words And Powerful Voices

Bedtime-reading Anyone who has heard a small child say, “Read it again, read it again,” knows that children love repetition. They love audible patterns of all kinds, as Dr. Seuss realized. The number of sound patterns in the following two lines is fascinating:

“And NOW comes an act of Enormous Enormance!
No former performers performed this performance!”

Such lines were never intended to be read silently, they were intended to be performed by someone reading to a child. If a word like “Enormance” was needed for sound, then Dr. Seuss made it up. Children respond because hearing such patterns performed out loud creates a kind of magic spell.

Children’s love of patterned language is not some temporary madness, it’s part of being human. We retain our ability to enjoy language created for oral presentation all our lives. Such language has its greatest impact when we hear it presented, rather than when we read it silently. And hearing such language performed by a great vocal interpreter remains a magical experience.

Richard-burton I’ll never forget the first time I saw the film version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. I felt almost drunk on words as I heard Richard Burton’s glorious voice read Thomas’s resonant lines. Burton, seen at right as a young star, was, of course, also a great actor. The play was first written for radio, and you can hear the beginning here. Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole, along with many other fine actors, are in the film version. (You can get get a feel for the visual quality of the film here, but only by enduring a hideously over-hyped theatrical trailer.)

Another way to make words audible is to intone them, to sing them. This has long been a way to give special meaning to the words of religious ceremonies. It can also work with the lyrics of popular songs. With some songs, witty rhymes can be a major source of delight, as with these gems from Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (I’ll quote the female version of the lines, which are used in the video below. Zevon’s original version was from a male perspective):

He really worked me over good,
He was a credit to his gender.
He put me through some changes, Lord,
Sort of like a Waring blender

Well, I met a boy in the Vieux Carré
Down in Yokahama.
He picked me up, and he threw me down:
He said, “Please don't hurt me, Mama.”

These lines are clever on the page, but make a stronger effect when performed by someone with a rich voice like Linda Ronstadt (just as was the case with Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas).

DG recently had a post on pop divas, and in We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women in Rock Gerri Hirshey called Ronstadt the first “arena-class rock diva.” Reaching that status was an arduous journey for her. Early in her career, as reported in her Rolling Stone bio, when she went onstage “she was often devastatingly timid.” Even as she became a popular concert attraction, she was “still hampered by stage fright.”

397px-LindaRonstadtPerforming But there was nothing timid about her voice: it was a force of nature. Like Richard Burton, her ability to use that voice to magical effect would bring fame, fortune, and glamorous relationships. Burton’s second wife was Elizabeth Taylor, and Ronstadt’s personal life has included relationships with men such as Star Wars creator George Lucas and Jerry Brown when he was governor of California. While singing, Ronstadt could dramatically change the character of her voice (as Burton could do as an actor). She begins “Long Long Time” by singing two phrases in a young-girl’s voice, then suddenly her voice becomes that of a mature, aggrieved woman. Her performance becomes a drama, and her ability to transform her voice allows us to hear different emotional qualities embodied in the sound of her voice itself.

Her appearance could seem just as changeable. She could variously seem vulnerable, sexy, innocent, buoyant, or world-weary. She could seem to be the girl next door dumping her boyfriend (“You’re No Good”), or the personification of loneliness (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me”). Rolling Stone dubbed her “Rock’s Venus,” and her poster decorated countless dorm room walls. Writer Phillip K. Dick was obsessed with her, and she appears as a persona, “Linda Fox,” in his novel Valis. He wrote elsewhere, “My fantasy number that I run in my head is, I discover Linda Ronstadt, and am remembered as the scout for Capitol who signed her. I would have wanted that on my gravestone.”

While researching this post, I was surprised to learn from a NY Times article that Ronstadt felt her singing had been most influenced by opera star Maria Callas.

Emmylou [Harris] and I are both Maria Callas fans. We listen to that all the time. She's the greatest chick singer ever.

I learn more about bluegrass singing, more about singing Mexican songs, more about singing rock-and­-roll from listening to Maria Callas records than I ever would from listening to pop music for a month of Sundays.

Maria-callas In 2006 Opera News wrote that “Nearly thirty years after her death, [Callas is] still the definition of the diva as artist.” Callas had the same power we have been discussing: an ability to color her voice, to make words audible in an extraordinarily vibrant, emotion-laden way—an ability which allowed listeners to have almost magical experiences. Few people thought Callas was gifted with the most purely “beautiful” operatic voice of the time, but the way she would sometimes shape her voice and performance for dramatic effect could leave audiences stunned. Callas was also a great actress on stage. Here’s a video of her bringing the house to its feet at the Paris Opera in 1958. Even during a thunderous standing ovation that temporarily stops the performance, she continues to act—she never breaks character. 

[Reading before bedtime photograph by Flickr user jeff, the rhino under the Creative Commons license. His photostream is here. The Linda Ronstadt photo is from the Wikimedia Commons.]