Suicide Bombs as Viral Media

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 1 July 2005

More than any command structure, terrorist organization or ideology, there’s an underlying mechanism propelling the recent spate of suicide attacks in London. It’s called a media virus.

For all of America’s supposed new media savvy, misunderstandings prevail here about how these events are being coordinated. Yes, these are “networked” events—but not in the sense that they are directly connected through a communications system, with “sleepers” waiting for phone calls and then taking action. It’s not a matter of fax trees, email instructions, or direct transmissions between some guys in London, some other ones in Egypt and a central server disseminating commands out of Pakistan.

What we’re witnessing is viral contagion—the beginnings of what some hope will spawn an epidemic of suicide attacks. These attacks would not be conducted by “foreigners” crossing borders with plastic explosives kits, but by locals, spontaneously acting in concert with others around the globe. It’s a scary thought to those who only understand simple cause-and-effect, but this isn’t magic or supernatural at all.

As numerous studies have shown, airplane accidents tend to be clustered—one pilot error leads to a catastrophe that becomes big news. Shortly later, one or more other “human error” airplane crashes occur. On college campuses, student suicides rarely happen in isolation. News of one suicide leads to another. When a famous person or large group commits suicide, many copycat events occur shortly later—beyond the statistical norm.

It’s not that one event causes the other; rather, suicidal people are waiting for a cue, or a pilot who is already careless or flying under the influence of alcohol finally ends up crossing the barrier that, subconsciously, he had been dangerously testing all along.

It is the mediaspace that allows for these clusters of sympathetic repetitions. Were a murder or suicide not covered in the paper, there would be no copycat events.

A “media virus”—a phenomenon I first wrote about in my book of the same name in 1994—depends on our newly complexified mediaspace to exist. Like biological viruses, media viruses have two main components: a sticky outer shell, and genetic code inside. The virus spreads if the shell is sticky enough to fool our cells into accepting them. The virus replicates if its code can successfully interpolate itself into the confused command structure of our cell’s own code. If the virus succeeds in doing this, it turns the cell into a virus factory—the cell commits suicide in the virus’s name.

The late nineties saw many performers, politicians, and even news stories vying for our attention and reaction by challenging confused, or obsolete cultural codes. Madonna, whose music wasn’t particularly new or well executed, nonetheless achieved a high profile because her work nested itself in our growing yet still unarticulated sense that women could enjoy sex or assume dominant sex roles. To a middle America still years away from accepting a female presidential candidate or lesbian talk show host songs such as “Like a Virgin” provoked confusion, anger, and rage. Madonna pushed sexual buttons, but only because female sexuality was still a taboo subject. Madonna turned herself into a media virus, appeared in mutations from a “Sex” photo book to an “Express Yourself” anthem for repressed teen girls - and, in doing so, brought the sexual conversation from subtext into the light of day. At least for many.

The Rodney King tape successfully challenged the unarticulated rage at the way white cops treat black inner-city men. The Rodney King virus spread not just because of its content, but because of its media shell. Never before had such violence been captured, randomly, by home video. The tape was shown around the world overnight on cable television because it demonstrated the power of the camcorder. The virus then replicated and spread because race relations and police brutality in American cities were social ills that just couldn’t be talked about, yet. The Rodney King virus eventually led to urban rioting in dozen American cities, and succeeded in forcing a repressed conversation about faulty societal code into the open.

Suicide bombing is a media virus, albeit with very real effects. The sticky outer shell is the event itself—a suicide bombing gets covered on the news. It’s huge news, especially if it occurs in a white western nation. Currently, it’s the fastest spreading kind of news story there is.

The code, like that of any successful media virus, challenges the unarticulated confusion over the relationship of the west to oil, Arabs, Islam, and post-colonialism. Actually, the virus fuels itself on rage going back as far as the Crusades, or certainly since the imposition of CIA-sponsored dictatorships.

When issues remain closeted, culture-wide cognitive dissonance only increases. This makes everyone susceptible to the contagion of a virus whose code can nest within this highly charged gap. For a select few cells within the cultural organism, this means becoming a suicide bomber oneself. For others, it means seeing suicide bombers around every corner—as the accidental death of a Brazilian man in London, thought to be a suicide bomber, confirms.

But the important thing to get here is that the transmission of commands is working on a level not at all below the radar, but completely above it. It’s not even that there are some hidden commands in the execution of one suicide bomb that then communicate to those other would-be suicide bombers who can decipher the event. Suicide bombing is the virus, using the perpetrator to activate others. It’s not a person-to-person communication, anymore, but a viral transmission.

And one that, without a more substantive form of intervention, is bound to reach epidemic proportions before it dies out.

Were I advising the West’s governments, I would tell them that the best way to neutralize the impact of a media virus is to take away its fuel: our own inability to address its underlying code formations. It’s not even a matter of recognizing the suicide bombers’ agendas as valid. The crucial step is to correct our own cultural code - our own fear of a conversation that grapples with those agendas.

This is the hard part. For to do that in earnest, the West would need to fess up to the true history of American involvement in Arab affairs over the past century (it’s all in the history books, anyway—it’s just a matter of admitting it openly) as well as expressing our true fear of losing access to precious oil, and our apprehension about sharing the planet with people we doesn’t understand or trust. Not since the Crusades or before. This need not amount to an admission of guilt—just a willingness to allow for a conversation.

Once the unexpressed agendas are brought from subtext into the light of day, the confused code into which the virus nests itself will have been corrected and strengthened —along with the West’s relationship to Islam.