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The Killing Game: Martyrdom, Murder and the Lure of ISIS

by Mark Bourrie

Marshall McLuhan would have had a field day exploring the dynamics of a terrorist group whose instantly recognizable brand of brutality appeals to disaffected youth while inspiring panic in the world’s most powerful nations. Ottawa writer/historian Mark Bourrie’s thoughtful exploration of ISIS’s media strategy and the magnetic siren call of its Twitter feeds certainly brings to mind McLuhan’s formula, “the medium is the message”: Bourrie poses critical questions about what draws young people to join a group noted for beheadings and mass rapes.

AprilReviews_The-Killing-GameRather than employing clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, Bourrie shows himself a curious and eclectic writer unafraid to raise difficult questions about propaganda, war porn, and the still-evolving nature of a wired world. His historical overview of the waves of urban violence afflicting North America and Europe in the past 150 years undermines the idea that ours is an age without precedent.

The author focuses on stories of Canadians who have left “average” childhoods to don the cloak of Syrian martyrdom, but notes that this particular phenomenon is not new. He traces the practice back to the Middle Ages, and wryly points out that Canadians have volunteered to fight on all sides of Middle East conflicts, from the Israeli Defence Forces to the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Bourrie adroitly adopts multiple guises, from social critic to film reviewer. He contextualizes ISIS’s use of spectacle within a longer history of propaganda models, while also tackling the history of killing and its effects on the human psyche. He argues that this latest terrorism scare is not rooted in Islam, but in broader social forces that have produced a generation of teenagers who yearn for belonging and purpose, but instead face insuperable barriers to services, employment, and hope.

While The Killing Game may surprise readers expecting merely a lurid look at ISIS’s abhorrent practices, Bourrie sometimes falls short in providing sufficient contextual background. For example, his examination of Canadian and international deradicalization approaches would have benefited from more diverse voices addressing how the “good vs. bad Muslim” discourse and its accompanying racial and religious profiling can ultimately contribute to the problem.

In addition, the author’s research sometimes feels hurried and incomplete. A potentially contentious section on the intersection of Nazism and the Middle East appears based on a single source of dubious credibility, while Bourrie’s statement that ISIS’s horrors exist on a scale rarely seen since the Second World War ignores bountiful examples of state-sponsored atrocities by U.S. forces in southeast Asia, Latin American dictatorships during the 1970s and ’80s, and governments in any number of African countries.

These criticisms aside, Bourrie does play a valuable role in reminding readers that the need for alienated young men to find a sense of community sometimes leads them into gangs, overseas groups, and the military, and a video-game culture has desensitized people of all stripes to the real-world consequences of violence. An understanding of ISIS and its desires, Bourrie argues, requires a recognition of the fact that circumstances are never as black and white as they seem. Sober second thought that appreciates nuance and is capable of puncturing our comfortable myths will have to become part of the discussion.