Tag Archives: Iraq

Top 10 backward messages of 2012


James Holmes: Six months later, do we know why he did it?

We’re coming to the end of Backward Messages’ second year, and what a year it was. We had some immense tragedies, including mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin; and Newtown, Connecticut. Goths around the world also took a major hit, with attacks in Iraq and Britain, but a goth singer in the United States surprised everyone. The word “Satan” was tossed around, as it always is, describing everything from Lady Gaga to the Hunger Games.

Last year we looked back at the blog’s top 5 posts, but I wanted to go a little broader. Here’s what drew people most in 2012:

1. Let’s play “imagine the Aurora killer’s motivations!” After James Holmes killed a dozen people in a movie theater, the press had a field day trying to answer one deceptively small question: why?

2. Young opera singer proves goth culture can nurture: Although he didn’t last long on “America’s Got Talent,” Andrew De Leon surprised his audience by (gasp!) not sounding like a monster. Go figure.

3. New Yorker cartoon: the pagan version of blackface: Why are Wiccans still depicted like ugly old hags?

4. Are “The Hunger Games” sacrifices Satanic? I can’t believe I even had to ask that question.

5. Goth, metalhead beaten in separate UK attacks: In the UK, being different remains an unfortunate liability.

6. It’s time to listen to the moms of violent young men: After Newtown, how long will it be before we help young men struggling with violent thoughts — and support their families?

7. Bloody bath lands Lady Gaga in hot water: This wasn’t the first or last time Gaga was called “Satanic” this year, but it was one of the more creative. She was also banned from several countries, on the grounds that her stage show is Satanic.

8. “The New Satanism” in heavy metal: Speaking of Satanic, heavy metal persists in not being as Satanic as its reputation makes it out to be, but there are a handful of musicians keeping the faith.

9. Ohio shooting: What’s “goth” got to do with it? After Columbine, the press has found ways to link almost every youth-committed mass shooting with goth culture. And every time, reporters have been wrong.

10. Iraqi youth stoned to death after leaders link emo culture to Satanism, homosexuality: One of the most heartbreaking stories of the year.

Happy new year, everyone. See you in 2013!

Call of Duty: War game or propaganda tool?


Are video games making society more militaristic? One academic thinks so.

Did video games help Anders Breivik train for his terrorist attack in Norway? Victoria University lecturer John Martino says such questions are missing the point.

“What has not been addressed in the debate generated by violent military games is the role these games play in the process of ‘militarisation,'” Martino states in a CNET.au article published today.

In sum, he’s suggesting that the popularity and increasing realism of military-based games, particularly the best-selling Call of Duty franchise, is contributing to the “militarization of society.” But his article is riddled with errors and mistaken assumptions that leave his argument in the dust.

First, who is John Martino? His two most recent credits involve — you guessed it — looks at gaming and the militarization of culture, including “No Place for Noobs: Computer games and the Militarization of Youth Culture,” presented at the 6th Global Conference: Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace, and Science Fiction in Oxford in July 2011, and “Gaming and the Militarization of Youth Culture: Some Initial remarks,” presented at the IADIS International Conference ICT, Society and Human Beings in Rome, also in July 2011.

Martino starts off with Wolfenstein and Doom, which are good places to start, if you’re going to talk about military shooters. He talks about how the military modified the game to help train soldiers. Anyone who thinks you can learn how to navigate a real-life war scene by playing through Doom‘s blocky mazes and fighting its pixelated enemies is arguably suffering from loss of contact with reality.

Anyhow, from there he gets into the fact that Call of Duty developers have worked with military consultants to make sure gameplay elements are realistic. This is the same as bringing in consultants for a film, such as Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line. Nobody would call the latter an effort to turn these films into “recruitment tools” — they would, in fact, be described as working toward historical accuracy.

Not Martino.

Such partnerships share the goal of working to enhance the training effectiveness of simulation technology.

Military shooters add to the already potent cultural tools that political systems have at their disposal for propaganda purposes.

Then, he stacks up his evidence that society is becoming more militarized:

1. “The commemoration of war (think Anzac Day) has become integral to our view of Australian history, and the place of Australia in the world.”

2. “Recent data published by the Stockholm International Peace Institute indicates that Australia is one of the largest military-spending nations in the world.”

These are his examples? Has he forgotten that much of the Western world has been engaged in some way with the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade? Has he forgotten that Australia is within striking distance of the unpredictable North Korea, and might have good reason to want to defend itself?

Martino leaves out obvious counter-examples, such as child soldiers in Africa or other countries where high-end video games aren’t readily available.

I find it much more plausible that the military is responsible for “militarizing” societies, and that kids who grow up in societies undergoing such change might seek military-style games as an outlet, and as a chance to safely explore their natural curiosity about what wartime is like.

Do you think he’s on to something? Are Call of Duty and other games making society more militarized? And, if so, is that a bad thing?

A hoodie isn’t a death sentence

I want to break with form a little bit today and talk about the controversy sparked by Geraldo Rivera’s comments regarding Trayvon Martin’s outerwear choices last week. On Twitter, he said:

@GeraldoRivera: Trayvon killed by a jerk w a gun but black & Latino parents have to drill into kids heads: a hoodie is like a sign: shoot or stop & frisk me
@GeraldoRivera: His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman.
@GeraldoRivera: Justice will come to Zimmerman the Fla shooter-but I’m trying to save lives like Trayvon’s-Parents Alert: hoodies can get your kid killed
@GeraldoRivera: My own son just wrote to say he’s ashamed of my position re hoodies-still I feel parents must do whatever they can to keep their kids safe
@GeraldoRivera: Its not blaming the victim Its common sense-look like a gangsta&some armed schmuck will take you at your word
@GeraldoRivera: Critics of my hoodie comments think they’re mad at me but they’re really mad at the undeniably unfair reality of young male black/brown life
@GeraldoRivera: It hurts to be assailed-but anger doesn’t change reality-a minority kid in a hoodie in a hood not his own is a 911 call waiting to happen-

And on Fox News, he said:

“Every time you see someone stickin’ up a 7-11, the kid’s wearing a hoodie,” he said. “Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a “gangsta”… well, people are going to perceive you as a menace.”

I understand where he’s coming from: he’s saying that minority kids might be safer if they don’t wear hoodies, entirely due to the public perception of these kids when they wear such garments. But if they got rid of the hoodies, what would it be then? The baggy jeans? The big sneakers? The puffy jackets? The baseball caps? The bandanas? The sports t-shirts? Do we want minorities to dress like “white kids,” when even white kids don’t dress “like white kids”?

However, the fault isn’t with the clothing. It’s with our culture’s enduring perception of minorities — even kids — as criminals, as threats. And Geraldo — himself a Latino — is doing nothing in these statements to protect vulnerable kids from that perception.

It’s no different from telling goths to stop wearing black clothing and makeup, or telling Middle Eastern metalheads to wear white button-down shirts, or telling Iraqi emos to give up the skinny jeans and eyeliner — because otherwise, they’ll be beaten, arrested, or killed.

Youths, and people who “dress young,” who embrace rebellious clothing styles, have a right to do so — and to pass freely in society without the fear of attack. To say otherwise is to blame them for all who might do them harm because of the way they look. That is not where the blame belongs. And there are many things about their appearance that young minorities can’t change — things that some still perceive as automatically suspect.

By now, I hope, most people know better than to listen to Geraldo Rivera. For those who don’t, I will remind you how he fanned the flames of the Satanic Panic, which in turn destroyed many families.

Iraqi youth stoned to death after leaders link emo culture to Satanism, homosexuality


In the United States, emo is a popular youth lifestyle. In Iraq, being emo can get you killed. Photo by Flickr user MarcX Photography.

If this blog is about any single thing, it’s about the demonization of youth culture, and of any influence deemed “dangerous” when kids get their hands on it. But when we talk about such demonization in the West, it’s mostly metaphorical. When kids here take up with metal or goth culture, or they explore pagan faiths, parents might become frightened and limit those activities. In some cases they become fodder for child abuse or bullying. But children here can’t be arrested or publicly executed for such interests. In Iraq, that’s what’s happening right now.

Facts on the situation have been murky, given the nature of it. But here’s my understanding of what has happened in recent weeks:

On Feb. 13, the Iraq Interior Ministry released a statement that condemned the “phenomenon of emo” as Satanic. Emo fashions — such as dark clothes, skull-print T-shirts and nose rings — are “emblems of the devil.”

On Feb. 26, Ammar AL-hakim, a powerful Shia leader, gave a speech on YouTube in which he called emo culture a “strange social phenomena” that is “spreading among youths and adolescents of both sexes.” He urged “decent” Iraqi families to “be careful of these kinds of phenomena” because they have a “devastating influence” on the culture. He did caution people not to use violence.

However, leaflets and fliers began circulating in parts of Baghdad, warning known “emo” youth that they needed to change their behavior, which some claimed was homosexual in nature. According to the New York Times:

“Your fate will be death if you don’t quit doing this,” one leaflet warns. “Punishment will be tougher and tougher, you gays. Don’t be like the people of Lot.”

Another flier circulating around the Zayouna neighborhood appears addressed to emo youths. It tells them to cut their hair, not to wear the clothing of devil worshipers, and not to listen to metal, emo or rap music. And if they refuse, “God’s punishment will be come down upon you,” the letter says.

News broke over the weekend that a number of youth had been stoned to death. The number is unclear; at least 14, and perhaps as many as 60. Reuters claims Iraqi militia are responsible for the deaths. Although many Iraq leaders deny anyone has been killed, Reuters spoke to doctors on Baghdad who had signed the death certificates of youth who’d died of blunt-force trauma to the head. Others have been wounded, apparently as “warnings.”

The Interior Ministry said:

“No murder case has been recorded with the interior ministry on so-called ’emo’ grounds. All cases of murder recorded were for revenge, social and common criminal reasons.”

What seems to be going on is this: Iraqi leaders publicly (and falsely) connected emo culture to Satanism, and even, ridiculously, “blood-drinking.” They demonized this culture, which is essentially peaceful — it’s a youth culture that celebrates the expression of emotion, particularly through music — and another group, possibly a militia group, ran with it. They took it to an extreme place, and now young people are dead.

This is precisely why I am so adamant about fair and accurate depictions of such cultures — particularly by police and journalists. Misrepresenting goths, emos, metalheads, and pagans (among others) as criminal, as violent, or as something abhorrent encourages fear and hatred. And some people take such fear and hatred to an extreme place.

We can say such things could only happen in the Middle East, but that isn’t true. It happened to Sophie Lancaster — and nearly happened to Melody McDermott — in Britain. If we extend such beatings to situations where goth and emo culture are mixed up with homosexuality, as seems the case in Iraq, then we have plenty of examples of gays being publicly and brutally killed, chief among them Matthew Shepard.

These kids aren’t demons, and they aren’t doing anything wrong. It doesn’t matter where they live, or how they dress, or what music they listen to, or whom they love. They don’t deserve to be beaten to death in the streets. And they certainly don’t deserve to have it happen because someone in power said that these kids are evil.

I’m not sure, yet, what can be done about it. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch haven’t taken up the issue. There will be a vigil (warning: graphic images) in San Francisco Wednesday evening to express public solidarity for Iraqi youth. Please post here if you know of any others, or if you know of ways to help.

Is the media focus on gunmen becoming more responsible? Why I’m not holding my breath


What video games did Benjamin Barnes play? What music did he listen to? So far, the press is silent. And that’s just fine.

It was almost one year ago that Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on a crowd of citizens outside a Safeway in Tucson, injuring more than a dozen people and killing six. One year later, a January gunman may have been found dead in the snow near Mt. Rainier, where a park ranger was shot and killed on New Year’s Day.

So far, the press coverage of Benjamin C. Barnes’ life could not be more different. Articles have focused on his shooting spree during a New Year’s Eve party just south of Seattle, his escape to Mt. Ranier park, and the shooting of Margaret Anderson, a 34-year-old park ranger. Speculation about Barnes’ motives have focused on his service in Iraq, his trouble re-adjusting to civilian life, and threatening suicide a year ago.

With Loughner, reporters pounced on his “obsession with the occult” and his love of at least one heavy metal song. Did Barnes live a life devoid of these interests? Or is the press looking elsewhere for explanations and meaning?

Likewise, when Virginia Tech shooter Ross Truett Ashley killed police officer Deriek Crouse at the college last month — a crime that sent echoes of one of the worst college massacres in history through the school — little was made of his hobbies.

Are reporters finally focusing on violent acts in a more responsible manner, leaving violent-media speculation out of their coverage? Is it because these criminals are adults that we focus on their mental condition rather than their personal interests when looking for murderous inspiration? Given the coverage of such recent events as a Milwaukee meetup gone awry or a child rapist convicted of murder, my hopes are not high. But coverage of these gunmen is certainly a step in the right direction.

Why do so many gamers heed “Call of Duty?”


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 alone has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. What makes this series so popular?

Ten years ago, a group of men working with Al-Quaeda hijacked four American airplanes. They crashed two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York, toppling them. A third crashed at the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed over Pennsylvania. Within weeks, American troops had invaded Afghanistan and declared war on the Taliban. By 2003, the military had moved into Iraq as well. A decade of messy, complicated war followed.

It may be no surprise, then, that the Call of Duty franchise has become one of the all-time best-selling video game series during this decade. Many Americans were justifiably angry, but couldn’t go to war themselves. Others wondered what our soldiers were going through, but the news reports just weren’t enough. The Call of Duty games feed just those kinds of emotions, providing lifelike and detailed versions of military operations in spots around the globe.

As the world looked back this month on September 11, 2001, The Denver Post’s John Wenzel spoke up for Call of Duty, saying the games helped players make sense of the terrorist attacks:

Instead of promising escapism, they provided an outlet for ordinary Americans to vent their rage and frustration by aiming virtual weapons at otherwise nebulous foreign enemies.

Video-game environments are entertaining and tidily self-contained — unlike real war, where the blood lingers long after players switch off the Xbox 360. But as funhouse mirrors of the past decade, “Call of Duty” and other war games have reflected a certain distorted collective therapy that, at times, makes for an eerily lifelike portrait of the aggression and anxiety that violence breeds.

The new Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 3, is due out next month and is likely to be a top seller at Christmas. The #2 holiday pick is another military game, Gears of War 3. Clearly there’s a hunger for war games in this long era of military exercises in far-flung places.

With such brisk sales, it’s inevitable that some teens and younger kids will play Call of Duty. And there are some who say they shouldn’t. But kids were just as effected by the terrorist attacks and the vagueries of war as adults were — and they have a right to explore these ideas as well.

Call of Duty players: what attracted you to the game? Did playing it help you process the 9/11 attacks or the “War on Terror” in any way? Has it helped you understand your feelings about war and military action better?

A new Satanic Panic comes alive in Lebanon


Bassem Deaibess, singer for the Lebanese metal band Blaakyum, has been arrested twice for his appearance and musical taste amid nationwide accusations of blasphemy and Satanism.

In Lebanon, a headhunt is on. In recent weeks, at least eight Lebanese residents have been arrested on charges of blasphemy. This is the third time since 1996 that so-called “Satanists” have been rounded up by Lebanese authorities. Most of the accused were heavy metal fans, known for their long hair, black clothing, and, occasionally, their menacing demeanor.

Technically speaking, Satanism itself is not illegal in Lebanon. Practicing Satanism in private won’t land you in jail. According to Nizar Saghieh, a Lebanese lawyer and human rights activist, blasphemy, insulting of religious symbols and rites in public is punishable by up to three years in prison. How many heavy metal bands use such imagery in their songs, stage performances, album art, and t-shirts? Bassem Deaibess, singer for the Lebanese metal band Blaakyum (pictured above), says he has been arrested twice by the authorities, though he escaped this time. Elia Mssawir, a Beirut-based rock concert organizer and agent for several Lebanese heavy metal bands, was nearly arrested earlier this month, but charges against him were dropped before he was taken into custody.

The moral panic began 15 years ago, as all good moral panics do, with a young person’s suicide. The son of a high-ranking military officer shot himself, leading officials to blame heavy metal and “Satanism.” According to Deaibess:

[Hard rock and metal music] were depicted as an epidemic, as the new pest. ‘If this music gets to your child’s ears, he/she will commit suicide.’ This was the message…The government benefited at the time, because Lebanon was under Syrian occupation, and by creating this ‘Satanism’ scare they diverted people’s attention from the real, important problems.

A second wave followed in 2002/2003, when some 50 people were arrested. Most were eventually let go.

There is some debate over whether young people actually practice Satanism in Lebanon. While Deaibess and Mssawir both cast doubt on the idea, the Lebanese Daily Star spoke with a former “devil worshipper,” who told them:

“Around 40 people used to gather in the underground church that I attended,” he said, adding that it was in the Kesrouan town of Bouar. “There were inverted pentagrams and other satanic signs,” he added, referring to the five- pointed star encircling the face of a goat, which is said to represent carnality…

“Sometimes [we listened to] gothic and classic music and at other times it was heavy metal or death metal,” the former worshipper said. “People also took drugs as they tried to boost their moods during the mass.” …

“It is a temporary phase someone passes through … many of today’s teenagers are wearing emo clothes, which has become the new phenomenon in the country,” he said, referring to a popular style of music and dress.

Whether it’s legitimate religious practice or the kind of symbolism that goes along with heavy-metal culture, these pursuits have come under attack in nations around the globe, from Catholics taking Polish metal singers to court to misfit teens in Arkansas blamed for crimes they didn’t commit. The Satanic Panic is always alive somewhere, it seems.

And the result, for those who love this music and who need to explore their spirituality freely, can be frightening and devastating. Acrassicauda, the Iraqi thrash-metal band, eventually fled their home country because their devotion to music attracted too many death threats — again, over their alleged “Satanism.” Likewise, an Afghani band, D.U., must hide their identities because of the numerous death threats they’ve received.

Prohibiting such music, or the “Satanism” and “blasphemy” that goes with it, doesn’t make it any less necessary to those who live in embattled nations. Many in the Middle East risk their lives to listen to heavy metal. And for them, as for any listener, metal is a lifeline. Take Hazem Abu Zeid, a 29-year-old rebel fighter in Libya, who recently told Al Jazeera about his love of Metallica and heavy metal:

“I mix war with music. Death metal gives the real part of humanity; most music talks about love, beaches, cars, but this talks about real things, brutality, poverty, the soul.” His Iron Maiden T-shirt denoting the slogan ‘matters of life and death’ made for the perfect war gear.

“I have to stay on the front line, I can’t go back to my home and wait for Gaddafi to come and kill my family. We win or we die.”