Terrorism and satire: like oil and water?

Every month or so a bunch of us who used to work together in the security intelligence community in Canada meet at a local watering hole to quaff a few pints and rib each other for an hour and a half. We are all retired more or less so the risks of disclosing sensitive/classified information are slim. In all honesty we do more laughing than serious analysis of what ails the world.

One topic that came up and poured out later to our email exchanges recently was the link between terrorism and humour. We had a debate over whether it was possible to make art – in this case films – that poke fun at those who carried out heinous crimes against innocent people. The one movie that spawned this chat was The Death of Stalin, a recent black comedy on the entire Soviet system in the wake of the demise of the butcher Joseph Stalin. To say we disagreed would be an understatement.

I loved the film: I thought it was hilarious. It showed how ridiculous the Soviet Union and its leadership was, even while still demonstrating how brutal it was. I particularly liked the role of Steve Buscemi as Nikita Krushchev. Most of my Friday buddies did not, and many of them were either refugees from the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact countries or worked as Soviet analysts and hence knew full well the depths of evil that country sunk to.

In this vein I had a very different reaction to Look Who’s Back, a film about Adolf Hitler, who somehow comes back to life and has to figure out how to survive in the 21st century, eventually becoming a TV star for those who think he is an actor impersonating the Nazi leader and not the real McCoy. I did not find it that funny and in fact saw it as somewhat supportive of Hitler’s views. Others may have seen it differently.

The reason I am bringing this up in a blog on terrorism is that these two men were in essence responsible for state terror. While I do not normally write about this type of terrorism it is still relevant. So I put the question out there: is it ok to poke fun at terrorism?

I think the answer is a categorical NO! Especially in the wake of the massacres in Christchurch, it would be unconscionable to joke about these acts. That level of ‘humour’ is all too common on far right Web sites that dismiss the Holocaust, for example, in crude attempts at comedy.

At the same time, is it permissible to make fun of terrorists? If done well, I think the answer could be yes. Have you seen the UK film Four Lions? If not I highly recommend it. That movie follows four inept, bumbling British jihadis as they try to make martyrdom videos and plan a terrorist attack which is anything but competent. It uses humour to undermine the ideology that drives Islamist extremism. There is also Achmed the Dead Terrorist played by Jeff Dunham, although I have not watched enough of that act to comment.

True confession: when I worked at CSIS I would highlight the inanities of some terrorists as evidence that these people were anything but the heroes they portrayed themselves as. One of my favourite findings was a long religious screed by a jihadi cleric who tried to explain the sexual experiences of suicide bombers in the so-called paradise they hope to enter (it went something like this: every second of coital pleasure lasts 1,000 years – I am not making this up). Terrorists express ridiculous views on occasion and it should be acceptable to point them out.

Terrorism is no laughing matter – that should be obvious. Terrorists, on the other hand, are humans full of foibles and when they descend to the ludicrous they should be fair game. Maybe a little well-placed laughter at these jerks could be a small silver lining to an all too dark cloud.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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