This week, we’re treated to more news of the new breed of ISIS recruits—Americans in the coveted 15-29 year old demographic. Heather Elizabeth Coffman, not yet 30, has been charged by federal authorities with “making a false statement regarding an offense involving international or domestic terrorism,” as the Washington Post reports. Statements posted to her Facebook page include such gems as “We are all ISIS,” “I love ISIS!” and, in reference to her sister, “My dad is a little angry because I got her into all this jihad stuff.”
Quotes like these suggest myriad reasons for respectable mainstream culture to write off Coffman as one more failed American. She is a designated loser in so many respects. Coffman lives with her parents in Henrico, Virginia (where?). A white single mother to a seven-year-old son, she works (or worked) at the local mall, and only recently got into Allah. What a catch, right? And those white-trash eyebrows? Gross.
Pinned to the center of the world’s least fashionable Venn diagram, Heather Coffman appears to have no one but the government to count on for careful attention. But the government is planning to throw her in jail—no court date, son be damned. An all-too-attentive FBI agent, pretending to be some pro-ISIS guy on the Internet, succeeded in wringing from Coffman an offer to hook him up with Islamic State peeps in Turkey. (Turkey?) Allegedly, says the FBI, Coffman also dallied online with a murky “husband” figure who (apparently) lives abroad and (apparently) is into the jihad stuff as well.
Armed with this sad mushball of evidence of…something, the feds have promptly put the kibosh on Heather Coffman’s life, such is it is. Her best-case scenario is now worse than many of our personal Plan Zs. Good luck getting rehired at Hot Topic with a stint in federal terrorist prison, or reclaiming custody of a child with your pro-ISIS Facebook page running more wild and free than you’ll ever be again.
For a government keen on preventing another “Jihad Jane” embarrassment, what difference does Coffman’s fate make now? Like Jane, born Colleen LaRose, Coffman falls straight between the cracks of our pity-crazy culture, into the gaping category of human goods too damaged for social use. LaRose’s attorney described her in words that will predictably be assigned to Coffman—“a lonely and vulnerable woman easily manipulated by others online.” Coffman’s unforgivable ISIS crush, it will surely turn out, can too “be explained in part by deep psychological scars from her childhood.”
God knows how much it sucks to be Heather Coffman. Odds are, she hasn’t had it quite as bad as LaRose, for whom jihad seemed like quite a step up from six years of prepubescent rape at the hands of her father, a teenage life as a runaway prostitute, and a marriage, at sweet sixteen, to a nice boy twice her age. "I was in a trance and I couldn't see anything else," LaRose said at her sentencing. "I don't want to be in jihad no more."
Coffman hadn’t even the chance: law enforcement stopped her—phew!—mid-trance. We can’t be too careful. In an age when the Internet has organized infinite communities of failed Americans into potentially lethal weapons, the precautionary principle dictates that we jail first and ask questions later. The likes of Coffman are “probably” already halfway wards of the state anyhow.
And so it goes, another chapter written in the mutually abusive relationship of bad government and bad culture. Thanks to the current administration’s preposterous Mideast policy, the Islamic State took advantage of the howling moral vacuum at the heart of failed and failing humans, from America to Aleppo, with no one to help them say no to acting out the most naively corrupt of fantasies.
Meanwhile, in mainstream culture, one of the most unpopular and reviled ideas is that what we do in the realm of fantasy is sure to pollute reality. At a time when old creeds of every kind are crumbling, it has been an article of insistent faith for decades that we Americans know how to draw and police the line between transgressive private entertainment and respectful, rights-upholding public order. We know how to play murderous video games, then sit piously through sensitivity training seminars. We know how to watch the grisliest horror films, then make dinner with the neighbors (not of them!). Hell is a playground in the imagination, silly. Not on earth.
White-bread ISIS recruits, culled from the wastelands of Web 2.0, call that tidy division into terrible question. Fortunately, they are drawn from a pathetic preterite far beneath the contempt of our cultural elite. Instead of seeing them, rightly, as a scourge we’re visiting upon ourselves, we sweep them into the national dustbin.
Where is our cultural Rumsfeld Memo to wonder aloud if we’re creating Jihad Janes—much less Heather Coffmans—faster than we can lock them away? Once, our social theorists feared that pop culture would make African-American violence into a fetish for white losers. Some, like Norman Mailer, adopted the cooler pose of being casually interested in the possibility. In his lost classic essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” Mailer opined that the “cultural dowry” of blackness was a “morality of the bottom” that emphasized “’ass’ as the soul and ‘shit’ as the circumstance.” African-Americans, wrote Mailer, “known down to the cells of [their] existence that life is war, nothing but war.” How exciting for bummed-out white kids. How meaningful.
Well, Beyonce and Kimye proved beyond doubt that buttness trumps blackness for American bumpkins high class and low. Today, most of the black Americans who have failed (or been made to fail, or prevented from ever succeeding again) are kept under government supervision, whether for “good” or “bad” behavior. For bottoming-out whites, now it’s their turn. Why not? On the Internet, even our terminally uncool failing crackers have moved far afield from the lame ‘90s act of the “wigger”.
On the Internet, where anything is possible, ISIS offers the ultimate in unique experiences—a fusion of “Auschwitz and Disneyland,” as the Mailer-bashing social theorist Philip Rieff predicted.
The surveillance state must keep up with the Coffmans, no matter how desperately half-hearted their pretense to jihad.