Ah, the British. Cool under pressure. In the John le Carré-based TV drama The Night Manager that recently ended, an Englishman kept his head so well that he brought down an arms smuggling business. Le Carré attacks the establishment, but his heroes are romantic embodiments of the best British values, still trying to be decent in an indecent world: “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves …”, as Beryl Reid described them in the 1979 BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Now along comes another British hero keeping his cool in a mad age – or perhaps, embracing its madness. In a picture that no artist would be daring enough to stage, 26-year-old Ben Innes from Aberdeen grins merrily next to hijacker Seif Eldin Mustafa, who looks politely at the camera while wearing what appears to be a suicide belt.
The picture is utterly askew from what reality is supposed to be like. It is art. It is surrealism. It is insanity. Seif Eldin Mustafa’s spectacles catch the light as he poses cooperatively. He’s acting as if this is a rational situation – but the white flannel, pocketed belt around his waist is loaded with objects that may be explosives, with wires protruding like detonators. It is easy to see why the pilot of EgyptAir flight MS181 believed this was a suicide belt and obeyed Mustafa’s order to divert to Cyprus. What is harder to understand is what Innes, one of a handful of passengers kept on the plane after all the others were released, has got to smile about.
But why not? There’s no use brooding. As Eric Idle said, always look on the bright side of life. Maybe you are about to be blown up. Never mind, enjoy yourself! Innes is a true hero, showing us all how to live in what for all he knew might have been his last moments. His big beaming face under the sunglasses pushed up on his head shows no self-pity or fear. Suppose, horribly, the worst had happened and this picture survived. What would it mean then? Innes would seem all the more madly brave, going to his death with a grin on his face.
As it is, he is fine, and Mustafa’s bizarre fake terrorist incident has done the impossible – injected some human farce into an age determined to see itself as tragic. Terrorist outrages convince us the world is getting worse when, as Steven Pinker argues in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, it is actually getting better. Murder is on the wane worldwide. Human beings are becoming less violent. And this photograph reveals the true nature of most modern life – comic, not tragic, with most people pursuing private lives, not public hatred. Seif Eldin Mustafa does not look frightening, even in a suicide belt. Had his threats been real, we’d look at this picture and wonder how such a mild-seeming individual could carry out an atrocity. As it is, he’s not even a villain, just a man who did something incredibly stupid, apparently for desperate personal reasons. The picture captures that. Admittedly this is hindsight – but he does not look like a fanatic. He looks helpless.
So, in a near empty plane, someone takes this picture while hijacker and hostage stand side by side like old mates or strangers who’ve struck a chord. Innes describes it as a “selfie”. He didn’t actually take it himself, but we all know what he means. A lot of pictures described as such are not technically selfies, just quick snaps that spontaneously record social moments. The brilliance of this picture is that it treats being held hostage by a man wearing a suicide belt as a social moment, like a party or a night in the pub. In the social media age we are driven to record social encounters as important events.
Being held hostage is one of the most extreme social relationships imaginable. Innes is standing next to a man who has stolen his freedom and may be about to end his life. That’s a hell of an important person in his life. Here they are stuck on the plane together, with not much to do – why not pose for a joint picture? Mustafa clearly couldn’t think of a reason to say no. Had he been a real terrorist, he would almost certainly have reacted differently. Perhaps Innes was even waging very effective psychological warfare with this disconcerting act of bonhomie.
In Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy, fame-obsessed fans kidnap a talk show host played by Jerry Lewis to try to make him socialise with them. “It’s a difficult situation but there can be moments of friendship, moments of sharing”, says Robert de Niro as the monstrous Rupert Pupkin. Then Sandra Bernhard climbs on the table and tries to seduce the helpless Lewis as he sits taped to his chair.
“Only an idiot kidnaps”, says a cop in Scorsese’s prophetic 1982 film, anticipating an Egyptian minister’s comment yesterday that Mustafa was not a terrorist but an “idiot”. Yet Innes turns the tables in this photograph. Instead of being mocked and humiliated by his kidnapper it is he who discombobulatingly asked for a “selfie” together. It’s the Stockholm syndrome as laddish comedy. Beware. These British are crazy.
This article was written by Jonathan Jones, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 30th March 2016 14.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010