Before 9.11 and after 9.11: all social scientists, save perhaps the most recalcitrant positivists waiting for more data points to come in, must now survey international as well as domestic politics by this temporal rift. Yet we seem stuck, it is uncertain for how long, in a dangerous interim that thwarts scholarly inquiry. After terrorist hijackers transformed three commercial jetliners into highly explosive kinetic weapons, toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center, substantially damaged the Pentagon, killed over five thousand people, and triggered a state of emergency – and before the dead are fully grieved, Osama bin Laden’s head is brought on a platter, justice is perceived as done, and information is no longer a subsidiary of war – there is very little about 9-11 that is safe to say. Unless one is firmly situated in a patriotic, ideological, or religious position (which at home and abroad are increasingly one and the same), it is intellectually difficult and even politically dangerous to assess the meaning of a conflict that phase-shifts with every news cycle, from ‘Terror Attack’ to ‘America Fights Back'; from a ‘crusade’ to a ‘counter-terror campaign'; from ‘the first war of the 21st century’ to a fairly conventional combination of humanitarian intervention and remote killing; from infowar to real war; from kinetic terror to bioterror.
Under such conditions, I believe the immediate task of the social scientist and all concerned individuals is to uncover what is dangerous to think and say. Or as Walter Benjamin put it best, ‘in times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in a situation where he has to play detective.’
Detective work and some courage is needed because questions about the root causes or political intentions of the terrorist act have been either silenced by charges of ‘moral equivalency’, or, rendered moot by claims that the exceptional nature of the act does not require explanation. It quickly became accepted wisdom, from President Bush on down, that evil was to blame, and that the appropriate political and intellectual focus should be on how best to eradicate evil. Even sophisticated analysts like Michael Ignatieff downplayed the significance of social or political inquiry by declaiming the exceptionality of the act:
What we are up against is apocalyptic nihilism. The nihilism of their means – the indifference to human costs – takes their actions not only out of the realm of politics, but even out of the realm of war itself. The apocalyptic nature of their goals makes it absurd to believe they are making political demands at all. They are seeking the violent transformation of an irremediably sinful and unjust world. Terror does not express a politics, but a metaphysics, a desire to give ultimate meaning to time and history through ever-escalating acts of violence which culminate in a final battle between good and evil. 1
By funneling the experience through the image of American exceptionalism, 9.11 quickly took on an exceptional ahistoricity. For the most part, history was only invoked – mainly in the sepia tones of the Second World War – to prepare America for the sacrifice and suffering that lay ahead. The influential conservative George Will wrote that there were now only two time zones left for the United States:
America, whose birth was mid-wived by a war and whose history has been punctuated by many more, is the bearer of great responsibilities and the focus of myriad resentments. Which is why for America, there are only two kinds of years, the war years and the interwar years. 2
Under such forced circumstances, of being beyond experience, outside of history, and between wars, 9.11 does not easily yield to philosophical, political or social inquiry. I believe the best the academician can do is to thickly describe, robustly interrogate, and directly challenge the authorized truths and official actions of all parties who are positing a world view of absolute differences in need of final solutions. I do so here by first challenging the now common assumption that 9.11 is an exceptional event beyond history and theory, especially those theories tainted, as Edward Rothstein claimed in the New York Times, by ‘postmodernism’ and ‘post-colonialism’. 3 Second, I examine the representations, technologies, and strategies of network wars that have eluded mainstream journalism and traditional social science. I finish by uncovering what I consider to be the main dangers presented by the counter/terror of 9-11.
An Exceptional Act?
On the question of exceptionalism, consider a few testimonials, the first from an editorial in The New York Times:
If the attack against the World Trade Center proves anything it is that our offices, factories, transportation and communication networks and infrastructures are relatively vulnerable to skilled terroristsâ€¦Among the rewards for our attempts to provide the leadership needed in a fragmented, crisis-prone world will be as yet unimagined terrorists and other socio-paths determined to settle scores with us. 4
Another from a cover story of Newsweek:
The explosion shook more than the building: it rattled the smug illusion that Americans were immune, somehow, to the plague of terrorism that torments so many countries. 5
And finally, one from the London Sunday Times:
He began the day as a clerk working for the Dean Witter brokerage on the 74th floor of the World Trade Center in New York and ended it as an extra in a real-life sequel to Towering Inferno 6
It might surprise some to learn that these are all quotes taken from 1993, the first and much less deadly terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. They are presented here as a caution, against reading terrorism only in the light – the often-blinding light – of the events of September 11. Obviously the two WTC events differ in the scale of the devastation as well as the nature of the attack. 9-11/WTC defied the public imagination of the real â€“ not to mention, as just about every public official and media authority is loathe to admit, the official imagination and pre-emptive capacity of the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, airport security, military, and other governmental agencies. Shock and surprise produced an immediate and nearly uniform reading of the event that was limited to discourses of condemnation, retribution, and counterterror. But surely it is a public responsibility to place 9.11 in an historical context and interpretive field that reaches beyond the immediacy of personal tragedy and official injury. Otherwise 9-11 will be remembered not for the attack itself but for the increasing cycles of violence that follow.
If 9-11 is not wholly new, what is it? We have a better sense of what it is not than what it is: from the President and Secretary of Defense and on down the food-chain of the national security hierarchy, we have heard that this will not be a war of states against states; it will not be the Gulf War or Kosovo; and it will not be Vietnam or Mogadishu. And they’re probably right â€“ certainly more right than commentators from both the Right (it’s Pearl Harbor) and Left (it’s an anti-imperialist struggle) who have relied on sloppy ideological analogies to understand the event. In my view 9-11 is a combination of new and old forms of conflict, including: the rhetoric of holy war from both sides; a virtual network war in the media and on the internet; a high-tech surveillance war overseas but also in our airports, our cities, and even our homes; and a dirty war of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, using an air campaign and limited special operations to kill the leadership and to intimidate the supporters of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
I call this new hybrid conflict, virtuous war. 7 It has evolved from the battlefield technologies of the Gulf War and the aerial campaigns of Bosnia and Kosovo; it draws on just war doctrine (when possible) and holy war (when necessary); it clones the infowar of global surveillance and the networked war of multiple media. In the name of the holy trinity of international order â€“ global free markets, democratic sovereign states, and limited humanitarian interventions – the U.S. has led the way in a revolution in military affairs (RMA) which underlies virtuous war. At the heart as well as the muscle of this transformation is the technical capability and ethical imperative to threaten and, if necessary, actualize violence from a distance â€“ but again, with minimal casualties when possible.
Using networked information, global surveillance, and virtual technologies to bring ‘there’ here in near real-time and with near-verisimilitude, virtuous war emerged before 9-11. But it now looks to be the ultimate means by which the U.S. intends to re-secure its borders, maintain its hegemony, and bring a modicum of order if not justice back to international politics. The difference after 9-11 is that we now have an enemy with a face; with 22 faces in fact, all of them available on the FBI’s new website of most-wanted terrorists. 8
From the start, it was apparent that 9-11 was and would continue to be a war of networks. Whether terrorist, internet, or primetime, most of the networks seemed equally adept at the propagation of violence, fear, and disinformation. For a prolonged moment there was no detached point of observation: we were immersed in a network of tragic images of destruction and loss, looped in 24/7 cycles, which induced a state of emergency and trauma at all levels of society. It was as if the American political culture experienced a collective Freudian trauma, which could be re-enacted (endlessly on cable) but not understood at the moment of shock. This is what Michael Herr meant when he wrote about his own experience with the trauma of Vietnam: “It took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes.” (Dispatches, New York: Avon Books, p. 20). And in a state of emergency, as in war, the first images stick. There was no initial attempt by the media or the government to transform these images of horror into responsible discourses of reflection and action. Moving at the speed of the news cycle and in a rush to judgment there was little time for deliberation, for understanding the motivations of the attackers, or for assessing the potential consequences, intended as well as unintended, of a military response.
Networks are not merely nodes connected by wiring of one sort of another. They convey, mimic, and in some cases generate human attributes and intentions, as suggested by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, who defined a network as ‘organic behavior in a technological matrix’. But 9-11 knocked akilter this always problematical relationship between meat and wire. Technologically-driven events outpaced organic modes of comprehension, and human actions, whether out of trauma or information overload, seemed increasingly to resemble machinic reflexes. Indeed, the first reaction by most onlookers and television reporters was to deem the event an accident. The second attack destroyed the accidental thesis, and as well, it seemed, our ability to cognitively map the devastating aftermath. Instead, into the void left by the collapse of the WTC towers and the absence of detached analysis, there rushed a host of metaphors, analogies, and metonyms, dominated by denial (“It’s a movie), history (“It’s Pearl Harbor”), and non-specific horror (“It’s the end of the world as we have known it”).
In our public culture, it is increasingly the media networks rather than the family, the community, or the government that provide the first, and, by its very speed and pervasiveness, most powerful response to a crisis. Questions of utility, responsibility, and accountability inevitably arose, and as one would expect, the media’s pull-down menu was not mapped for the twin-towered collapse of American invulnerability. Primetime networks did their best (Peter Jennings of ABC better than the rest) to keep up with the realtime crises. But fear, white noise, and technical glitches kept intruding, creating a cognitive lag so profound between event and interpretation that I wondered if string theory had been proven right, that one of the 10 other dimensions that make up the universe had suddenly intruded upon our own, formerly ordered one, exposing the chaos beneath.
Indeed, after the looped footage of the collapse of the towers began to take on the feeling of dÃ©jÃ vu, I seriously wondered if the reality principle itself had not taken a fatal blow. Like Ignatieff, I discerned a nihilism at work, but of a different kind, of the sort vividly on display in the movie, The Matrix. It first appears when some punky-looking customers in search of bootleg virtual reality software come to see Neo, the protagonist played by Keanu Reeves. He pulls from a shelf a green leather-bound book, the title of which is briefly identifiable as Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. When he opens the hollowed-out book to retrieve the software, the first page of the last chapter appears: ‘On Nihilism’. Clearly an homage by the two directors, the Wachowsky brothers, it all happens very quickly, too quickly to read the original words of Baudrillard, but here they are:
‘Nihilism no longer wears the dark, Wagnerian, Spenglerian, fuliginous colors of the end of the century. It no longer comes from a weltanshauung of decadence nor from a metaphysical radicality born of the death of God and of all the consequences that must be taken from this death. Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyze it. 9
With the toppling of WTC a core belief was destroyed: it could not happen here. Into this void the networks rushed, to provide transparency without depth, a simulacrum of horror, a much purer form of nihilism than imagined by moralist commentators like Ignatieff or Rothstein. In official circles, there was a concerted effort to fence off the void: the critical use of language, imagination, even humor was tightly delimited by moral sanctions and government warnings. This first-strike against critical thought took the peculiar form of a semantic debate over the meaning of ‘coward’. In the New Yorker and on Politically Incorrect, the question was raised whether it is more cowardly to commandeer a commercial airliner and pilot it into the World Trade Center, bomb Serbians from 15,000 feet, or direct a cruise missile attack against bin Laden from several thousand miles away. The official response was swift, with advertisements yanked, talk-show condemnations, and Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, saying people like Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect ‘should watch what they say, watch what they do’.
Protected zones of language quickly began to take shape. When Reuters news agency questioned the abuse-into-meaningless of the term ‘terrorism’, George Will on ABC Sunday News (September 30), retaliated by advocating a boycott of Reuters. Irony and laughter were permitted in some places, not in others. At a Defense Department press conference Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld could ridicule, and effectively disarm, a reporter who dared to ask if anyone in the Department of Defense will be authorized to lie to the news media. 10 President Bush was given room to joke in a morale-boosting visit to the CIA, saying he’s ‘spending a lot of quality time lately’ with George Tenet, the director of the CIA. And then there was New York Times reporter Edward Rothstein, taking his opportunistic shot at postmodernists and postcolonialists, claiming that their irony and relativism is ‘ethically perverse’ and produces a ‘guilty passivity’. Some of us were left wondering, where would that view place fervent truth-seekers and serious enemies of relativism and irony like bin Laden? Terrorist foe but epistemological ally?
The Mimetic War of Images
The air war started with a split-screen war of images: in one box, a desolate Kabul seen through a nightscope camera lens, in grainy-green pixels except for the occasional white arc of anti-aircraft fire followed by the flash of an explosion; in the other, a rotating cast of characters, beginning with President Bush, followed over the course of the day and the next by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Meyers, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, then progressively down the media food chain of war reporters, beltway pundits, and recently retired generals. On the one side we witnessed images of embodied resolve in high resolution; on the other, nighttime shadows with nobody in sight.
Strategic binaries were also legion in President Bush’s war statement, incongruously delivered from the Treaty Room of the White House: ‘as we strike military targets, we will also drop food'; the United States is ‘a friend to the Afghan people’ and ‘an enemy of those who aid terrorists'; ‘the only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it.’ And once more, the ultimate either/or was issued: ‘Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict there is no neutral ground.’
But the war programming was interrupted by the media-savvy bin Laden. Shortly after the air strikes began, he appeared on Qatar’s al-Jazeera television network (‘the Arab world’s CNN’) in a pre-taped statement that was cannily delivered as a counter air-strike to the U.S. Kitted out in turban and battle fatigues, bin Laden presented his own bipolar view of the world: ‘these events have divided the world into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels.’ But if opposition constituted his worldview, it was an historical mimic battle that sanctioned the counter-violence: “America has been filled with horror from north to south and east to west, and thanks be to God what America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted.”
Without falling into the trap of ‘moral equivalency’, one can discern striking similarities. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others have made much of the ‘asymmetrical’ war being waged by the terrorists. And it is indeed a canny and even diabolical use of asymmetrical tactics as well as strategies when terrorists commandeer commercial aircraft and transform them into kinetic weapons of indiscriminate violence, and then deploy commercial media to counter the military strikes that follow. Yet, a fearful symmetry is also at work, at an unconscious, possibly pathological level, a war of escalating and competing and imitative oppositions, a mimetic war of images.
A mimetic war is a battle of imitation and representation, in which the relationship of who we are and who they are is played out along a wide spectrum of familiarity and friendliness, indifference and tolerance, estrangement and hostility. It can result in appreciation or denigration, accommodation or separation, assimilation or extermination. It draws physical boundaries between peoples, as well as metaphysical boundaries between life and the most radical other of life, death. It separates human from god. It builds the fence that makes good neighbors; it builds the wall that confines a whole people. And it sanctions just about every kind of violence.
More than a rational calculation of interests takes us to war. People go to war because of how they see, perceive, picture, imagine, and speak of others: that is, how they construct the difference of others as well as the sameness of themselves through representations. From Greek tragedy and Roman gladiatorial spectacles to futurist art and fascist rallies, the mimetic mix of image and violence has proven to be more powerful than the most rational discourse. Indeed, the medical definition of mimesis is ‘the appearance, often caused by hysteria, of symptoms of a disease not actually present.’ Before one can diagnose a cure, one must study the symptoms â€“ or, as it was once known in medical science, practice semiology.
It was not long before morbid symptoms began to surface from an array of terror and counter-terror networks. Al Qaeda members reportedly used encrypted email to communicate; steganography to hide encoded messages in web images (including pornography); Kinko’s and public library computers to send messages; underground banking networks called hawala to transfer untraceable funds; 24/7 cable networks like al-Jazeera and CNN to get the word out; and, in their preparations for 9-11, a host of other information technologies like rented cell phones, online travel agencies, and flight simulators. In general, networks â€“ from television primetime to internet realtime â€“ delivered events with an alacrity and celerity that left not only viewers but decision-makers racing to keep up.
With information as the life-blood and speed as the killer variable of networks, getting inside the decision-making as well the image-making loop of the opponent became the central strategy of network warfare. This was not lost on the U.S. national security team as it struggled after the initial attack to get ahead of the network curve. Sluggish reactions were followed by quicker pre-emptive actions on multiple networks. The Senate passed the Uniting and Strengthening America (USA) Act, which allowed for ‘roving wiretaps’ of multiple telephones, easier surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic, and the divulgence of grand jury and wiretap transcripts to intelligence agencies. National Security adviser Condoleeza Rice made personal calls to heads of the television networks, asking them to pre-screen and to consider editing Al Qaeda videos for possible coded messages. Information about the air campaign as well as the unfolding ground interventions were heavily filtered by the Pentagon. Information flows slowed to a trickle from the White House and the Defense Department after harsh words and tough restrictions were imposed against leaks. Psychological operations were piggy-backed onto humanitarian interventions by the dropping of propaganda leaflets and food packs. The Voice of America began broadcasting anti-Taliban messages in Pashto. After the 22 ‘Most Wanted Terrorists’ were featured on the FBI’s website, the popular TV program ‘America’s Most Wanted’ ran an extended program on their individual cases.
Some of the most powerful networks are often the least visible, but when you add Hollywood to the mix, it’s hard to keep a secret. The entertainment industry journal Variety first broke the news about a meeting between White House officials and Hollywood executives. The stated intention was ominous enough, to ‘enlist Hollywood in the war effort':
The White House is asking Hollywood to rally ’round the flag in a style reminiscent of the early days of World War II. Network heads and studio chiefs heard that message Wednesday in a closed-door meeting with emissaries from the Bush administration in Beverly Hills, and committed themselves to new initiatives in support of the war on terrorism. These initiatives would stress efforts to enhance the perception of America around the world, to “get out the message” on the fight against terrorism and to mobilize existing resources, such as satellites and cable, to foster better global understanding. 11
Although some big media picked up this aspect of the story, none except for Newsweek took note of an earlier meeting organized by the military and the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology. 12 I knew about the ICT because I had covered its opening for Wired back in 1999, when the Army ponied up $43 million to bring together the simulation talents of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the U.S. military. 13 Now it seemed that they were gathering top talent to help coordinate a new virtual war effort:
In a reversal of roles, government intelligence specialists have been secretly soliciting terrorist scenarios from top Hollywood filmmakers and writers. A unique ad hoc working group convened at USC just last week at the behest of the U.S. Army. The goal was to brainstorm about possible terrorist targets and schemes in America and to offer solutions to those threats, in light of the twin assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Among those in the working group based at USC’s Institute for Creative Technology are those with obvious connections to the terrorist pic milieu, like “Die Hard” screenwriter Steven E. De Souza, TV writer David Engelbach (“MacGyver”) and helmer Joseph Zito, who directed the features “Delta Force One,” “Missing in Action” and “The Abduction.” But the list also includes more mainstream suspense helmers like David Fincher (“Fight Club”), Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), Randal Kleiser (“Grease”) and Mary Lambert (“The In Crowd”) as well as feature screenwriters Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson (“The Rocketeer”). 14
It would appear that 9-11 christened a new network: the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET). If Vietnam was a war waged in the living-rooms of America, the first and most likely the last battles of the counter/terror war are going to be waged on global networks that reach much more widely and deeply into our everyday lives.
What lies ahead? In the spirit of the season, I think the best statement about what might follow 9-11 comes from that great philosopher and ballplayer, Yogi Bera, who famously said ‘the future isn’t what it used to be’. (He actually said ‘ain’t what it used to be'; it was the French poet Paul Valery who said ‘isn’t’, but Yogi wasn’t very big on footnotes). The point is made all the clearer by the ambiguity of the statement: it’s hard to maintain let alone imagine a link between a happy past and a rosy future after a disaster, especially one in which terrorist technologies of mass destruction are force-multiplied by media technologies of mass distraction. My greatest concern is not so much the future as how past futures become reproduced, that is, how we seem unable to escape the feed-back loops of bad intelligence, bureaucratic thinking, and failed imagination.
From my own academic experience, when confronted by the complexity and speed of networks, the fields of political science and international relations are not much if at all better: as disciplines of thought they are just too narrow, too slow, tooâ€¦academic. This leaves another intellectual void, into which policy-makers and military planners are always ready to rush. Currently the RMA-mantra among the techno-optimists is to engage in their own form of ‘network-centric warfare’. As first formulated by Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski (formerly President of the Naval War College and putatively picked by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to head-up the Pentagon’s military transformation), network-centric war is fought by getting inside the decision-making loop of the adversary’s network, and disrupting or destroying it before it can do the same to yours. In the rush to harden and to accelerate networks, all kinds of checks and balances are left behind. There seems to be little concern for what organizational theorists see as the negative synergy operating in tightly coupled systems, in which unintended consequences produce cascading effects and normal accidents, in which the very complexity and supposed redundancy of the network produce unforeseen but built-in disasters. Think Three Mile Island in a pre-1914 diplomatic-military milieu. Think Paul Virilio’s ‘integral accident’.
My second concern is that social scientific theories are unsuited for the kind of political investigation demanded by the emergence of a military-industrial-media-entertainment network. President Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address famously warned the US of the emergence of a ‘military-industrial complex’, and of what might happen should ‘public policy be captured by a scientific and technological elite’. Now that Silicon Valley and Hollywood have been added to the mix, the dangers have morphed and multiplied. Think Wag the Dog meets The Matrix. Think of C.Wright Mill’s power elite with much better gear to reproduce reality.
So, for the near future, I believe virtuous war as played out by the military-industrial-media-entertainment network will be our daily bread and nightly circus. Some would see us staying there, suspended perpetually, in between wars of terror and counterterror. How to break out of the often self-prophesying circles? Are there theoretical approaches that can critically respond without falling into the trap of the interwar? One that can escape the nullity of thought which equates the desire to comprehend with a willingness to condone terrorism? The use of sloppy analogies of resistance, as well as petty infighting (pace [Christopher] Hitchens, [Noam] Chomsky and their polarized supporters) on the left does not give one much hope of a unified anti-war movement. For the moment, we need to acknowledge that the majority of Americans, whether out of patriotism, trauma or apathy, think it best to leave matters in the hands of the experts. I think for the immediate future the task will be to distinguish new from old dangers, real from virtual effects, and terror from counterterror in the network wars.
Otherwise, the last word might well come from the first words I heard of the last war the U.S. fought. Ten years ago I was circling over Chicago O’Hare airport when the captain came on the PA, informing us that the bombing of Iraq had just begun. In the taxi on the way to my hotel, I heard the first radio reports of stealth aircraft, smart bombs, and low casualty rates. But what stuck from that evening were the last and only words of my cab driver. In the thickest Russian accent, in a terribly war-weary voice, without the benefit of any context but the over-excitement of the radio reports, he said: ‘They told us we would be in Afghanistan for ten weeks. We were there for ten years.”
James Der Derian is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Research Professor of International Relations at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he directs the Information Technology, War and Peace Project. His articles on war and technology have appeared in Wired, the Nation, and The Washington Quarterly. His most recent book is Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network.
This essay draws from earlier postings at www.infopeace.org and http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_&_event/.