May 3, 2008

Circulating Terror

"The dreams are anonymous but authentic. Both dreams involve a narrative; they contain action with a beginning and an end, action which, however, never took place in the way in way it was recounted. They are dreams about terror, or more precisely, dreams of terror itself. The terror is not simply dreamed, the dreams are themselves components of the terror. Both recount a vivid inner truth which was not only realized, but was immeasurably outbid by the later reality. . . ."

--Reinhart Koselleck

A recent talk -- "The Death of Politics: Human Rights, New Public Spheres, and the Jihad" -- offered a brief tour of a Jihadi terrorism network, in particular the catalog of small films "it" produces and distributes. What can be understood from this small, yet global exercise of dispersing an archive of "terrorist" acts?

In the few samples shown we hear music and see graphics that announce an opening, and then witness the action. In the first, a military convoy in the distance silently bounces along until there is an explosion under the front of the first vehicle. Another is more intimate. The subject is a rocket launcher. The camera pans over a series of metal cone noses nested in their tubes. Then their launch and excited voices in the background. We don't see the rockets land. There are more and more, some longer form. We see a lush countryside, an "interview" or "profile" of the driver of a car that we see packed carefully with explosives. The end is the destruction of the far-off target.

Of the details, there was no comment during the talk. The films were left to lodge themselves in the imagination; impossible, now, to forget that they are not mere citations in an academic paper, but filaments free-floating all around the world, inspiring imitation, recording "revolution," if that is what it is.

These brief bursts of visuals were framed in the talk, however, by the discourse of human rights, which in the authorial voice of Michael Ignatieff, defines terrorism as anti-politics, and therefore as the opposite of human rights. Ignatieff, now part of the Canadian Parliament, is a defender of human rights as a political project. Above all lofty ideals, for him human rights are an expression of values that do not exist outside the political sphere. As such, they may even marshal violence on the behalf of protecting, or installing, those values. The caveat is that the violence should be used only as a last resort, whatever the variables of that which determines an arrival at that "last" stage. State violence, or politics in the form of "last resort," is seen to achieve the economic and civil stability required for what we call human rights to exist as the dominant "moral intuition."

In such a construction, terrorism is bracketed, simply, as the inverse. Borrowing Ignatieff's language, it is the unjust use of violence; a violence of first resort against civil society -- chiefly with civilians as target; a gesture meant to disrupt a political process with the end-point of potential consensus, one reached in a respected public sphere. It is a vulgar disregard for deliberation.

Even leaving aside, for the moment, the idea of hegemonies at work in the imagined neutral space of a true and just politics, Ignatieff's formula will not, cannot, hold. The small samples of terrorism production shown destroy the distinction. We're reminded, first, that human rights has long used media representations to effect change, to shame the perpetrators, to expose them or at least to show the horrors that must be stopped. We're reminded, next, that in a society of spectacle, perpetrators use cameras, too. The trust in the power of images works for all, and images can come to stand prior to any actualities. In both cases one might act for no other reason than to be seen, acting.

Does the terrorist's violence destroy the public sphere as Ignatieff says? Or does the image become more than what gives rise to the image -- the essence becoming the proliferating images re-assembled in the uncertain "public" sphere that feeds a binding economy of witness? Framed this way, the Jihad seems less the violence as an end in itself than as the substance of images, the easiest currency to persuade, move, inspire, perhaps with purpose, perhaps with gratuitous animus. As the pictures do the work of advocacy in their media sphere, the packaged events present a dream terror: anonymous, authentic, and in narrative form, played out in the mind of the viewer.