Spectacle of Terror, Terror of the Spectacle

By Omid Shams

            It is commonly said that September 11 pushed the world into a new era. Some analysts see 9/11 as a sign of America’s decline and others interpret the event as the final confrontation between the East and the West, foreseen in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Also, there are a few commentators who explain 9/11 as the beginning of militarist globalization. Despite contradictory ideas, there is a common agreement over the idea that after 9/11 the global geopolitics has been dramatically changed. Obviously 9/11 is not the only cause of that changing, but it was, indeed, a turning point; an event that forced the ongoing upheaval, previously intangible, to become visible and accelerated.

            There are many discussions on the origins of 9/11 and “real” masterminds behind those attacks, asking an exciting detective question: “Who is responsible for 9/11?” In this essay I skip the question of “who actually planned the event?” toward the question of “how and for what purpose the event and its aftermath are being controlled?” believing that through such investigation we will be able to find some probabilities to answer the question that we put aside, keeping in mind that controlling the event does not necessarily begin after 9/11. In this probe, I explore this central question: How 9/11 became the most powerful image that legitimated the American military expansion, specifically in Middle East, and led the American empire toward militaristic global domination?

            My essay draws on Situationist theory of society of the spectacle, specifically the concepts of “image”, “spectacle” and its relationship with reality, to analyze 9/11 as key image or as a source for a set of images that lead global domination toward its actualization. I also argue that American expansion of such scale through the postmodern crusade of “war on terror” based on Manichean confrontation of good vs. evil and misdefining the terms “terrorism” and “enemy” result the political, financial and military negative effects that may bring down the American empire.

September 11 as Image

            9/11 is indeed an event which happened in realm of the reality, but it moves out and continues its life in realm of the images. In other words, what “really” happened in 9/11 immediately dissolved into a peculiar image. Whenever one thinks of 9/11, there would be an image that appears in his mind: twin towers collapsing. There is no way to imagine the event without that certain image. The image occupied the pre-existence of the event and made it restricted to that very image so everything outside the frame of image remains unknown and will be forgotten. Guy Debord argues:

“For one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings tangible figments which are the efficient motor of trancelike behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly […] it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived…”(Debord, 7).

            Both sides of the event, creators and victims, are aware of this image’s power. There is no image which has been seen as largely and frequently as 9/11. This was the image of our century, the most characteristic image of our age, a spectacular image that impressed the world, making everyone to say that “the world is going to change”. The nearest image to 9/11 is Hiroshima. Both have a clear message. Both are Messengers of extreme fear. But even the Hiroshima, despite the intensity of the catastrophe, was not as powerful as 9/11 to make such global gazing and impression. Firstly, because 9/11 was, as 2002 HBO film “In Memoriam” called, “the most documented event in history” and  may be the strongest and most symbolic image of terror in all ages: Collapsing of twin towers seemed like a Titan fell on his knees. Secondly, 9/11 happened in the untouchable realm of Titian. As Kellner says “The spectacle conveyed the message that the U.S. was vulnerable to terror attack, terrorists could create great harm and that anyone at any time could be subject to a violent terror attack, even in Fortress America […] the 9/11 terror spectacle was the most extravagant strike on U.S. targets in its history and the first foreign attack on the continental U.S. since the war of 1812.” (2-4).

            The September 11 was designed to have a powerful visualization and symbolization. In addition to the symbolism of the image of attacks, the targets were symbolic as well; WTC and Pentagon represent the American financial and military power and symbolize the America’s leverage in global domination. “We are convinced that the horrors of September 11 were designed to be visible. […] there were no cameras at Dresden, Hamburg and Hiroshima […] September’s terror was different […] it was premised on the belief (learned from culture it wishes to annihilate) that picture worth a thousand words” (Boal, Clark, Matthews and Watts 26).

            Society of spectacle makes images and by magic of spectacle it transforms images “into real beings,” through which it controls the reality and reflected behaviors. Then, the power of image is the essence of such society. Spectacle is actualization of such images, “weltanschauung that has been actualized, translated into the material realm a world view transformed into an objective force” (Debord 5). Through this actualization spectacle has to cause gazing so anything outside the spectacle’s stage will be removed from range of sight; and spectacle appears as the only existing reality. “[spectacle] is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges” (Debord 5). Debord wrote these sentences at the time that television was becoming the main medium for molding the public opinion, long before the internet. But the power of image, which is replaced with the reality as its only existing notion, had the same effect as it does in our time. The first impression of recorded image from the beginning of photography until now is that what we see in a recorded image is referring to something real. In the world of mass media, the image is our only impression of realness of its subject. Thus, through controlling the viewpoint and framing of those images, media can easily control our perception of the events.  In the case of 9/11, the event was limited and reduced to that very image from a restricted viewpoint of terrified and innocent Americans. The image was broadcast repeatedly for days without advertising, focusing on buildings in flames and people jumping out of windows desperately, to replace the hostile emotions with reasonable questions. The United States’ government and mainstream corporate media framed the event to circulate the war fever and hatred. They actively refuse or even obstruct to consider the “causes” and “motivations” behind these attacks trying to show the terrorist as an enemy for whose actions no motivation other than “doing evil” is being admitted” (Koechler, 3). With the help of media and commentators and government statements the event became a threat against the “civilized world” and terrorists became de-humanized, as “absolute evil” from the world of “tyranny and darkness”, to attain such conclusion: “There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name […] and we will lead the world in opposing it” (G.W. Bush, West Point Commencement, June 2002)

            In 24 July 2002, President George W. Bush gave a speech entitled “Middle East Peace Process” declaring that For too long, the citizens of the Middle East have lived in the midst of death and fear. The hatred of a few holds the hopes of many hostage. The forces of extremism and terror are attempting to kill progress and peace by killing the innocent. And this casts a dark shadow over an entire region. For the sake of all humanity, things must change in the Middle East”. In mainstream media such words might be followed with images of Kurd victims of Saddam’s regime in Halabja or images of Anfal genocide as typical image of “killing the innocents”. But there is no image of Hiroshima or bombardment of Vietnam or more recently the image of civilian casualties of war in Afghanistan. There is no image of victims of poison gas attack by Iraq, heavily supported by United States, during the invasion of Iran. Also in mainstream media there is no place for such questions: Why hatred of few costs the life of thousands of innocents in Afghanistan? Why United States remained silent since the Anfal genocide in 1986 for 16 years to rise against “forces of extremism” “for sake of all humanity”? What are the roles of oil policies, dollar watchers and electoral popularity in such decisions as invasion of Iraq?

            Answers to these questions are those parts of reality which are kept away from public opinion, under the shadow of 9/11 manipulated image, in favor of that “weltanschauung” to be actualized.

Origins and Existence of an event before the happening

            There is no doubt that 9/11 was shocking but it was expectable. It existed so many times before it happened. In fact United States itself brought it into existence. Baudrillard says “we have dreamed of this event, everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree(1). Attraction and necessity of such dream comes from the absoluteness and untouchability of United States as a superpower. Another reason for such dream is the way that the United States defines its enemies and defines itself against them. The notion of America as absolute good fighting the absolute evil is the American empire’s fundamental and a basic tactic to justify its expansion.

             Ronald Reagan in his famous speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983 called Soviet Union as “focus of evil in modern world”. He describes the world’s situation as “There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might”. Quoting de Tocqueville he emphasizes on America’s goodness thanks to her churches and urges Americans “to beware … label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil”.

             Bill Clinton in his speech on Oklahoma bombing in 1995 calls the terrorists “dark forces” who threatens the peace, freedom and “our way of life”. Interesting part is that Timothy McViegh was a radical “American” member of the Patriot Movement. Such perception of enemy is the basic characteristic of United States’ reaction to 9/11 and terminology of War on Terror. In political discourse of American officials, there is a dualism that is deeply extremist and religious. In such dualist discourse the enemy is a metaphysical enemy which has no relation with whatever is natural; and here the term natural belongs to the “civilized world”. Therefore, this enemy is “(a) “incomprehensible” (representing evil of an unimaginable dimension) and (b) “threatening” – as the paradigmatic “other” – humankind as such” (Koechler, 8). United States refuses to understand the real motivations of its enemy and claiming for absolute good defines the enemy as absolute evil. In this viewpoint, whatever belongs to or connected with this enemy is evil; thus, there is no other way, but to totally annihilate the enemy’s world. United States also refuses or obstructs to find a consensus and legal definition of terrorism that can distinguish between resistance and terrorism and also clarify the term, state terrorism. In other words, United States as an omniscient narrative put itself in a Godlike position to define and judge the identity of enemy, its motivation and its goal. Furthermore, its enemy is also the world’s enemy or at least the civilized/natural world’s. The result is that such enemy reverses these extremist definition and judgment and uses them against United States.

“No need for a death wish or desire for self-destruction, not even for perverse effects. It is very logically, and inexorably, that the power of power exacerbates a will to destroy it.  […] It has been said: “God cannot declare war on itself”. Well, It can. The West, in its God-like position (of divine power, and absolute moral legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself” (Baudrillard 1).

               However, that “death wish” also has been created by the United States for two reasons. The first reason is creating the image of a world savior. Numerous American disaster movies and novels imply that any threat against United States would be the sign of apocalypse. Through saving itself, the United States is always saving the world.  Some of these movies produce the images of everlasting evil that the United States is fighting with.

             The second reason is justifying the United States’ global expansion. After World War II, when America became the first world power it produced and reproduced the image of its own destruction (from Soviet Union’s nuclear threat to alien’s attack and from year 2000 millennium bug to international terrorism)  only the details of the image have been changed and finally it actualized as 9/11. Although such images of Armageddon and apocalypse are understandable after World War II, but they have roots in Biblical thoughts that have strong influence on American minds and American empire. The Christian extremism has been an ally to American empire from its very beginning. In other words, American expansion can be seen as Christian expansion. John Fisk in his essay, “Manifest Destiny” published in Harper’s Magazine 1885 says American empire “is destined to go on until every land on the earth’s surface that is not already the seat of an old civilization shall become English in its language, in its religion, in its political habits and traditions, and to a prominent extent in the blood of its people” (Pratt, 6).

            J. H. Barrows in The Christian Conquest of Asia perfectly indicates the conjunction between American Expansion and Christianity: “The time of our moral and political isolation has passed away … America’s place in the Christianizing the world is far ahead, in the very foremost ranks…here Christianity has a free field for the exercise of its divine energies…God has placed use, like Israel of old, in the center of the nations” (Barrows, 237).

             Bringing the topic to the present time, let’s give an interesting example that is incredibly matched with strategies of American Empire. The first book of Left Behind series published in 1995, an evangelical based narrative of “End of the world” that immediately became one of the most debated and appreciated books in the United States. “In total, works have sold more than 60 million copies since the first book appeared in 1995” (McAlister 190)

            The first book opens with large raid of Russian MIG fighters on Israel. The attack fails with divine intervention, but it reveals the arrival of Antichrist to dominate the world. Antichrist appears as Romanian (not American) politician who takes control of the United Nation, calls for general disarmament, introduces a new international currency and tries to make UN stronger than world powers. These are presented as parts of Antichrist’s evil plan. All of these actions are threatening the hegemonic role of the United States as a superpower. The general disarmament is what Ronald Reagan warned evangelicals about. The Powerful UN is similar to what Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. opposed, in the case of the League of Nations. Antichrist’s deeds seem to be opposing the financial, political and military interests of United States rather than the laws of God and his Son. Moreover, “There is a resonance between such scenarios [as Left Behind] and President Bush’s rhetoric garnishing his Middle East policies” (Ataoev, 27). In 2000 when the movie based on novel released, the Russians (who were no longer credible to appear as evil forces) replaced with Arabs. “The Christian Right had identified different groups or entities (from Native Americans to Soviet Communism) at different times as representation of the Antichrist. Islam is now taking their place” (Ataoev, 34). Left Behind unbelievably predicted a global war against Christianity; and regarding to its public reception from American readers and mass media, it is not accidental that President Bush used the term “crusade” for the War on Terror. McAlister says: “[Left Behind] series offers its readers a way to see the aggressive actions of the United States (and those terrorists and other actors) as part of a divine plan” (194) The Left Behind shows, also, the similarity between fundamentalism and neoliberalism. The novels fully support the privatization, technocracy, multinational capitalism, and military expansion. There is no representative from working class in savior circle of Tribulation forces. They are all highly professional bourgeois who help the working class people. “Evangelical culture is predominantly popular within the petit bourgeois class, which benefits from neoliberal gains. Although the events described in the books are related to contemporary times, they reflect religious prophecy insofar as it agrees with the dominant features of the present” (Ataoev, 31). The notion of apocalypse justifies the neoliberal management of the world and makes a religious background for acceptance of military expansion in future. As result, in 2003 the majority of Christian Americans believed that Saddam Hussein, involved in 9/11 attacks and development of weapon of mass destruction, was the Antichrist rebuilding the Babylon.

            The image of Muslims and specifically Arabs throughout the Hollywood movies before 9/11 is mostly passive, weak, peaceful, poor and demanding American heroes’ help. In the first movie based on Left Behind, which had produced after Kenya’s American embassy bombing and releases just before 9/11, we can see a dramatic change. Along with disappearance of communist Russians and Eastern Europeans’ evil image, the hostile image of Muslims and Arabs started to be foregrounded in mass production of spectacle. However, it was not simply a reaction to growing Islamic anti-American fundamentalism. Such image has existed in American political and Christian discourse since the beginning of twentieth century. The president of Armenian Patriotic Alliance in New York, M. S. Gabriel, in 1896 wrote “When Christendom repeats the phrase, “Thy Kingdom Come”; in the universal prayer it means the downfall of Islam. The kingdom of Christ is a kingdom of righteousness and between it and the cruel, lustful barbarism of Islamism there can be no peace.” (Gabriel and Williams, 471)

             These are only the symbolic and ideological preparations of 9/11. But there are actual causes as well. The occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza since 1967; 1982-1983 military operation in the Lebanon against Palestine Liberation forces, 1987 Operation Nimble Archer against Iran, 1988 Shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655, Siege of the Gaza strip, military operation against the Moro Islamic liberation movement in the Philippines, the military intervention in Somalia, etc. “the aggressive policies enacted in these cases, while neglecting the actual grievances, have in turn become the root causes of many a “terrorist” act, that in each and every case is seen by the perpetrators themselves as heroic act of resistance” (Koechler, 15).

Controlling the Event toward Global Domination

          The apocalyptic images of future such as those that presented in Left Behind and, somehow, actualized in 9/11 are the logical consequences of the United States’ will to be a God-like power of the world. Hence, they are not completely detached from the nature of United States’ empire. They are parts of the global order which United States tries to create. Thus, even if their role is attempt to destroy the American empire but their function is to participate in intensifying the existence of that order. While United States’ intervention in Muslim world caused extremist reactions such as 9/11, such extremist reaction caused acceleration of American military expansion. This is a war in which terror fights against terror. Both sides nourish from each other until both implode. 9/11 made the road for invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Death of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq accelerated the recruitment of terrorist organizations and spreading of the Islamist radicalism in body of political power of Arab world (Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt).

            However, the latest phase of terrorism as suicidal, having almost all the weapons, technologies and tactics of empire that makes it essentially similar to the nature empire’s system, has another weapon that makes terrorists superior:  they have themselves, their own bodies as weapon; they have “their own death”. This weapon makes them and all of their acts symbolic specifically for their own supporters and followers. They want to die as much as Americans want to live. Firstly, their death implies, as 2005 London’s bomber said, their “motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer.” (Aljazeera, 1st September 2005) Secondly, their death is their goal, their reward and salvation as a martyr. They inject their symbolism to the reality. It has been said that they are not realistic thinking that they can destroy the world’s superpower by demolishing some buildings. It is true. They are way beyond the reality. They are symbols of that dream we all have about “destruction of a power hegemonic to that degree”. Whatever they do is the actual symbol of universal desire to destroy this hegemony.  They attack to the symbols of imperialist power. They symbolically targeted the heart of the United States. By their own death they expand this symbolism to its extreme level. They control their death, so they take the opportunity of punishing and eliminating from the system they try to demolish. They cannot be eliminated; then, they are immortal, untouchable. They act by their death and before acting they don’t exist because they are like everyone else: normal citizens.  Only by their death they symbolically exist forever. Suicide terrorists can turn themselves into a weapon. It is their death that guarantees their existence. Suicide terrorists’ existence is not limited to the reality, but the potentiality of their existence, so they cannot be really eliminated. Dominant power is limited to its real existence. Dominant system itself creates symbols attaching them to its absolute mastery over the reality. But in its nature it is nothing but real. It is limited and trapped in its realness and that is why it needs to create symbolic war of good against evil. It uses symbols to hide the weakness, insufficiency and mortality of its realness. It cannot die in reality and resurrect in realm of symbols as terrorists do as symbolic martyrs. To fight with terrorists’ symbolic acts and existence, dominant power can do nothing symbolic. It can only spread its pure and insane violence. That is why it needs narratives such as Left Behind to symbolize its War on Terror as holy war for good sake and salvation. But it is impossible because society of the spectacle presents itself as realm of salvation. The promise of paradise beyond this world (which is the main motivation of suicide terrorism) is not among its properties. Society of the spectacle claims itself as the only existing paradise. Any promise beyond the “real” borders of this society is rejected as illusion. Of course there are eschatological narratives in Christianity as well; but it is obvious that culture of martyrdom has not such central role in Christianity as it does in Islam. Although the War on Terror is controlled and legitimated on basis of moral and religious values, but its goal is claimed to be protecting freedom, democracy and civilized world, not serving God.

               American empire cannot control the terrorism, but it can control the image of terrorism in favor of its interests (such as controlling oil supplies in the Middle East). It can control the horror caused by terrorists to make public opinion accept such extremist claims as Ann Coulter does: “We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” (Kellner, 9) United States cannot eliminate terrorism, but it can set up a terrorist model that exists in reality and by eliminating that model it can claim victory and hide the pointlessness of its violence. Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran are going to be those models. War on Terror needs to attack these countries as locus of terrorism and global threat. Hiding Bin Laden in Afghanistan, producing mass destruction weapons in Iraq or making atomic bomb in Iran is, therefore, vital for this plan.

American empire as heart and head of society of the spectacle needs images which he can control. It created the image of terrorism as a global threat through holding a mirror in front of itself. But it cannot get hand over this image because it doesn’t exist in realm of its authority. It lives symbolically in imaginative part of the world. Terror lives in our heads and in the United States’ head as well; just like an insect that inhabits in the head of a giant. The enormous violence of giant over the things around him doesn’t harm the insect that lives inside him. It is the insect that makes giant desperately hurt himself through revealing his aggression and anger on everything and everywhere. When the giant reaches to the final level of aggression and desperation the only way to get rid of the insect is that the giant crushes his skull. Killing that insect is due to suicide of the giant. War on Terror with the current strategy leads the American empire to reach the very dangerous level of the militarist expansion. Regarding the role of other superpowers such as China and Russia in Middle East, growing nuclear arms race in this region, political and financial problems of America’s European allies, there would be the possibility of another world war. “To the chagrin of the American Christian Right, God may do nothing to save “His chosen people” if that country pursues the present course of “imperial overstretch”. The miscalculating fundamentalists may then be astonished to witness a different kind of Armageddon. The two wars in the Middle East will probably drag on for a long time, draining the strength of the United States. American power, great though it is, is not necessarily sufficient. Expansion of such magnitude may bring down the American colossus, just as it brought down the Roman, the Habsburg, the Dutch and the British Empires. They all had a sense of exceptionalism, but all met disillusionment”. (Ataoev, 42)

Works cited and sources:

Ataoev, Turkkaya. “Holy Terror: Christian Fundamentalist Share in U.S. Globalization and War.” International Progress Organization: University of Sains Malaysiya. 29 Jan. 2008.  web. 20 Aug 2012. 

Barrows, John Henry. “ The Christian Conquest of Asia”. New York, Scribner.s: 1899.  Online. 20 Aug 2012,

Baudrillard, Jean. “Spirit of Terrorism.” Le Monde 2 Nov 2001. Trans.  Rachel Bloul. Online.

Boal, Lain, et al. Afflicted Power: Capital and Spectacle in New Age of War. London, New York: Verso, 2005.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

 Inside Al Qaeda. Dir. David Keane. Wild Eyes Production, 2007. Documentary, Film.

 Kellner, Douglas. “9/11, Spectacles of Terror, and Media Manipulation: A Critique of Jihadist and Bush Media Politics”. UCLA, web, 20 Aug 2012

 Koechler, Hans. “The Global War on Terror and the Metaphysical Enemy”. International Progress Organization: University of Sains Malaysiya. 29 Jan. 2008.  web. 20 Aug 2012.    

 LaHaye, Tim, and Jerry B. Jenkins. Left Behind. Chicago: Tyndale House, 1995.

 McAlister, Melanie. “Left Behind and the Politics of prophecy talk.” Exceptional State. Eds. Ashley Dawson and Malini Johar Schueller. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.