28 August 2005

The Context of Terror

For the past four years, Paul Rogers has written a weekly column for openDemocracy on global security. This week, he marked his 200th column with "highlights" - five seminal events that are important markers and milestones in what is proving to be an increasingly complex "war." What struck me as particularly interesting about these events is that they are all examples of the differences between a culture that is dominated by figure, as opposed to a culture dominated by ground.

As a highly visual culture, the United States (and by extension, most of the developed, Western world) is dominated by what is obviously noticeable. About the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Rogers observes,
Overnight, however, Kabul fell, and the regime disappeared as if it had never existed. By December 2001, the Taliban seemed already to belong to the past, and George W Bush could make his State of the Union speech a month later on a note of triumph. The moment was shortlived, as intense fighting in Tora Bora showed a determined guerrilla force that would prove to be a major problem for the United States and its coalition partners.
From the beginning of the Iraq war,
the widely ridiculed Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf ("Comical Ali") was disturbingly prescient in warning the newly occupying US forces: "we will bury you"...

George W Bush's "mission accomplished" address on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003 is perhaps the most spectacular misjudgement of this period. It took months before the US-led coalition acknowledged the scale of the insurgency it was facing, and more than a year before the Coalition Provisional Authority stopped describing its enemy as "remnants".
In all the cases that Rogers notes, it is the contextual ground that is the most revealing about the true dynamics at work, and the most powerful effects of the actions. It is not what is obviously seen, but the forces that operate more subtly that are the most potent. America's opponents operate in ground, as opposed to figure, and thus are easily able to manipulate their apparently more sophisticated foes to their own advantage. Considering the contextual ground, part of this manipulation involves convincing America's leaders to induce fear among their own people, thereby disrupting their comfortable and privileged lifestyle. This creates conditions whereby a large segment of the population will willingly relinquish the fundamental principles upon which the country was founded, in favour of more ascetic fundamentalist principles.

The context of terror will be explored in more depth at the McLuhan Program on Monday, August 29, beginning at 17:30, in the form of a colloquium on The Terrorist Discourse. I'll be posting some more thoughts on this topic over the next few days.

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