30 August 2005

War and Peace in the Global Village: The Terrorist Discourse

Last evening at the McLuhan Program, we hosted a "McLuhan Salon" on this topic. The following longish post are my opening comments at that event.

On September 11, 2001, hijackers presumably organized by Osama bin Laden turned what might be considered the defining technology of the United States of America – namely, television – from a weapon of mass distraction, into a weapon of mass destruction. Not only were the 50,000 people who worked in the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center attacked. 300 million Americans were simultaneously attacked in their homes, living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Americans were held captive, to relive that violence again and again, through the video replays of the 24-hour news channels. The cultural and societal reaction of the American leadership in the wake of that disaster instructed antagonistic organizations around the world in precisely what must be done in the ensuing years to lead to the ultimate destruction of that country, with the potential of destroying the entirety of the Western world.

As Marshall McLuhan writes in his book, War and Peace in the Global Village,
In any war the foe studies the resources and characteristics of his attacker as earnestly as the attacker tries to understand the foe in depth. The generals and their staffs discuss and meditate on every aspect of the enemies’ psychology, studying their cultural histories and resources and technologies, so that today war, as it were, has become the little red schoolhouse of the global village. It’s a gory little schoolhouse at that.
In warfare, each opponent attempts to destroy infrastructure, plunder the resources of the land, and demoralize populations. The tactics and weaponry are selected for maximum effectiveness in accomplishing these tasks, with particular attention paid to the last one – demoralizing the population. “When our identity is in danger, we feel certain that we have a mandate for war,” observes McLuhan. Indeed, one can easily make the argument that all wars of the modern era are wars of identity, or at the very least, wars of ideology that is a proxy for identity. If this demoralization can be accomplished, if one side loses its will to fight – not against an enemy, but for the unique defining characteristic of their society – then they will capitulate and come under the control of the victor, who will then impose his own social and cultural definition upon the conquered.

In prior wars, one of the most successful tactics in accomplishing this demoralization was the destruction of habitat: Think of the bombing of London and Dresden, think of deforestation and burning of villages, think of the destruction and bulldozing of towns and settlements, think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The cold-war concept of the so-called neutron bomb was not terrifying, since it would instantly kill only people, and spare their environment. Poisoning the water supply, or sending anthrax through the mail is far more effective, since it infiltrates the total environment, rendering it unfit for habitation, and thereby instilling terror.

If terrorism is the use of fear as a weapon, to accomplish military or political objectives, then all modern wars are wars of terror. The tragedies of East Timor, Rwanda, Darfur in Sudan, the Congo, are all, first and foremost, wars of terror. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a prolonged civil war of terror, not unlike Ceausescu’s Romania, or Honecker’s East Germany. Ever-present fear was used as a weapon by a totalitarian leader against his own population, to maintain total control. And the more deftly and effectively that weapon is deployed, the less actual violence is required.

The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center attacked 300 million people at one blow. As the superstructure of that building began to crumble, so too did the superstructure of the nation itself, that superstructure being its fundamental founding principles, its Constitution and Bill of Rights. It cannot be argued that the USA Patriot Act is not a direct attack on fundamental Constitutional rights and freedoms, regardless of whether one believes it is a justified attack on those freedoms, or not. I find it interesting in the extreme that the extension of the Patriot Act came up for Congressional consideration and passage in the wake of the recent London bombings. Most certainly, it was the rhetoric of fear that carried the day for George W Bush’s re-election in 2004. In essence, spreading fear amongst the population effectively accomplishes the political objective. Currently, the big guns of fear are being rolled out and aimed directly at America’s heartland to bolster flagging support for the war in Iraq.

The lessons that we have learned in the “gory little red schoolhouse of the global village” is that success in modern warfare depends on demoralizing, not necessarily physically destroying, your adversary. That demoralization is most effectively accomplished by attacking the habitat in which your adversary exists. And, as has been most clearly demonstrated in the United States, fear can be used with tremendous efficacy as a weapon in a civil war of terror that divides north from south, east from west, red from blue, and pits neighbour against neighbour.

In the contemporary developed world, we inhabit more than physical space. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that intellectually, socially, politically and culturally, we are increasingly finding our habitat extending to a world that is less and less tangible. We first made our entry into this world in the 1930s and 40s via radio, through the 1950s, 60s and 70s via television, and from the 1990s through to today via instantaneous, multi-way communications. At one time, fear would race through a village by word of mouth, leaving psychological devastation in its wake. Today, as word of mouth has accelerated to word of mouse, fear becomes a far more potent weapon with which to lay waste to the global village.

What better way is there to attack the contemporary habitat of modern humankind than to fly planes into buildings in full view of television cameras. What better way is there to demoralize troops and war profiteers alike than with videos of decapitations. What better way is there to dehumanize and objectify the quote-unquote enemy than by injecting photographs of apparently government-sanctioned torture techniques into the digital zeitgeist. What better way is there to carpet-bomb into submission what may remain of critical thinking and incisive investigative journalism that might challenge political leadership or incite a population to action than with Janet Jackson’s breast, Michael Jackson’s boys, and one missing, blonde white-woman after another. The populace is left reeling, losing its will to fight for the unique defining characteristic of their society, capitulating and coming under the control and social definition of the victor.

In his inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt intoned these now famous words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Over seventy years later, in the reversal that has resulted from our age of ubiquitous connectivity, the only truly effective weapon available is that nameless, unreasoning unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to liberate an unwitting, and unaware society. Today, the discourse of war and conflict is necessarily a discourse of terror.
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