The war on terror is now dependent on an imitative relationship between al-Qaeda and the US government, James Der Derian controversially argues

Can the war on terror be won? Conceived as a struggle of good against evil, deploying new technologies of killing, and exacerbated through an unnecessary invasion, there is no end in sight. Defeating evil through force, in the sense of finding a centre of gravity and destroying it, has proven elusive, from al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington to, in president George W Bush’s words, the “catastrophic successes” of Tora Bora and Iraq. Evil can be spiritually displaced or temporally domesticated – more than a few “terrorist evil-doers” have become sovereign heads of state, and vice versa – but not forcefully eradicated.

The Pentagon’s faith in hi-tech, discriminate warfare has been sorely tested by the low-tech weapons and asymmetrical tactics of insurgents and suicide bombers. And the neoconservative belief that freedom is the best weapon against terror has been, literally, blown up by the preference of the jihadist for martyrdom over liberation. This faith-based war has all the hallmarks of an eternal struggle.

If we accept at face value the declarations of president Bush and Osama Bin Laden – men who pride themselves on meaning what they say and saying what they mean – critical thought, as well as effective action, is endangered by each side’s imaging of the other. If we are to understand the future of the war on terror, we must adopt an agnostic perspective on why it started, how it spreads, and who benefits from its continuation.

This is not to claim any moral equivalency between Bush and Bin Laden. It is rather to recognize that a mimetic, or imitative, relationship has emerged that defies not only thought but, also, any hope of a rational solution. Caught between mirror images, violence appears to be the sole option. After watching the televised images of kamikaze planes hitting the World Trade Center, the home videos of Bin Laden, the Internet beheading of Nicholas Berg, the viewer is ready, perhaps too ready, to agree with president Bush: “Evil now has a face”. After witnessing images of Abu Ghraib, and the shooting of an Iraqi prisoner in the Falluja mosque, the viewer is ready, perhaps too ready, to condemn the infidel and to support the jihad.

Terrorism is all around
Thanks to the immediacy of television, the Internet and other networked information technology, everyone sees terrorism everywhere in real time, all the time. In turn, terrorism has taken on an iconic, virtual and, increasingly, banal character, in the sense first identified by Hannah Arendt in her study of the “thought-defying” nature of evil that earmarked the killing machine of Nazi Germany. Suicide-bombing innocent civilians in the pursuit of salvation as well as destroying a city in order to save it attains an everyday quality. We come to expect if not totally accept such things.

By invoking evangelical rhetoric and proclaiming that other nations are “with us or against us”, president Bush ignored the counsel and constraint of sympathetic European allies who had prior experience with terrorism at home. War was deemed the only solution. People go to war not only out of rational calculation, but also because of how they see, perceive, picture, imagine and speak of each other – that is, how the construction of difference of other groups, as well as the sameness of their own, takes on irreconcilable conditions of hostility. Neither Bush nor Bin Laden is the first to think that mimesis might be mined for political advantage, only to find themselves then caught in the dynamic of mirrored hatreds.

How do we break this mimetic encounter? Historically, terrorist movements without a mass base eventually weaken and rarely last more than a decade. However, from the very beginning, the mimetic struggle between Bush and Bin Laden, magnified by the media, fought by advanced technologies of destruction, and unchecked by the UN or America’s allies, developed a logic of its own, in which assimilation or extermination became the only plausible options.

As subsequent acts of terror and counterterror surpassed the immediate effects of the 9/11 attack, as Bin Laden morphed into yet another avatar of evil, Saddam Hussein, we faced an even more pathological form of mimesis, which has been medically defined as “the appearance, often caused by hysteria, of symptoms of a disease not actually present”.

Early on, a multi-front infowar was launched: the White House established a media war room in Old Executive Office to sell the war on terror to the public; the Pentagon created an Office of Strategic Influence to plant favourable news stories in the foreign press; and DARPA, the Pentagon’s main research arm, proposed under the rubric of Scientia est potentia (Knowledge is power) data-mining operations to provide “Total Information Awareness” on citizens and foreigners alike.

Once the media discovered such efforts to influence and even deceive the public, some of the organizations were closed down. But it seems a wooden stake was needed. In December 2004 it was revealed that the Pentagon was considering the creation of a “director of central information” who would have authority over all public and covert efforts to influence thinking about the war on terror.

On the other side, the serial release of Bin Laden videotapes further inflamed the mimetic condition by linking terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Karachi, Yemen, Kuwait, Bali and even Moscow to an age-old crusade of Islam against the west. The result was a “Green Scare” of Islam that threatened the body politic as severely as the hysteria of past Red Scares.

Dead or alive, prophet or crackpot, symptom or disease, Bin Laden, as well as Saddam, requires a mimetic foe. Without a reciprocal hatred their prophecies lose their self-fulfilling powers. As is often the case with narcissistic psychopaths, the worst thing we could do is to deprive them of their reflections.

The power of the picture
As we know from medical pathology, the auto-immune response can kill as well as cure. The response to the most powerful images after the Bin Laden tapes – the Abu Ghraib photos – bears this out. Heinous crimes were revealed, public outrage expressed, official apologies proffered, congressional hearings convened and courts martial put in train. In the case of the Abu Ghraib photos, once established as “authentic”, they took on a singular significance: a crisis for the Bush administration and America’s reputation in the world.

Numerous reports of earlier instances of dissimulations, group-think acts of self-deception and outright lies by the US government – from claims about Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda, the presence of weapons of mass destruction, and the likelihood of a swift post-war transition to peace and democracy – all paled in comparative political effect to the digital images of simulated sex, dominatrix bondage and mock KKK-lynching. However, the surfeit of images also produced a reverse effect: overexposed to loop-images of prisoner abuse, islamicist hip-hop videos and brutal snuff films of hostages, many preferred to distance themselves with the flick of a channel, the click of a mouse. The way was clear for a banalization of terror.

A new world disorder
It may well be that in the search for the “real war” (as evidenced by photographs, videos and blogging) we are witnessing a deeper desire for a lost moral certainty and international stability. Many saw the end of the Cold War as an occasion to spin theories over the merits of multipolar over unipolar state-systems, or to wax nostalgic over the stability of a bipolar order. When America emerged as the dominant military and economic power, it was difficult to identify or even to imagine a “global peer competitor” on the horizon. After 9/11, practically overnight, a post-cold war tendency turned into a full-blown transformation. A global heteropolar matrix emerged from the shadows of perception, in which actors radically different in identity and interests (state, corporate, group, individual) were suddenly considered comparable – thanks in no small part to the media – in their ability to produce profound global effects.

It could be argued that a shift in the perception of global risk drove this transformation, and at the top of the threat list was a new conceptualization of terror. The predominant risk of the Cold War had been nuclear war, which was stabilized by a “balance of terror”. With the decline, if not the total demise, of a logic of deterrence based on a nuclear stalemate, the willingness and capacity to inflict mutually unacceptable harm that had provided a modicum of order to the bipolar system was also eroded. In its place a new imbalance of terror emerged, based on a mimetic fear and hatred coupled with an asymmetrical willingness and capacity to destroy the enemy without the formalities of war. This cannot be reduced, as much as leaders on both sides have tried, to a post-9/11 phenomenon. It can doctrinally be traced at least as far back as 1997, when the first Quadrennial Defense Review formally shifted US strategy from deterring the enemy through nuclear superiority to destroying the enemy through “full spectrum dominance”. In 1998, it found an echo in Bin Laden’s pseudo-fatwa which decreed Christian and Jewish civilians legitimate targets of the jihad.

The casualties of war
As in the older, tidier balance of terror, the doctrine of taking civilians hostage and, if necessary, killing them still held for both sides, but it now operated as a contingent factor of an asymmetrical relationship. Regardless of nomenclature – “terror” or “counterterror” – high numbers of civilians would (and continue to) be killed in the process. It might be small solace to them whether they were primary targets as opposed to “accidental” or “collateral” victims, especially with casualty rates being terribly skewed in both cases. When one takes into account how war-related fatalities have been reversed in modern times from 100 years ago – when one civilian was killed per eight soldiers, to the current ratio of eight to one – and then compares the similarly disproportional combatant-to-non-combatant casualty figures of 9/11, the Afghan War and the Iraq War, the terror/counterterror distinction begins to fade even further.

The total picture is a tragic unravelling of what had been conceived as a “virtuous war”. Designed by the Pentagon, auditioned in the Balkans, and dress-rehearsed in Afghanistan, virtuous war took centre stage in the invasion of Iraq. Neoconservative policy-makers seeking ways to implement their ideal of bringing democracy to the Middle East made common cause with a Pentagon trying to kick-start a revolution in military affairs.

Virtuous war was supposed to project a technological and ethical superiority in which computer simulation, media dissimulation, global surveillance and networked warfare combine to deter, discipline and, if need be, destroy the enemy. Drawing on the doctrines of just war when possible and holy war when necessary, virtuous war was going to make killing distant and discriminate, virtual and ethical. It was going to reshape the world in America’s image. Instead, virtuous war found its match in the banality of terror.

James Der Derian
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 Global Security Program and the Information Technology, War and Peace Project (