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The University of Hong Kong

Faculty of Arts
Department of Comparative Literature

CLIT2025 Visual Culture Final Paper


2008, Spring
Topic: The Spectacle of Terror

Student name : Chan Lei Lei, Cherry


University no. : 2005626134
E-mail address : arlei918@gmail.com
Paper topic : The Spectacle of Terror
Submission date : 2nd May, 2008

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The Spectacle of Terror

After “9/11 attacks”, the world becomes very familiar with the term, “terrorist” then ever.

“Terrorist” has been unconsciously linked with Muslim, Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bin

Laden, etc…but never refers to the western world. It is really an interesting question to ask,

who the terrorists are and why the traumatic event is named by a date.

Let’s put the question in context, which I will mainly focus on the events of and beyond “9/11

attacks”. A war in 21st century is different from previous ones. The vitualilty through

computer networks, media circulation, images and simulation make it different. The conflicts,

power relations are made through the domination and hegemony of images. “Violence” is no

longer only about atrocity or blood, but also humiliation, exhibition and the murder of reality.

We can investigate how the self-portrayal, media coverage of the “9/11 attacks”, Iraq war and

liberation to find out how the spectacle of terror is formed. At the same time, how the

audience of the war who does not experience it responding to the images and information.

They may become indifferent to wars and become fear to something unknown.

In this paper, I want to argue that any group of people can be named as terrorist by a powerful

force through media and their names will be equalized to the “terrorists”. However, the

spectacle can be reversal and have differing political effects. I will use U.S. as an example to

show how its image of international-police can be reversed into a “terrorist”.

Many people indirectly experienced the 9/11 attack through comfortably witnessing distant

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televised images which Fabiano called this as a “spectator sport” (1)1. The live broadcasting

showed 2 airplanes cracked into the twin towers of World Trade Center in New York until

they collapsed. The incident was ridiculous in real life that most of the people live in the

postwar era which Baudrillard called a period of “weak events” (Kellner 1)2 could not

anticipate and perceive such catastrophic event. Derrida used a French idiom saying that if

something marks a date in history; that is always what's most striking and unprecedented3. He

also commented on the naming of the event, “‘To mark a date in history’ presupposes, in any

case, that ‘something’ comes or happens for the first and last time, ‘something’ that we do not

yet really know how to identify, determine, recognize, or analyze but that should remain from

here on in unforgettable: an ineffaceable event in the shared archive of a universal calendar” 4.

The event changes the global spectacle of terror.

“9/11 attacks” is not a purely physical violence, an act of purely arbitrary, but a symbolic one.

The attack was carried out through symbolic strategy. Firstly, twin tower of World Trade

Center is a symbol of global capitalist market force. It embodies double-ness or twin-ness that

on one hand it represents the western hegemonic financial power; on the other hand, it

inhabits people from wide variety of nationalities of both the first world and the third world,

who benefited from globalization. Being one of the top powers in the world, U.S.’s World

Trade Center was cracked down by 2 airplanes abducted by several individuals with minimal

arms. It is an irony that the most sophisticated system failed to prevent and withstand a rather

1
Fabiano, Mark. “Terrorism and Its Metaphors”. The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture
and the Arts. http://forum.llc.ed.ac.uk/issue2/fabiano.pdf
2
Kellner, Douglas. “Baudrillad, globalization and Terrorism: Some Comments on Recent Adventures of the
Image and Spectacle on the Occasion of baudrillard’s 75th Birthday”. UCLA Graduate School of Education
Information Studies. http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/baudrillardglobalizationterror.pdf
3
Ibid.
4
“9/11 and Global Terrorism A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida”. The University of Chicago Press.
http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/derrida/derrida911.html

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primitive attack by someone who used the “weapon” and “skill” provided from the system.

The attack is not merely a confrontation to the western world, but also a challenge to

globalization.

Secondly, the “terrorists” used airplanes, computer networks, and the media associated with

Western societies to produce a spectacle of terror. Nacos5 suggested the term “mass-mediated

terrorism” that media terrorism implies a political statement. He compared the media violence

with a criminal violence, saying that most people who committed brutal crimes did not

consider their deeds as a means to spread their propaganda or expect to reap publicity for their

acts in order to further a political agenda. The act of media terrorism is a means to win media

attention and news coverage. The target of the “terrorist” is not the victims, but the wider

audience. The “terrorism” is an act of communication. The central changes since 20th century

can be coined by Thomas Friedman’s notion of “the world is flat” 6 and MuLuhan’s vision of

media-based global village7. It is the main factor makes the mass-mediated terrorism work. In

the era of globalization, the geographic distance and national boundaries is collapsed and

companies collaborate both vertically and horizontally. It allows the transnational media to

emerge. Television, the internet, and the World Wide Web erase national boundaries, for

example the cable news network, CNN. The breaking news of “9/11 attacks” from these

transnational media spread through globally to monopolize the information and images of the

incident. It becomes a competition for visuality and discourse. The “terrorist” gained entrance

of media in order to challenge the discourse of mainstream national media. According to

5
Nacos, Brigitte Lebens. Mass-mediate Terrorism: the Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and
Counterterrorism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. pp.14
6
Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 2006
7
Stuken, Marita. Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2001. pp.317

4
Nacos, the Arab television network al-Arabiya, marginalized among mainstream national

media has frequently broadcasted audiotaped message from Osama bin Laden which was

prominently reported and commented on by the news media in the West. Although the

dominant discourse is still in hand of the mainstream national media, the role of Osama bin

Laden was upgraded to a global player by the frequent coverage of the western media noted

by German TV commentator Elmar Thevessen8. The “terrorists” and the presidents and their

administrations both conquer the media.

The media visualize “terrorists” emphasizing their “Middle East” racist characteristics. It may

because more “Middle East” people engage in the revolt or just because the media exaggerate

the linkage between “terrorists” and “Middle East” people. They even reveal the background

and daily life of the “terrorists”, making them like a neighbor next door who put on mask to

disguise in the banality of American everyday life. It creates the fear that any inoffensive

individual can be a potential terrorist, and then anyone can be an unnoticed criminal. The

“Middle East” people are especially suspected for being a potential “terrorist”. The event

spreads out as a psychological terrorism. It is a kind of “violence of the image” suggested by

Baudrillard that due to the murder of the Real, the vanishing point of Reality. Something

disappears in the visibility9. The detail information given does not assure the preservation of

the Reality. Baudrillard pointed out that, “Murder of the image, crushed by overinformation,

oversignification, overreference. Murder of the secret of the image, drowned by

hypervisibility, by unconditional transparency”10. Furthermore, if we suppose there is such a

8
Nacos, Brigitte Lebens. Mass-mediate Terrorism: the Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and
Counterterrorism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. pp.22
9
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Violence of the Image” The European Graduate School Media & Communications.
http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-the-violence-of-the-image.html
10
Ibid.

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thing call “terrorist”, and “Middle East people” is a sign exchanging the meaning of

“terrorist”. “Middle East people” simulates “terrorist” and attest the existence of “terrorist”.

The original concept of “terrorist” disappears, and gigantic simulacrum appears, the

simulation is never again exchanging for what is real, “but exchanging in itself, in an

uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference (Baudrillard 173)11”. There is no

original or real, only copy of copy remains. In this logic, “Middle East people” become

simulacrum in itself embody “terrorist” while there is not such characteristic of “terrorist” but

the appearance of the “Middle East people”.

The image of “Middle East” as the “terrorist” is made through the declaration of “war on

terrorism” by bush administration. It makes “Middle East” an enemy of U.S., equating

terrorism as immoral. It uses the old-fashioned American dream mind map of binary

opposition, coining “Middle East” as evil and America as good and the “war on terrorism” is

heroic. Baudrillard noted in the essay “the Spirit of terrorism” that “…the philosophy of

Enlightenment. We naively believe that the progress of the Good, it rises in all domains

(sciences, techniques, democracy, human rights) correspond to a defeat of Evil…Good does

not reduce Evil, nor vice-versa: they are both irreducible, and inextricable from each other. In

fact, Good could defeat Evil only by renouncing itself, as by appropriating a global power

monopoly, it creates a response of proportional violence”12. The asymmetrical global power

allows America to announce its justness to declare a war. America is regarded as the civilized

nation to salvage or free the uncivilized part of the world. This is one interpretation for the

battle and so-called liberation of Iraq. It justified the war as a moral act, rather than another
11
Baudrillard, Jean. Poster, Mark Ed. “Simulacra and Simulations”. Selected Writings. Calif: Standford
University Press, 2001 pp. 173
12
Baudrillard, Jean. Bloul, Rachel Trans. “The Spirit of Terrorism” The European Graduate School Media &
Communications. 2 November 2001 http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-the-spirit-of-
terrorism.html

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kind of terrorism. Baudrillard sees the behavior of denouncing the Other as ‘absolute Evil’ is

because of fear: a fear of the powers of death and destruction. The soilders were haunted by

the real that they sought refuge behind video screen. They preferred ‘the exile of the virtual,

of which television is the universal mirror, to the catastrophe of the real13.

The “war on terror” is similar to the Gulf War which is speculative, to the extent that we do

not see the real event. We only acknowledge how many civilians or soldiers died in the war,

sometime where Osama bin Laden had fled, sometime the balance sheets of expenditures on

the war by U.S government, sometimes the news of suicidal symptom of the American

soldiers through the media. The war is circulated with images, even the prison abuse of U.S.

solider is revealed by the discovery of quasi-pornographic images of the Abu Ghraib prison

abuse in Iraq by U.S. troops. According to Kellner, “The Abu Ghraib images were for

Baudrillard a parody of violence and the Iraq war itself in which the “reality show” of the “the

liberation of Iraq” became an infantile farcical spectacle of the impotency of American

power”. There is no secrecy, everything must be seen, must be visible under the free media.

The prison, even the army and the whole society is still under Foucault’s theory of

panopticon, things were made visible to an external eye. The power of control is internalized,

and people are no more the victims of the image: they transform themselves into images 14.

The media are not only manipulated by the “terrorist” and political agency, the free media

also reverse in revealing the opposing images.

A war in 21st century is different from previous ones. The ‘image technology’ project

navigation information onto screens of the aircrafts and send photo-information through the

13
Robins, Kerin. “Sights of War”, Into the Image. NY: Routledge, 1996 pp.69
14
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Violence of the Image” The European Graduate School Media & Communications.
http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-the-violence-of-the-image.html

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spy satellites orbiting on the top of the enemy. The weapons are controlled in a distance with

increasing automation. The soldiers hit the targets by only pressing buttons like playing

computer games. The victims are inhumanized and psychologically invisible on the screens so

that the soldiers can split their mind to separate the knowledge from the pain of death.

“Killing must be done ‘at a distance’, through technological mediation, without the shock of

direct confrontation and violence; it is necessary to break the causal link between the firing

button and the deaths that follow” (Robins 64)15. They know that their weapons are

murderous, but they cannot feel the pain of death of the other side. This is why the “terrorist”

affords to sacrifice their life as the ends of the deed while the U.S. army cannot. The tiny

losses of the U.S. army comparing to Iraq army shows the ‘zero death’ phenomenon of U.S.

army that it always keeps a comparatively very tiny loss in the war by their distance killing

strategy. Death means differently for the soldiers and the “terrorist”. Besides, the high-tech

weapon system creates a sense of technological euphoria in wars such as the Vietnam War, the

Gulf War, as well as the Iraq War. I remember a shot in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket

(1987), a film about the Vietnam War, which shows a solider shooting at the civilian

ecstatically on the aircraft. Mike Nicols’s film, named Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) shows that

Wilson, a congressman acted by Tom Hanks acknowledges the war in Afghanistan by the TV

programme “60 Minutes”. This is another example of the mass-mediated virtual war shown in

a “documentary-fiction film”. He tries to help Afghanistan to fight against Russian communist

by supporting them with high-tech weapons. When the Afghanistan fighters use the weapon

and hit the target, they show the same ecstasy as the U.S. solider in Full Metal Jacket. These

wars create a sense of moral debt for the U.S. people. People first believed they are rational

animals and can make reasoned judgments about rights and wrongs, but they failed. They
15
Robins, Kerin. “Sights of War”, Into the Image. Routledge NY, 1996 pp.64

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were bombarded by the repeating images in the hours of television watching. It is better to be

numb than informed. We may call these wars the ‘postmodern’ wars which exercise mass-

manipulative rhetoric and hyperreal techniques. People are collectively being indifference to

the factual or documentary truth and false information or propaganda.

Baudrillard said, “The media promote the war, the war promotes the media” and “it allows us

to turn the world and the violence of the world into consumable substance” (236)16. Different

disastrous movies were made to comfort the traumatic experience and documentaries were

produced by American producer, for example Michael Moore has made a documentary called

“Fahrenheit 9/11” which has made a lot of profit. As mentioned before, it was new to

experience a real traumatic event through televised image. Some people even thought that

they were watching the promotion for one of several terrorism thrillers scheduled for release

later in the month. They began unable to distinguish life from movie or movie from live.

Nacos wrote that “Real terrorists had transformed Hollywood’s pseudoreality into an

unbearable reality, into real life. This time there was neither a happy ending to be enjoyed nor

an unhappy ending that the audience could forget quickly (44)17”. People’s wound caused

from the real catastrophe needs the healer of the media reality and the traumatic genre movies

which help overcome the traumatic experience through virtual images.

“Terrorist” can mean very different things. It is obvious that every word does not have a

concrete and fixed definition but means differently across the history and cultures. The

perception of “terrorist” also varied a lot. It first appeared in the period of French revolution

16
Baudrillard, Jean. Poster, Mark Ed. “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. Selected Writings. Calif: Standford
University Press, 2001 pp. 236
17
Nacos, Brigitte Lebens. Mass-mediate Terrorism: the Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and
Counterterrorism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. pp.44

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to describe one group who dominated another. “The word was originally applied to supporters

of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, who advocated repression and violence in pursuit of

democracy and equality”18. If we use this reading to perceive the “terrorist” coined nowadays,

it will turn out to be a mockery. It is irony that when it put into the current context, the power

position of “terrorist” reversed that it becomes the oppressed one. However, the are different

type of terrorism in the world, for examples, Russian revolutionary terrorism, left-wing

terrorism in Italy, west German left-wing terrorism, political violence in argentina, the

revolutionary terrorism of Peru, terrorism in India, terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, all

are regarded as terrorism in other cultures.

Even when it is put into current context, when violence act is the basic element of “terrorist”

regardless its function and aim. Violence is the act dangerous to human life with any number

of weapons, foreign or domestic. Then the official definitions of terrorism are virtually the

same as the definitions of counter-terrorism. The U.S. intents to use chemical and biological

weapons, aimed to deter and punish terrorist acts in the name of the ‘war on terrorism’ 19. But

the official will not say that it committed to terrorism. In both ‘9/11 attacks’ and ‘war on

terrorism’, violent acts are exerted by two different entities having different names to the

audience. Therefore terrorism is problematic to define. It changes accordingly. Those who

deliberately set off car bombs to kill civilians can be called ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’

noted by the slogan that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” (Nacos

25)20. Therefore, it is the matter of power struggle. When the U.S. is financially and politically

18
Fabiano, Mark. “Terrorism and Its Metaphors”. The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of
Culture and the Arts. http://forum.llc.ed.ac.uk/issue2/fabiano.pdf
19
Ibid.
20
Nacos, Brigitte Lebens. Mass-mediate Terrorism: the Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and
Counterterrorism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. pp.25

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stronger, it holds the power to define. It is that which haunts every global order and every

hegemonic domination. If Islam dominated the world, terrorism would fight against it. For it

is the world itself which resists domination21.

If we recycle the example of simulacrum in previous paragraph and replace the sign of

“Middle East People” by the U.S., we will have a new set of gigantic simulacrum. The U.S.

becomes a new sign exchanging the meaning of “terrorist”. The U.S. simulates “terrorist” and

attests the existence of “terrorist”. The original concept of “terrorist” disappears, and gigantic

simulacrum appears, the simulation is never again exchanging for what is real, “but

exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference

(Baudrillard 173)22”. There is no original or real, only copy of copy remains. In this logic, the

U.S. become simulacrum in itself embody “terrorist” while there is not such characteristic of

“terrorist” but the signature of the U.S. Moreover, we have analyzed that the image of

“terrorist” is reinforced by the mass-mediated terrorism. The hegemonic power of the U.S.

singular ideology conquers the media upon the thinking of terror. If “Middle East” become

the dominated power, it can reshape the definition of terror. Lastly, as “terrorist” first related

to the revolution for democracy, the U.S. announcement of liberation of Iraq in the ‘war on

terrorism’ can be seen as a kind of ‘terrorism’. When revolution can be a positive term, why

‘terrorism’ cannot, but being exerted as an evil image?

____________________________References:__________________________

“9/11 and Global Terrorism A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida”. The University of Chicago
21
Baudrillard, Jean. Bloul, Rachel Trans. “The Spirit of Terrorism” The European Graduate School Media &
Communications. 2 November 2001
22
Baudrillard, Jean. Poster, Mark Ed. “Simulacra and Simulations”. Selected Writings. Calif: Standford
University Press, 2001 pp. 173

11
Press. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/derrida/derrida911.html

Baudrillard, Jean. Poster, Mark Ed. “Simulacra and Simulations”. Selected Writings. Calif:
Standford University Press, 2001 pp. 173

Baudrillard, Jean. Poster, Mark Ed. “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. Selected Writings.
Calif: Standford University Press, 2001 pp. 236

Baudrillard, Jean. Bloul, Rachel Trans. “The Spirit of Terrorism” The European Graduate
School Media & Communications. 2 November 2001
http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-the-spirit-of-terrorism.html

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Violence of the Image” The European Graduate School Media &
Communications. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-the-violence-
of-the-image.html

Fabiano, Mark. “Terrorism and Its Metaphors”. The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate
Journal of Culture and the Arts. http://forum.llc.ed.ac.uk/issue2/fabiano.pdf

Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006

Kellner, Douglas. “Baudrillad, globalization and Terrorism: Some Comments on Recent


Adventures of the Image and Spectacle on the Occasion of baudrillard’s 75th
Birthday”. UCLA Graduate School of Education Information Studies.
http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/baudrillardglobalizationterror.pdf

Nacos, Brigitte Lebens. Mass-mediate Terrorism: the Central Role of the Media in Terrorism
and Counterterrorism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Robins, Kerin. “Sights of War”, Into the Image. NY: Routledge, 1996

Stuken, Marita. Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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