Terrorism and the Spectacle in the Wake of the Manchester Attack

The recent terror attack in Manchester provides and stark example of what political conflict looks like in the society of the spectacle—specifically in the phase of the spectacle referred to here as the spectacle of disintegration. This phase of the spectacle features a historical era when the ability of states, major international corporations, media companies and state broadcasters, and the dominant socio-economic interests that control them have lost their monopoly over the content and dissemination of the global media apparatus. In this new phase of the spectacle, platforms like social media and tools like smart phones empower the masses to create and disseminate their own media content with little or no oversight or restraint despite the best efforts of traditional gatekeepers of media to assert this control. As a result, pockets of dissent and networks of resistance emerge both in cyberspace and in the material world that co-opt the tools of political pacification and use them against their masters. In its most successful forms, groups like ISIS (also benefiting from an absence of local and regional governance) can use this power to create their own independent spaces free from the dominant economic forces of neoliberalism and the military supremacy of the American Empire.

What makes the attack in Manchester even more horrifying and more compelling is that it matches a pattern observed since this newer paradigm of the spectacle began to reveal itself after the attacks of 9-11. This entails the targeting of establishments like nightclubs, sporting events, rock and pop concerts, and other examples of entertainment and leisure activities usually frequented by the youthful and the more carefree. While attacks against such targets existed prior to September 11th, they didn’t seem to be a preferred target until after this date. The reason for this is difficult to know with any certainty, but it may have to do with the perception that if entertainment, amusement, and “fun” are weapons used to defeat any challengers to the dominant assemblage of power, then they are “legitimate” targets for violence. If, as many Salafist-inspired attackers hold, that their religion and culture and way of life are being suffocated to death by both the deployment of American and Western military force and the omnipresent pop culture of western media, then such material manifestations of this power, including rock/pop concerts like the one attacked in Manchester, are as useful and expedient a target as an attack on a military base or police station.

Indeed, in the early grieving period that has followed the attack, one can already observe writers and thinkers discussing the central importance of these types of pop concerts in the public imagination. Alexis Petridis writes:

It wasn’t just that she (the author’s daughter) was overawed by the spectacle, although she was: stuff I took for granted – lasers, pyrotechnics, confetti cannons, all the usual bells and whistles of a big pop show – were a constant source of overwhelming sensory overload. Nor was it the way her lack of cynicism made me reconsider my own feelings, although that happened too. I have always been deeply suspicious of the kind of rhetoric that modern pop surrounds itself with: all that platitudinous “just be yourself”, “if you dream it you can do it” stuff. But my daughter took it all at face value and I ended up thinking: Well, there’s certainly worse messages you can send out to kids.[1]

Futhermore, because most of the victims were girls and young women, the attack gained an additional depth of repugnance that some have argued epitomizes the deep misogynism that permeates both the consumerist West and the extremist interpretations of Islam. Like Petridis, Mary Elizabeth Williams argues the Manchester attack targets an experience where young women show their power and fortitude:

They are so, so strong, these girls — yes, these girls with their goofy Snapchat streaks and their mermaid hair and their willingness to love things unironically. Their courage and their grace would knock you out. And if you want to know what ferocious resilience looks like, take a look sometime at a young girl and her bestie, sharing a set of earbuds and dancing, in spite of it all.[2]

Those who encourage and carry out these attacks on some level agree with these sentiments. They do see events like these as places where the children of their enemies transform themselves into indirect carriers and scatterers of a decadent ideology—including the children of Muslim families who settled in the West and should know better than to let such profligacy reign. One is perhaps reminded here of the experience of the Egyptian exchange student Sayyid Qutb, who was so repulsed by what he thought was the depravity of American culture in a small Colorado town in the 1950s (capped by his attendance of co-ed cotillion) that it motivated him to found a strand of militant Islamic ideology upon his return to Egypt.

But, as already mention, there is another aspect to this that often doesn’t get addressed—the ways the spectacle, especially in its current disintegrating form, allows for those who wish to do harm to turn the power of the spectacle on its masters. The media apparatus that currently exists pumps out an endless stream of entertainment and enticement in an effort to capture the imaginations of an entire planet. When messages and images of fear and terror are placed in this stream, it is like a bug in a computer network—it causes the system to malfunction until it can be removed. In the meantime, the tool that is supposed to maintain order and stability becomes the most effective weapon against that order and stability. Whether one believes pop concerts like the one in Manchester are a source of empowerment for girls or just another way for the entertainment complex to maintain its power over the minds of a listless consumer public, this apparatus nevertheless has the power to alter the minds and behaviors of billions of people akin to a military force pointing countless guns at the world’s collective head. If weaknesses exist in the operation of this “weapon” system that make it possible to redirect its stream, then one ought not be surprised events like this take place. This, of course, in no way excuses them, it merely points out their effectiveness and to understand why they will happen again.

As is always the case, a quote from the movie Network makes the point here in a far more elegant and clear way. In his first great diatribe of his new show, the “mad profit of the airwaves,” Howard Beale, is describing the power of television in the world. As the TV feed goes out live to millions of viewers and a captivated studio audience looks on, he bellows:

This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation.

This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers.

This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world.

And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.

For decades in the 20th century, there was little fear among those who controlled the tools of the spectacle that it could ever fall into the “wrong” hands. What one sees with attacks like Manchester is that the spectacle is no longer controllable from top to bottom, and that tactics and tools exist for it—or at least a significant portion of it—to fall into the wrong hands.

     [1] The Guardian, 23 May, 2017.

     [2] Salon, 23 May, 2017.

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