Terrorism Fatigue and the Spectacle

At the heart of the spectacle is the relentless need for innovation and novelty. Alberto Toscano put it best when he says:

Create. Invent, Innovate, Network. Under the non-authoritarian hegemony of capitalist realism such ubiquitous imperatives have come to occupy the place of the seemingly exhausted, or unduly crass, industrial command: produce.[1]

Sustaining this drive to something new and different to make and sell in a world already awash in consumer goods, services and experiences is perhaps the greatest challenge of all facets of twenty-first century economic production. It means the spectacle must constantly remake the world of consumer needs and lifestyle aspiration to ensure the ugliness of the contemporary world hiding in plain sight remains an annoying trifle, a lamentable tragedy, or a “costs of doing business.”

Guy Debord argued this need for innovation and novelty in the spectacle had the effect of transforming time itself—from traditional cyclical time where humankind experience nature and history to what he labels as pseudocyclical time, or time processed into measured commodified units divided into work, leisure, retirement, etc.. Once cut up and packaged:

 “(t)hese commodified moments are explicitly presented as moments of real life, whose cyclical return we are supposed  to look forward to. But all that is really happening is that the spectacle is displaying and reproducing itself at a higher level of intensity. What is presented as true life turns out to be merely a more truly spectacular life.[2]

In practical terms, what Debord is describing here is not dissimilar to the process of the “cool hunt,” or the means by which marketing firms and advertising agencies scour society for morsels of originality and authenticity to capture and use for the latest wave of promotional campaigns and material. One marketing executive describes it thusly:

. . . Actually, it’s a triangle. At the top of the triangle, there’s the innovator, which is like two to three percent of the population. Underneath them is the trendsetter, which we would say is about 17 percent. They pick up on ideas that the innovators are doing, and they claim them as their own. Underneath them is an early adopter–it’s questionable exactly what their percentage is–but they are the layer above mainstream, which is about 80 percent. And they take what the trendsetter is doing, and they make it palatable for mass consumption. They take it, they tweak it, they make it more acceptable, and that’s when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then it actually kills it.[3]

The cool hunt has a certain paradoxical nature about it that stems from the pressures for ever greater demands for sales and profit. The “next big thing” must be found and packaged as quickly as possible lest the mass of consumers become distracted by movements and forces beyond the control of the advertising companies. And yet, when this “next big thing” is found, the act of mass production destroys it, causing the cycle to repeat itself. The need for the fresh and new becomes greater even as the supply of what is fresh and new begins to dwindle.

It may seem vulgar to compare terrorist attacks (including media coverage and public reactions to these attacks) with marketing strategies, but in the society of the spectacle, politics and terrorism are just two more commodities to brand and distribute to the masses hungry for new forms of entertainment. On some level, many terrorist “masterminds” and preachers of aggressive expansionist Islam were aware of the power of the spectacle in the western world and sought to incorporate this phenomenon into their strategies. One of the more famous explications of this point came from Abu Bakr Naji, author of The Management of Savagery, a terrorist “guidebook” of sorts that was popular among ISIS fighters when that group was still in its ascent. In the preface of this work, Naji describes the source of the Western powers and why they were successful in controlling lands of Islam:

The two superpowers which used to dominate the global order controlled it through their centralized power. The meaning of “centralized power” here is: The overwhelming military power which extends from the center in order to control the areas of land that submit to each superpower, beginning from the center and reaching the utmost extremity of these lands. Submission, in its primary, simplest form, means that these lands owe the center loyalty, submission to its judgment, and responsibility for its interests. There is no doubt that the power which God gave to the two superpowers (America and Russia) was overwhelming in the estimation of humans. However, in reality and after careful reflection using pure, human reason, (one comes to understand that this power) is not able to impose its authority from the country of the center–from America, for example, or Russia–upon lands in Egypt and Yemen, for example, unless these (latter) countries submit to those powers entirely of their own accord. It is correct that this power is overwhelming and that it seeks help from the power of local regimes controlled by who rule the Islamic world. Yet all of that is not enough (to completely control the satellite states). Therefore, the two superpowers must resort to using a deceptive media halo which portrays these powers as non-coercive and world-encompassing, able to reach into everyearth and heaven as if they possess the power of the Creator of creation. But the interesting thing that happened is that these two superpowers believed, for a time, their media deception: that they are actually a power capable of completely controlling any place in the entire world, and that (this power) bears the characteristics of the power of the Creator. According to the media deception, it is an all-encompassing, overwhelming power and people are subservient to it not only through fear, but also through love because it spreads freedom, justice, equality among humanity, and various other slogans.[4]

What is clearly implied in this lengthy passage is that the media of western culture, in its effort to constantly keep the masses amused and distracted, has also distorted the true capabilities of western military power and the ability to keep the west safe from attack. This frequently referenced “media halo” works hand-in-hand with the military to create the appearance of safety and insularity from whatever dangers that might lurk from the outside world. In this way, Naji is referencing something similar to what Guy Debord called the “integrated spectacle,” where consumer culture and authoritarian power work together to protect and legitimize the status quo assemblage of power in society.

The choices for those like Al Qaeda and ISIS who wish to attack the United States and other western powers is to either go after the military and political capability or to pierce the “media halo” that creates the false sense of security. The first option, though carried out with success on September 11th, is nevertheless a dead end. Another strategist of global jihad, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, explained why, despite the success of September 11th, the strategy of attacking the heart of western military and financial power was doomed to fail:

Throughout the last decade of the 20th century, programs for fighting terrorism were able to disband those organizations security-wise, militarily defeat them, isolate them from their masses [of followers], damage their reputation, dry out their financial resources, make their elements homeless, and put them in a constant state of fear, starvation, and lack of funds and people[5]

The better approach, for al-Suri, is to take advantage of global media capabilities—especially social media capabilities in their then nascent stage—to inspire devout Muslims scattered around the world to launch their own do-it-yourself style attacks in the locations where they live, thus avoiding the surveillance and potency of the US military and its allies. By putting forth a global imperative, or in al-Suri’s word’s “call,” pious warriors of Islam can strike the enemy where it is most vulnerable and pierce the “media halo” referred to by Naji. Indeed, the media halo will itself by a carrier of the message of the “call.” As Al-Suri himself says:

“The Call is to convoy the idea in succinct and detailed ways in order to enable the youth, who are determined to fight a jihad, to enter this call and form their own Units independently”[6]

For the last few years, al-Suri’s strategy of small localized attacks launched with whatever the local attackers could use as weapons paid enormous dividends, perhaps contributing to the election of Donald Trump.[7] Yet there was one flaw to this strategy that perhaps did not become apparent until a few weeks ago in New York—terror attacks that do not rise to a certain undefined level of devastation and horror no longer attract the same kind of attention as they would in the past. Indeed, in terms of spreading mass slaughter and murder, everyday ordinary Americans with access to military-grade firearms can do as much damage as any ISIS inspired zealot. Indeed, the ISIS-claimed truck rampage attack in New York City was sandwiched-in between the worst mass shooting in recent American history (Las Vegas) and the sixth-worst mass shooting in recent American history (Texas). Meanwhile, less than 48 hours after the shooting outside San Antonio, the reporter Shaun King observed that the top trending topic on Twitter was Real Housewives of Atlanta.[8]

This leaves a macabre dilemma for those who still wish to perpetuate terrorist violence against the United States. Seeing that their efforts to capture and co-opt the spectacle of the west is being undermined by the violent people they are trying to destroy, terrorists may decide to abandon the Al-Suri model and engage in the ultimate cool hunt–a form of attack against American society that is unlike anything ever seen before. This could take the form of either a return to the Khalid Sheik Mohammad model of hijacking airliners and attacking skyscrapers in the hope of creating a genuine apocalyptic maelstrom that the spectacle cannot look away form, or to come up with a new strategy that tries to insert fear and chaos into western society in some other yet-to-be anticipated way (one might speculate that efforts of acquiring a weapon of mass destruction will take on a new intensity now). One hopes this is not the case, but given how effective we Americans are at killing each other en masse and how unmoved the rest of the country seems to be in the wake of these killings, it is the terrorists who find themselves marveling at the brutality of us.

     [1] Alberto Toscano, “In Praise of Negativism,” in Simon O’Sullivan and Stephen Zepke, Deleuze, Guttari and the Production of the New (New York: Continuum, 2008), 56.

     [2]Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 84.

     [3]  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/interviews/gordonandlee.html

     [4] Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Though Which the Umma Will Pass, William McCants (trans.) (Cambridge, Massachusetts: John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, 2006), 7-8.

     [5] Abu Mus’ab al-Suri quoted in Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Lige of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 352.

     [6] Ibid., 443.

     [7]  https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/05/how-donald-trump-could-win-the-white-house

     [8]  https://twitter.com/ShaunKing/status/927359736424648705

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