Why No Retaliation?

September 17th, 2001

By Travis Workman

When an empire creates the historical conditions for revolt, the people of such an empire, however shocked they are by the violence of the acts themselves, should not be surprised that they have occurred. To call the recent attacks on New York City and the Pentagon “terrorism” is to empty those acts of their political content. “Terrorism” suggests a completely criminal act, but considering the targets of these attacks, this term is an obvious attempt to repress this content instead of face it. Just because no group or leader has claimed responsibility for the acts, does not mean that there was no message in the attack. As the U.S. government mobilizes against “the enemy,” the criminal investigation continues to search for and fabricate evidence of who this enemy is, but for now the expanding designation “Middle Eastern terrorists” suffices to incite U.S. nationalist vengeance against somewhere in the Middle East on the one hand and fellow Arab-American citizens on the other. “Bin Laden,” who may or may not have had any hand in the attacks, gives a face to “Middle Eastern terrorism,” despite the fact that there are at least ten terrorist organizations with the capacity to orchestrate such a low-tech operation. Just as Bin Laden provides a fixed image for the phantasm of “Middle Eastern terrorism,” the CIA, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center are/were metaphors for a ghostly force that seems to lurk behind political and cultural situations everywhere—the U.S. state and the U.S. business interests it supports. But who is responsible for embedding so much power, in terms of metaphorical significance and actual political weight, into these buildings, so much that their destruction became the means of bringing reality to bear on their centrality in the phantasm of global U.S. hegemony? And who is responsible for creating the phantasm itself?

If we take Afghanistan as an example, not because it is certain that the Taliban or Bin Laden has any direct or complicit responsibility for the attacks, but because they are the focus of the U.S. government’s criminal investigation and will be the object of its vengeance in the near future, then the answer to these questions becomes clear. Over the past seven years, the U.S. government has had extremely erratic and ill-conceived diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime. Unocal’s Central Asian Oil Pipeline project, and the U.S. government’s attempts to help actualize it, led the U.S. to support the Taliban’s regime as a potential stabilizer of Afghanistan, also wooed by the Taliban’s promises to eradicate the heroine trade and keep the country’s roads open. One would hope that along with this economic interest in the region would appear a clear diplomatic policy with the leadership and citizens of the country. However, the U.S. government, in cohorts with Unocal executives, attempted to push through plans for the pipeline despite the civil war and the Taliban’s fostering of a highly violent Islamic fundamentalism. It did this by supporting the funneling of weapons and troops from its allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It did this without concern for perpetuating rather than abstaining from the violence it helped start by supplying Afghan resistance forces with weapons throughout the 1980’s (in an attempt to keep the Soviet Union out of the region).

“Terrorists” are specters, created in the imaginary, to give an identity to entities that can strike at any time, and whose motivations are not always explicit. They appear at once to change a political situation forever, and then vanish when strategically necessary. The U.S. government and the businesses it supports move in a similar fashion, show interest in an area long enough to cause or exacerbate political turmoil, and then disappear when the damage has been done, confusing the content or purpose of their presence to such a degree that the name of “Satan” is invoked to explain their actions. As the U.S. government and media search for a face or a nation to attach to “terrorism,” one should also reflect on the metaphors deployed in this effort—the flags, the monuments, and the songs, and wonder what those symbols might mean if one were on the other side, uncertain of what ghostly presence is haunting. The referents of these metaphors, real economic and political hegemony around the globe, are not always tangible, but the metaphors themselves are made real in their destruction, and will continue to be as long as what they represent continues to use its own means of violence haphazardly, as a form of economic speculation. The political content of the recent attacks was to open the U.S. citizens’ eyes to a chaos their nation has helped create, and from which it can no longer attempt to isolate itself. To retaliate, to mobilize the metaphors of nationhood and embroil the U.S. military in an ineffective action against an illusory enemy, is to perpetuate the chaos, and to increase the chance of another explosion.

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