“Let us remember,” Barack Obama remarked in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, “that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” (qtd. in Kennedy 272).
Post-9/11 American ‘identity’ (whatever that may mean, and however problematic a term it may be) has undoubtedly been caught up with the War on Terror, a “perpetual war” of words and of images (Kennedy 262). In his essay “Cracks in the Edifice of the Empire State,” David Harvey highlights that the attacks on the World Trade Centre were “reported across the world as attacks ‘upon the main symbols of global U.S. financial and military power,’” while in the American media they were reported as “an attack upon ‘freedom,’ ‘American values,’ and the ‘American way of life,’” (qtd. in Kennedy 272).
Obama’s comments after bin Laden’s killing, then, seek to re-establish America’s power. The president “conjures up the potent mythology of redemption through violence and promotes a new American exceptionalism” (Kennedy 272). What is also potent in this exceptionalist rhetoric, though, is its religious tone; the United States appear to be ‘chosen’, set apart, powerful enough to capture and kill bin Laden all “because of who [they] are.”
Such religious rhetoric has surrounded the War on Terror (WOT) since the day of the 9/11 attacks. In Fig. 1, we see what is now known as the World Trade Centre (WTC) Cross. This cross, built from beams in the wreckage of the WTC, still remains at Ground Zero today as part of the 9/11 museum – although not without protest. The cross, crudely tied together with whatever materials could be found, almost appears to burst forth from the rubble. It is in the centre of the frame, surrounded by a bleak landscape which fades and blurs as one looks further into the background. “Don’t focus on the rubble,” the image seems to scream, “focus on the cross, the symbol of hope.” Yet, just whose symbol of hope is it? Those who died in the 9/11 attacks were not all of one faith. Some may not even have had any faith at all. Yet the image here suggests a monolithic, wholly Christian society. Indeed, General Boykin’s post-9/11 “speeches to Christian audiences included declarations that ‘the God of Islam is an idol, and that the war on terror is a war against ‘Satan,’” while Bush typified it as a ‘crusade’ (Mitchell 198).
Enter the image of a tortured prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison (Fig. 2). Mitchell notes that “the terrorist is often portrayed as a clone, a headless or at least faceless automaton, masked and anonymous […] comparable to a virus” (182). In this image the man, as is frequently noted, adopts a Christ-like pose. We see how tenuous his position is; one wrong move or moment of weakness, and he will fall from his crude pedestal and be sharply electrocuted. The fact his face is hidden behind a dark hood removes all sense of his identity and agency, effectively dehumanising him.
Corporeality, then, is a key issue here. What we are presented with in this image is what Baudrillard terms the “acephalic clone.” He writes: “Why bodies without heads? As the head is considered the site of consciousness, it is thought that bodies with heads would pose ethical and psychological problems” (4). Judith Butler subscribes to this mode of thinking, reminding us that “if […] it is the face of the other that demands from us an ethical response, then it would seem that the norms that who allocate who is and is not human arrive in visual form” (77). Indeed, I think it is quite obvious here that the soldier to the right of the frame has little ethical response whatsoever; note he is casually checking his camera, perhaps seeing if he’s ‘happy’ with the shot he’s taken. We wouldn’t want the image capturing this moment of obscene torture and humiliation to be blurry, after all…
And yet, the opposite effect of the ‘acephalic clone’ is achieved; the viewer is invited “to empathise and identify with the figure despite (or is it because of?) its hooded anonymity.” Moreover, the iconology of this image echoes “the particular stages of the passion narrative” (Mitchell 200). Consequently, then, rather than being viewed as a ‘terrorist’ or potential threat, the prisoner becomes a figure of empathy. The roles America assigned in its ‘holy war’ are reversed; suddenly it is the soldier checking his camera who is ‘Satan-like’, while the prisoner in Abu Ghraib instead becomes “the passive, suffering trophy of American power” (Mitchell 207).
Giorgio Agamben writes that “a state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic” (qtd. in Slome 83). Terrorism, Slome notes, “is a war of words and images […] a form of psychological warfare whose aim is the demoralization of the enemy and not the direct estruction of military personnel or equipment” (86). Who then, in the case of Abu Ghraib, is the terrorist? The obscenity of the torture in Abu Ghraib and other questionable practices in the WOT have been glossed over by Obama as “the costs of war” (qtd. in Kennedy 273). Indeed, accountability appears to be a recurring issue for the United States. “No action has more severely compromised the United States in its prosecution of the war on terror than its inaction when faced with irrefutable evidence of American wrongdoing,” Danchev writes, noting the country’s “conspicuous failure to trace responsibility to its source” (176-77). In the remarks I earlier referred to, Obama highlights that “the American people did not choose this fight” (qtd. in Kennedy 272). Debatable, Mr. President, but the fact remains that the casualties of this “fight” are the physical manifestation of a war of words, emotions and images which is perpetually justified by the American exceptionalist rhetoric; “because of who [you] are.”
By Jennifer Gouck
Baudrillard, Jean. The Vital Illusion. Ed. Julia Witwer. Columbia; Columbia University Press, 2000.
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Verso, 2009.
Danchev, Alex. On Art and War and Terror. Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
Kennedy, Liam. “Seeing and Believing: On Photography and the War on Terror.” Public Culture 24:2 (2012): 261-281.
Mitchell, WJT. Cloning Terror: The War of Images 2001-04. Chicago; Chicago University Press, 2011.
Slome, Manon. “Aesthetics of Terror.” On Curating. Issue 22 (2014): 84-90.
1. Fig. 1 World Trade Center Cross via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Fig. 2 ‘Hooded Man’ via Wikimedia Commons.