Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The hero factor

It may be that the consideration of terrorism qua communication requires also some consideration of the hero factor. In order for someone to be an effective (semiotic) terroist, she or he must also be a kind of hero.

But, there's a caveat. The heroism must extend beyond the act or programme of terrorism. For example, the politician who is not only tough on the issues but also a family man, a churchgoer, &c. The message must be buttressed by a series of more or less unrelated adjectives.

This week I started reading "Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden," edited by Bruce Lawrence (New York: Verso, 2005). From Lawrence's introduction:
Beyond the organizer and the polemicist lies, finally, the hero. To Westerners, for whom bin Laden is the incarnation of villany, this may seem the last word in perversity. But for millions of Muslims around the world, including many who have no sympathy with terrorism, bin Laden is an heroic figure. His worldwide charisma is based not just on his success in so far eluding Americans and their allies, exhilaratig as that may be or many ordinary Muslims. It is because his personal reputation for probity, austerity, dignity, and courage contrasts so starkly with the mismanagement, bordering on incompetence, of most Arab regimes. Unlike the latter, bin Laden has demonstrated that he can forego the temptations of wealth, that he dares to strike powerful wrongdoers, and that he refuses to bend before superior might. "Bin Laden is seen by millions of his co-religionists -- because of his defense of Islam, personal piety, physical bravery, integrity and generosity -- as an Islamic hero, as that faith's ideal type, and almost as a modern-day Saladin," reports Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA unit charges with hunting bin Laden. "For nearly a decade now," observes Scheuer, "bin Laden has demonstrayed patientce, brilliant planning, managerial expertise, sound strategic and tactical sense, admirable character traits, eloquence, and focused, limited war aims. He has never, to my knowledge, behaved or spoken in a way that could be described as 'irrational in the extreme'." Indeed, for all the terror sown by his actions, concludes Scheuer, "there is no reason, based on the information at hand, to belive bin Laden is anything other than what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim. As a historical figure, viewed from any angle, Osama bin Laden is a great man, one who smashed the expected unfolding of universal post-cold war peace." These encomia express, no doubt, the not uncommon admiration felt by professional for a particularly skilled enemy -- with the kind of overstatement to be found, for example, in writings of the British military historian Liddell Hart about German generals in World War Two. Yet even discounting their hyperbole, such CIA tributes are striking; they provoke further reflection on the man behind the many personae. (xvii-xviii)
"[A] pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim." Substitute "Christian" for that last part and you'd have a suitable description of President Bush, at least from the perspective of his adherents (and who knows, perhaps also from the perspective of his rivals, who revere him as a "particularly skilled enemy").

But there's another aspect to the hero factor, one whose efficacy and even functionality I'm unsure about, but whose necessity seems certain.

Lawrence writes about bin Laden's "posthumous legend," which for bin Laden's fans in the umma (the supposed Muslim supernation) has to do with all of his heroic characteristics; but more broadly must have to do with him infamy in both the Muslim and non-Muslim world. So it's part fame, part adoration, part infamy. Maybe.

I wonder if Bush will ever have a posthumous legend on the order of bin Laden's. More innocent lives have been lost as a result of Bush's orders than bin Laden's; and yet Bush seems somehow less infamous. Perhaps this is just because my perspective is skewed too far toward the West. But the fact is he hasn't flown planes into tall buildings; though he has caused plenty of death and mass confusion. He hasn't carried out his attacks in a symbolic fashion, like destroying the iconic side-by-side towers on the 11th day of the month, thereby creating a new icon that remains semiotically active years after. Instead, there are just air raids, ground assaults -- the same-old same-old.

For Bush, the message and the terrorism are more separate than they are for bin Laden. Bush makes public statements far more often than bin Laden, precisely because he must explain his acts of aggression as necessary to prevent the creation of a "caliphate" that would stamp out any glimmer of democracy in the Middel East. (Interestingly, Lawrence writes that bin Laden has no interest in the caliphate. On the contrary, Lawrence claims, bin Laden plans to fight the "global unbelief" until Judgment Day.) There is no permissable action for him that would be as symbolic in the Middle East as the fall of the World Trade Center has been in the West (though some in the Muslim world see a tremendous insult the invasion of Iraq, Islam's third-holiest land after Mecca and Jerusalem). Bush cannot deliberately destroy an icon on "Islamofascism" or jihadism, because there is no such icon that is also completely separate from nonradical Islam. To attack one would be to attack both. (And indeed, this is how anti-American spin doctors have construed his "crusade.")

Bin Laden, on the other hand, could attack the icons of the infidels, the strongholds of their government and economy, the dual engines of their imperialism. Lawrence is unconvinced by the argument that bin Laden's war is one for social change, arguing instead that bin Laden's motivations are purely religious.

Objectively speaking, bin Laden is waging a war against what many -- admirers and critics -- now call the American empire. But it is crucial to note that he himself never uses this vocabulary. There word "imperialism" does not occur once in any of the messages he has sent out. He defines the enemy differently. For him, jihad is aimed not at an imperium, but at "global unbelief". Again and again, his texts return to this fundamental dichotomy. The war is a religious war. It subsumes a political war, which he can wage with the terms appropriate to it, as he demonstrates in his addresses to the peoples of Europe and America. Yet the battle in the end is one of faith. (xx)
But still, at the end of the day, the targets bin Laden chose on Sept. 11 were significant as icons of imperialism. Perhaps this is only because there were no distinct icons of unbelief available. Perhaps it is only that bin Laden was able to be more daring than Bush, that he decided to go ahead with an attack whose message was aimed at unbelief but which would impact other things as well. Unbelief, in other words, was the bulls eye; but he was willing to let his darts hit imperialism as well.

In bin Laden's own sphere of influence, at least according to Lawrence, the discourse around bin Laden has been limited to his piousness and generousity -- his "great man"-hood. Perhaps he also has been able to keep the discourse so limited when it comes to his acts of terror. From the other side, the attacks that appeared to us to target imperialism targeted only unbelief.

So perhaps his infamy exists only in the eyes of Westerners. But nonetheless he has his posthumous legend ensured, both in the East and the West. What is Bush's posthumous legend, on either side of this conflict?

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