Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's the message?

Neal Conan on "Talk of the Nation" yesterday kept asking what message terrorists were trying to send by attacking Mumbai.

That's the type of question to prick up my ears, but thinking back on it hours later, I can't seem to recall any of the answers guests and callers may have supplied. And I can't supply a good answer myself.

The semiotician in me has always understood terrorism as a form of communication. An extreme one. A political tract or philosophical renunciation that is compressed and enunciated in unexpected, forceful action.

The thing about "26/11" (as some Indian media seem to be calling the attacks, which began Nov. 26 -- not as catchy or multilayered at 9/11) is that it just went on and on. As in the rambling babble of the radio program, whatever message there could have been lost cohesion.

The lasting imagery and resonance of 9/11, I think, is thanks to the abruptness of everything that happened that day. A plane hit a tower, then another plane hit another tower, then a plane hit the Pentagon, then one tower fell, then a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania, then the other tower fell. Six distinct events that fit together like the wedges in a Trivial Pursuit game to form a single statement.

Of course, that statement is still being interpreted. But we can be assured it is singular and brief.

The one Mumbai terrorist captured by police reportedly said his aim was simply to kill as many people as possible. The 10 attackers focused their efforts on the multicultural city's tourist traps and international institutions.

The knee-jerk reaction to terror is to call it senseless violence. This ignores, for better or worse, the semiotic value of such extreme communication, attempts to render invalid, not worth discussing, the message the terrorist tries to convey. But here I'm hard pressed the suss out that message, or to believe in fact that there was one. I'll have to keep thinking on it.

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