THE MURDEROUS CAPACITY OF IMAGES
In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard was announcing, not predicting, the ‘death of the real’. He ironically reveres Disneyland, which he says ‘is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle’.
At this point, interested perhaps in the grim poetic counterpoint, Baudrillard turns from Disneyland to the circus of European terrorism, which had been setting up its tents over the previous decade or more. This was a topic much on everyone’s mind in 1981, as it has been ever since; in Italy they called this period anni di piombo — the ‘Years of Lead’, peaking in the bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980.
“Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists; or of extreme right-wing provocation; or staged by centrists to bring every terrorist extreme into disrepute and to shore up its own failing power; or again, is it a police-inspired scenario in order to appeal to calls for public security? All this is equally true, and the search for proof – indeed the objectivity of the fact – does not check this vertigo of interpretation. We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts and an order of reasons.”
Simulation is characterised by a precession of the model, of all models around the merest fact – the models come first, and their orbital (like the bomb) circulation constitutes the genuine magnetic field of events. Facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once. This anticipation, this precession, this short-circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model (no more divergence of meaning, no more dialectical polarity, no more negative electricity or implosion of poles) is what each time allows for all the possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all are true, in the sense that their truth is exchangeable, in the image of the models from which they proceed, in a generalised cycle.
Baudrillard certainly anticipates the information culture that proliferates confusion in our own times. But there’s something strange here as well: he appears to be taking a position of strong agnosticism on the attribution of terrorist events.
The term ‘agnostic’ was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 to encapsulate the principle that no scientist should make any knowledge claim or statement of belief where evidence does not exist to justify it. Simply put, scientists should admit what they do not know. It’s an ethical term, in fact; and an important coinage articulating an essential principle in science. That’s why I would say that ‘scientific agnosticism’ would be a better term than ‘weak’ agnosticism, as it is often called.
However the term was quickly appropriated by theologians, natural philosophers and philosophers of science for use in a stronger sense — to mean the limits beyond which knowledge is not possible. ‘Strong’ agnosticism relates not to the unknown but the unknowable, appropriate in deep ontological questions. To state that it is not possible to know whether God exists, for instance; or that the origin or extent of the universe can never be known; or the artist’s conviction that reality is irreproducible; or an electrical engineer’s statement that we don’t know what an electron is, and probably never will — all of these are statements of strong agnosticism.
In the case of the terrorist atrocities he refers to, Baudrillard is taking the same position with regard to historical questions: he is saying not just that we do not know the origin or purpose of specific events, but that it is not possible to know. He asserts with certainty that the reality behind such events can never be decoded; it is ‘impossible to isolate the process of simulation’ or to ‘prove the real’. Hence it becomes a false desire to even want to do so.
That’s a significant claim, with implications for all historical inquiries, declaring any enquiry into certain events to be philosophically spurious — including, logically, legal inquiries, investigations and trials.
It is true that in the aftermath of high profile terrorist attacks in Italy, from the Milan Piazza Fontana attacks of 1969 to the kidnapping and murder of the former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978 and the Bologna railway station bombing of 1980, confusion and disinformation reigned. No one was ever jailed for the Milan attacks apart from the 1979 convictions of two secret service agents for suppression of evidence. After the Bologna massacre, the neo-fascist NAR (Nuclei Armati Revoluzionari) claimed responsibility – but the call would later be traced to the Florence office of SISMI, the Italian military secret service, and the director of that office charged with obstruction of justice. Investigations and judicial procedures were mired in obstruction for decades, including the destruction of evidence and the death in custody of two key suspects, and it became increasingly clear to prosecutors that the entire apparatus of state was involved. There were arrests, trials, appeals, retrials, re-appeals and acquittals in an apparently endless cycle – all coming to nothing when prosecutors in 2005, a quarter of a century after the bombing, opened a new case against persons unknown.
Meanwhile in the years immediately following the publication of Simulations, the Disneyland of European terrorism only got weirder. In a series of slaughters in the Brabant region of Belgium, assailants in face paint and carnival masks gratuitously executed bystanders and hostages, including children, seemingly immune from police bullets and discernible motivation alike. Descriptions of the principle gang-members make them sound like villains in a Batman movie: the Giant, apparently the leader; the Killer, a sadistic executioner whose style and weapons-handling suggested military, perhaps special-forces, training; and the ‘Old Man’, the getaway specialist with apparently superhuman driving abilities. These three, together with assorted accomplices, attacked civilian targets — factories, shops and supermarkets — in an escalating cycle of gratuitous hyper-violence seemingly calculated to instil raw panic.
Within a decade, Baudrillard’s agnosticism was revealed as premature. The process of simulation was traced — the false desire to know reached a partial consummation at least, and revealed certain political and military realities which can’t be ignored.
It was the Italian investigating magistrate Felice Casson who managed to gain access to military-intelligence archives and uncovered the origins of the spiralling terrorist violence in military black operations serving a continental ‘strategy of tension’ project. The strategy was neatly summarised in the words of Vincenzo Vinciguerra, the Ordine Nuovo terrorist who was put on trial in 1984:
“Destabilise the public order to stabilise the political order.”
On 24th October 1990, Christian Democrat Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti officially acknowledged the existence of the NATO operation known in Italy as GLADIO. At the end of the second world war, ‘stay-behind’ units had been been embedded in fifteen countries to organise resistance networks in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion. As the Cold War stalemate endured, the electoral success of the Italian Communist Party and the rise of nuclear disarmament movements became greater threats to the political order than any external invasion. The mission evolved, retraining its sights on public opinion. Italian military intelligence, working with the CIA, MI6, NATO, and the P2 (Propaganda Due) Masonic Lodge, conducted false-flag terrorist attacks — using ‘extremist’ front-groups — to terrify the public, influence the political process, engineer consent for an ever-growing police-state apparatus, and strengthen the institutions of power.
Synchronously with the revelations in Italy, a Belgian parliamentary report concluded in 1990 that the perpetrators of the Brabant massacres were most likely members or former-members of the security forces, operating under high-level protection. The attacks in Belgium had arisen out of the same context as the ‘Years of Lead’ in Italy, with NATO special forces playing a prominent role in training terrorists, surveilling civilian targets, and even carrying out attacks.
So while the actual perpetrators never faced justice, the inquiries had yielded results of far-reaching importance for our understanding of the political and military landscape. The map had revealed a new continent.
This all comes too late for Baudrillard, whose 1981 publication enacts a millenarian panic which abandons the reality principle altogether. In state-sponsored terrorist attacks, the ‘murderous capacity of images’ becomes literal: the simulacra are carrying AK47s now. But the philosopher has already turned his back. An assassin pulls on a clown mask and Baudrillard runs from the room, crying Truth is dead! They have murdered reality!
The absurdity of this reminds us that we should Baudrillard as a poet rather than a philosopher. We can acknowledge that his theory of the precession of simulacra is fundamentally escapist. At the same time, his sparkling prose is the froth on a gathering wave, foreshadowing the tsunami of simulation that would break over our heads at the onset of the twenty-first century.
Ten years after Simulacra and Simulation, as the USA assembled a coalition to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and geared up for Operation DESERT STORM, Baudrillard published the first of a series of three essays: ‘The Gulf War Will Not Take Place’ (January 1991); followed by ‘The Gulf War is Not Taking Place’ (February 1991); and ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’ (March 1991). In these essays he argued that the stylised, selective representation of events in the media bore little relation to reality, and that the ‘war’ featured in the televisual and photographic imagery was in that sense fictional. In reality, there had been no war, but ‘an atrocity masquerading as a war’.
In 1991, then, Baudrillard was still writing from a perspective of reality. The first Gulf War was the first fully televisual war, propagating a sanitised pyrotechnic imagery of tracers and ‘smart’ bombs. It was presented as a new kind of war, an efficient, scientific war of precise, clinical strikes without collateral damage. The feel of a video game was heightened by the use of point-of-view video relayed by cameras in the bombers and even the bombs. After Vietnam, the Pentagon prioritised imagery-control in the theatre of operations. ‘Embedded’ reporters, supervised within military units, were prevented from witnessing the only significant ground assault, the bulldozer attack on a network of Iraqi trenches near the Saudi border, which used anti-mine ploughs mounted on tanks and combat earth-movers to bury the Iraqi soldiers alive in their trenches. No infantry were used in this attack, with all US combatants encased in armoured vehicles.
Imagery-control broke down hours before the cease-fire, after an Iraqi convoy of 1,400 vehicles withdrawing from Kuwait was completely (and wantonly) destroyed by aerial bombing and strafing north of Al Jahra. Scenes of the most gruesome carnage and devastation were stumbled upon by journalists traveling (with military liaison) towards Kuwait in anticipation of the cessation of hostilities. The most famous image was of an Iraqi soldier incinerated in the act of trying to escape from his vehicle. The photograph, by Ken Jarecke, was censored in the US but published in the UK Observer newspaper, and caused controversy due to its graphic horror. In response, Jarecke published a copy on his blog with a handwritten caption: “If I don’t photograph this, people like my mother will think that war is what they see in movies.”
And that’s Baudrillard’s point: that the West’s loss or suppression or fragmentation of the reality-principle in its citizens enables it to perpetrate its atrocities without public opposition. Once reality is dead for its own citizens, horrific surpluses of reality can be imposed on people of other regions. That in turn creates an opportunity for a terroristic counter-balancing of reality against its own citizens.
And yet reality in terrorist events – as we saw in Italy, Germany and Belgium – is precisely the issue. What Baudrillard chose not to articulate in The Spirit of Terrorism (2002) is that the same system that turns out political simulacra can encompass terrorists and terrorism too.
Dissimulation has been at the heart of the terrorist tactic from the beginning. If you terrorise people, you will only solidify political resistance against your aims. Terrorism, therefore, is not an effective tool, and terrorists rarely realise their aims. It is only effective when deception is used to misattribute attacks, passing them off as the actions of a designated enemy whom you wish to discredit or attack.
In the post-Second World War period, the deliberate creation and empowerment of terrorist groups was a tactic evolved by the British for asymmetrical warfare between a collapsing empire and the independence movements arising throughout its colonies. In 1947 the British faced a severe challenge in Kenya with the growth of the formidable and widespread Mau Mau insurgency. A colonial field operative, Lieutenant (later General) Frank Kitson, chose not to oppose the Mau Mau head-on, instead developing what he called ‘counter-gang’ and ‘pseudo-gang’ tactics.
The procedure began with mass-arrests and interrogations, looking for those who could be ‘turned’ — these would be used as informers and infiltrators — but also for hard-core criminals and psychopaths who would be deployed to commit massacres and atrocities against the population under the Mau Mau name, destroying the rebels’ political base — a ‘pseudo-gang’, in Kitson’s nomenclature.
His methods were successful, and he was re-deployed first to Malaya and then to Northern Ireland, where he empowered Unionist paramilitary counter-gangs to terrorise Catholic areas, and infiltrated the Irish Republican Army to such an extent that at one point a Belfast newspaper claimed to have seen secret documents revealing that nearly half of the leadership of the Provisional IRA consisted of British informers.
Interestingly, levels of violence did not diminish under these circumstances — in fact they peaked, culminating in some of the worst atrocities carried out in the name of the Republican movement. The violence, of course, brought Irish reunification not one inch closer.
Kitson described the genesis of his methods in a 1960 book, Gangs and Counter-gangs. Two years later, domestic false flag terror-tactics within the United States were being proposed at the highest level as a way of justifying an invasion of Cuba. In 1997, documents relating to a military plan code-named Operation NORTHWOODS were declassified. The Joint Chiefs of Staff under the chairmanship of General Lyman Lemnitzer had submitted a proposal to Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara in 1962.
The wave of attacks would begin with a simulation. The public would be shown televised scenes of idealistic young ‘students’, actually CIA recruits, boarding a flight to Cuba on an unprecedented cultural exchange. The plane would take off, but then land at a military base, to be replaced by a remote-controlled duplicate painted in the appropriate colours. This drone aircraft would broadcast pre-recorded emergency messages as it approached Cuba, before crashing into the sea, shot down by imaginary Cuban MiGs, with the loss of all lives. TV would show mournful scenes of wreckage and belongings floating on the sea. This pseudo-event would just be the curtain-raiser; ships would be sunk; the US military base at Guantanamo would be attacked; people would die in acts of terrorism across the USA. There would be a media circus of televised funerals, biographies of victims and interviews with grieving relatives. The country would be ready for war.
Once you’ve got over the punch-in-the-guts revelation about military ethics, there’s something perhaps even more important here too: what it tells us about the role of the media. The assumption is made with complete confidence that the media will be complicit in promoting a made-for-television enactment as reality. Members of the public may not believe that the press can act in this concerted fashion to promote fiction as reality; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the other hand, do.
Terrorism achieves its aims only by disguising its source. Kitson’s ‘pseudo-gang/counter-gang’ strategy is about creating surrogate or replicant insurgent groups to destroy the political base of those threatening the dominant order; it replicates the threat in order to replace it: it uses simulation to effect political containment or change. Clearly, if the Cuban regime had really shot down a plane full of students and started terrorising the mainland of the United States with snipers and bombers, it would have faced immediate destruction. So the Cubans wouldn’t do it. But the United States would, in the guise of Cubans, to justify an invasion.
President Kennedy wasn’t ready for this precession of simulacra, and vetoed the plan. Lemnitzer was denied a further term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, he was instead reassigned to the European theatre of operations as Supreme Commander of NATO (1963-69). The very real violence of NATO’s own ‘pseudo-gangs’ was unleashed in 1969, as the new Euro-Disneyland of terrorism opened its gates for the first time, in the Piazza Fontana in Milan.
“Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library, the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.” (Marshal McLuhan, From Cliché to Archetype, 1970)