THE MURDEROUS CAPACITY OF IMAGES
In 1981 Baudrillard was announcing, not predicting, the ‘death of the real’. In Simulacra and Simulation, 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, tempted perhaps by the grim poetic counterpoint it offers, Baudrillard turns from Disneyland to the circus of European terrorism, which had been pulling in crowds since it opened in 1969. This was a topic much on everyone’s mind in 1981, as it has been ever since; in Italy they called this period gli 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 […] 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 […] 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.
I have edited out some of Baudrillard’s rhetorical parentheses in order to clarify his argument; which is not that all hypotheses regarding the provenance of the terror campaign are false except one — which would be how we would proceed in ‘a logic of facts’ — but that they are all simultaneously true, even those interpretations which directly contradict each other. We can never know the truth, not because the truth is hidden — but because the competing interpretations are all ‘true’.
In this (formerly) bizarre repudiation of Aristotelian principles of thought, Baudrillard anticipates the dizzying ‘post-truth’ information culture that proliferates in our own times: indeed he is one of the architects of this lost society, wandering ever deeper into the desert of the real.
Adopting such a position of doctrinaire agnosticism on the attribution of specific historical events merely gives intellectual gloss to the normalcy bias of the masses. Those who claim an agnostic exemption from intellectual responsibility are well advised not be seen closing their eyes as they do so, or covering their ears; or they instantly betray themselves as skilled practitioners, whether consciously or not, of the famous hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie.
The term ‘agnostic’ is quite recent, by the way; it was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley 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: an important coinage articulating an essential principle in science. That’s why I would prefer the term ‘scientific agnosticism’ to ‘weak’ agnosticism, as it is usually called.
The word was quickly appropriated by theologians, natural philosophers and philosophers of science to be used in a larger sense — to mean the limits beyond which knowledge is not possible. ‘Strong’ agnosticism relates not to the unknown but the unknowable, as is 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.
But to say that one can never know who commissioned a particular crime is to apply an ontological agnosticism to historical questions. In the case of the terrorist atrocities he refers to, Baudrillard 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’ even to want to do so.
It’s a doctrinaire forensic nihilism: any enquiry into the cause, origin, provenance of a specific event, any attempt at objective inquiry, is declared to be philosophically spurious. Apparently Baudrillard would abandon the disciplines of historical research entirely — including, logically, criminal investigations, interrogations, forensic analysis, court trials. All historiography, including the concept of justice itself, is dismissed as proceeding from the ‘false desire to know.’
And it is certainly 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 calculated to instil raw panic.
Dissimulation has been at the heart of the terrorist tactic from the beginning. If you terrorise people, you will only solidify the political resistance against your aims — making it impossible for officials to entertain your demands. Terrorism, therefore, is not an effective tool, and terrorists rarely realise their stated aims. It is only when deception is used to misattribute the event, passing it off as the actions of a designated enemy whom you wish to discredit or attack, that it becomes an effective tool.
Destabilise the public order to stabilise the political order.
An early instance of false-flag terrorism using weapons of mass destruction happened more than four hundred years ago at Westminster, the seat of the Houses of Parliament in London: the fabled Gunpowder Plot for which the patsy Guy Fawkes and others were tortured to death. Contemporary witnesses reported seeing the principle conspirators making late-night visits to the house of Robert Cecil, James I’s Machiavellian first minister, whom Shakespeare had lampooned in the morally and physically deformed character of his Richard III. The aim was to discredit the Catholics, forcing the King to repudiate his desire for rapprochement, and it worked.
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 process began with mass-arrests and interrogations, looking for those who could be ‘turned’ and used as informers and infiltrators — but also for the hard-core criminals and psychopaths, who would be given their heads and deployed to commit massacres and atrocities against the population. They were to become the new Mau Mau — a ‘pseudo-gang’, in Kitson’s nomenclature — and the pseudo-Mau Mau’s function was to undermine and destroy the formidable political base of the real Mau Mau.
Kitson’s methods were stunningly successful, the Mau Mau challenge was dissipated in chaos and confusion, and Kitson was re-deployed first to Malaya and then to Northern Ireland, where he 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. At the same time he empowered Unionist paramilitary counter-gangs to terrorise Catholic areas, further inflaming the situation. Levels of violence did not diminish under these circumstances — 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. Within two years, in the United States, domestic false flag terror-tactics — pseudo-gang tactics — were proposed at the highest level as a way of justifying an invasion of Cuba. In 1997, documents relating to a 1962 military plan code-named Operation NORTHWOODS were declassified in the United States. The Joint Chiefs of Staff under the chairmanship of General Lyman Lemnitzer had submitted a proposal to Secretary to Defense Robert McNamara for the deployment of false-flag terrorist attacks across the continental USA, to be blamed on Cuban terrorists and justify an American invasion of that coveted and unfortunate island.
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.
The most shocking aspect of this is of course the punch-in-the-guts revelation about military ethics, but there’s something even more important here too: what it tells us about the role of the media. Essential in the Northwoods plan is the stone-cold assumption that the media will be complicit in promoting a made-for-television enactment as reality. A member of the public might not believe that the press can act in this concerted fashion to promote a false reality; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the other hand, clearly did.
Terrorism achieves its aims only by disguising its source. Kitson’s ‘pseudo-gang’ strategy is about creating surrogate 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 apparently didn’t like the idea of slaughtering innocent Americans in order to manufacture consent for the slaughter of innocent Cubans. He not only vetoed the plan but made sure that Lemnitzer was denied a further term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Instead, the general was reassigned to the European theatre of operations as Supreme Commander of NATO from 1963 to 69.
At which point, as it happened, the very real terrorism of NATO’s own ‘pseudo-gangs’ was unleashed in Europe in the Piazza Fontana in Milan, as the Euro-Disneyland of terror opened its gates for the first time in 1969.
Baudrillard was not naive; he understood how things work. He understood the Munchausen-by-proxy tactics used by European power structures to strengthen their institutions.
‘Everything is metamorphosed into its opposite to perpetuate itself in its expurgated form. All the powers, all the institutions speak of themselves through denial, in order to attempt, by simulating death, to escape their real death throes. Power can stage its own murder to rediscover a glimmer of existence and legitimacy. Such was the case with some American presidents: the Kennedys were murdered because they still had a political dimension. The others, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, only had the right to phantom attempts, to simulated murders. But this aura of an artificial menace was still necessary to conceal that they were no longer anything but the mannequins of power.’ (p15)
Baudrillard, then, has no illusions about the layered strategies used to disguise the true power centres in nominally democratic societies. However, his explicit recommendation is to forget about any possibility of locating the operative centres of power, or unravelling the complex provenance of any event. While acknowledging the naivety of taking anything at face-value in our situation, Baudrillard’s position is to adhere to a strong or metaphysical agnosticism. We little people cannot know; we cannot penetrate the layers of simulation and dissimulation, though we know they are there. So — know that you are being lied to, but choose to believe the lie. Wrap yourself in this doublethink: resist trying to answer the question in your mind. Do this for long enough, and eventually it will disappear. Only thus will you able to live under the post-modern totalitarianism of ‘hyperreality’.
Within a decade, Baudrillard’s dogmatic agnosticism about the attacks was made ridiculous by events. 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 by anyone seeking to hold either to human ethics or to the reality principle itself.
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 — a Latin word denoting the short, double-edged sword of the Roman legionary. At the end of the second world war, NATO had embedded covert ‘stay-behind’ units in fifteen European 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 security-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.
All this 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 view Baudrillard as a poet rather than a philosopher. We can acknowledge that his theory of the precession of simulacra is fundamentally escapist, and at the same time, that his sparkling prose is the froth on a gathering wave, foreshadowing the tsunami of simulation that would break over our heads at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
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.