McLUHAN IN MANHATTAN
“The tactic of the terrorist model is to provoke a surplus of reality and to make the whole system collapse under it.” Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (2002).
Baudrillard’s definition of reality, in his 1981 work Simulacra and Simulation, is ‘that which can be simulated’. He argues that technology has now made the real and the simulated indistinguishable, that the reality-principle is in terminal retreat, and that we are living in a ‘desert of the real’. Nothing is real any more; the simulacrum is all there is, and therefore ‘the simulacrum is true’.
In response to the European terrorism of the sixties and seventies – which included the Piazza Fontana attacks in Milan, the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the Oktoberfest bombing in Munich and the Bologna railway station atrocity, Baudrillard argued that it was ‘impossible to isolate the process of simulation’, or to ‘prove the real’. This was premature; prosecutors continued to pursue the truth, and incontrovertible evidence emerged that clearly located the source of the attacks within NATO’s ‘strategy of tension’. In Italy and Germany, NATO stay-behind networks engineered terror attacks using right-wing extremist front-groups while blaming leftists, in order to discredit the communist party. Operation ‘GLADIO’ — alluding to the double-edged Roman short-sword — was officially exposed in October 1990 by Italian Prime Minister Andreotti. The same year, a parliamentary commission in Belgium concluded that the Brabant massacres of 1982-5, which led to authoritarian reforms and ultimately destroyed opposition to the deployment of NATO’s nuclear weapons in that country, had been carried out by members of the security forces.
Dissimulation has been at the heart of the terrorist tactic from the beginning. If you terrorize people, they will hate you. Terrorism, therefore, is not an effective tactic – the terrorists do not realize their aims. Why then does terrorism exist? Only because of the efficacy of the false flag terrorist attack. The very first instance of false-flag terrorism using weapons of mass destruction occurred 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, Elizabeth I’s Machiavellian secretary of state, whom Shakespeare lampooned in the morally and physically deformed character of his Richard III. Recent examples of geostrategic importance have occurred in Syria, where gas attacks on civilians in 2013 and 2017 were carried out by ‘rebel’ forces and blamed on the government of Bashar-al-Assad.
In 1997, while Baudrillard was still working with his simulation theory, documents pertaining to a covert plan code-named Operation NORTHWOODS were declassified in the United States. In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the chairmanship of General Lyman Lemnitzer had submitted a proposal to Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara for the deployment of false-flag terrorist attacks across mainland USA to justify an invasion of Cuba. Of particular interest: 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 and be replaced by a remote-controlled duplicate painted in the appropriate colors. This drone aircraft would broadcast pre-recorded emergency messages 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 would just be the start; 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 plan was turned down by President Kennedy. But NORTHWOODS is documentary evidence of the military strategy developed by the British colonial commander Major Frank Kitson to counter insurgencies in Kenya and Ireland, which came to dominate the era of asymmetrical warfare. Clearly, if the Cuban regime had really shot down a plane full of students and started terrorizing 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.
Terrorism achieves its aims only by disguising its source. Logically, then, one would expect most terrorist events in the world to be false flag attacks, and indeed this is borne out by the facts. Kitson’s ‘pseudo-gang/counter-gang’ theory is about creating simulated insurgent groups to destroy the political base of those threatening the dominant order; it replicates the threat in order to replace it: this is the practice of using simulation to effect political containment or change.
Lemnitzer was denied a further term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and moved to the European theater of operations, where as Supreme Commander of NATO (1963-9) he continued to apply the strategy of the pseudo-gang in unconventional warfare, leading directly to the GLADIO atrocities.
Baudrillard was influenced by Marshal McLuhan, the great media savant of the 1960s, who was himself a creation of the media.
McLuhan had already made a name for himself in academia, and was funded by the Ford Foundation to instigate seminars in Communications and Culture at Toronto University. At that point he became the beneficiary of an extraordinary intervention which transformed him into one of the new breed of ‘public intellectual’ – boosting his career into the stratosphere of public, corporate and academic adulation. According to Wikipedia, the Californian advertising executives Gerald Feigen and Howard Gossage were ‘genius-scouting’, and in McLuhan they found a mind that could articulate advertising to the advertisers, media to the mediators. They embarked on a blitzkrieg of publicity, taking him to New York to meet the editors of the big magazines and newspapers (he was offered the use of an office at Newsweek and Time magazines any time he liked), and then organizing a ‘McLuhan Festival’ at Gossage’s agency in San Francisco, where he strutted his stuff to the editors of Ramparts Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, and met Tom Wolfe. Newsweek did a cover story on him; Life Magazine, Harper’s Fortune, Esquire and even Playboy all ran stories and interviews. And he was worth it – a dazzling intellect, indeed. But no renegade; rather, a darling of the establishment, who flattered his sponsors with outrageous proclamations about advertising being the great art-form of the twentieth century, and such like.
McLuhan’s influence extended far beyond the academic world. From Terence McKenna to Andy Warhol to David Cronenberg, artists and con-artists alike took leads from him. His influence is not irrelevant to the psychedelic movement, the state-sponsored campaign to steer a generation away from activism and into drug-fueled hedonism; meeting with Dr Timothy Leary, McLuhan immediately started improvising advertising slogans for LSD which sound like nothing more than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World soma-jingles. ‘Psychedelics hit the spot, 500 micrograms, that’s a lot’ (McLuhan). ‘Was and will will make me ill/ I take a gramme and only am’ (Huxley). One of McLuhan’s jingles really did hit the spot, becoming in Leary’s mouth the pied-piper tune of the sixties: ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’
McLuhan, although he emerged from the academic world, eschewed the academic method, casting himself as a provocateur and describing his work as ‘probe, not package’. He had an extraordinary ability to engage others while floating clear of objections and counter-arguments; his method was to keep hitting his audience with highly generative, counter-intuitive ideas rather than getting bogged down in argument. Like Baudrillard his great talent was coinage and redefinition, using language in unfamiliar ways, retuning words to create a cool, intriguing jargon fitted to the new and fluid circumstances he sought to explore. If a genius is a practitioner who doesn’t just master his field but re-imagines and permanently re-defines it, McLuhan was arguably a genius.
As with so celebrity intellectuals, McLuhan’s role was to prime the public with a sense of imminent and unfathomable change. He is often credited with predicting the internet, thirty years before it was rolled out. He certainly projected to its logical conclusions the trend towards electronic connectedness through satellite television and telephone relays, arguing that it turns the planet into what he called, initially, a ‘global village’. He didn’t intend to draw upon the cosy, sentimental connotations of that word – what he meant was a whispering gallery, a global echo chamber, with everybody sticking their faces into everybody else’s business.
Soon, however, he evolved his metaphor, perhaps realizing that his vision of a huge circuit of village gossip didn’t sound exciting enough. He began to speak instead of the new media turning spectators into performers. (Warhol, too, got his most famous sound-bite – ‘in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes’ – from McLuhan.) In this future all interactions become public, all identities performative. The new term he coined for this must have interested his younger contemporary Jean Baudrillard, whose ears, like mine, would have pricked up at the phrase ‘global theater’.
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. (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970)
And so the internet age will be characterized by surveillance and terror.
“The satellite medium,” McLuhan states, “encloses the Earth in a man-made environment, which ends ‘Nature’ and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed.” (Ibid)
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 stylized, 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, despite his argument in Simulacra, from a perspective of reality. The first Gulf War was the first fully televisual war, propagating a sanitized 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. After Vietnam, the Pentagon prioritized imagery-control in the theater 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 the trenches. No infantry were used in this attack, with all US combatants encased in armored 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 this 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. “The tactic of the terrorist model is to provoke a surplus of reality and to make the whole system collapse under it.”
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 is that the same system that saturates the collective mind with simulacra to degrade the reality-principle can encompass terrorists and terrorism too.
BOSTON CENTER: Hi. Boston Center T.M.U. [Traffic Management Unit], we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.
POWELL [Jeremy Powell, technical sergeant]: Is this real-world or exercise?
BOSTON CENTER: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
Powell’s question is heard nearly verbatim over and over on the tapes as troops funnel onto the ops floor and are briefed about the hijacking. Powell, like almost everyone in the room, first assumes the phone call is from the simulations team on hand to send “inputs”—simulated scenarios—into play for the day’s training exercise.” (Vanity Fair, 9/11 Live: The NORAD tapes, 17 October 2006)
A crucial aspect of the complex situation on 9/11 was the unprecedented number of war-games and exercises being conducted on that day, some of the scenarios involving hijacked planes flying into buildings. Radar ‘inserts’ confused and paralyzed the response of air traffic controllers and air defense capabilities. A number of the traces visible on the radar screens – as many as eleven at one time – were fictitious: they were simulacra.
That was the drama, and for a long time it held me: the exercise suddenly going live, ATCs yelling Is this real?, the horror of a real event crawling out from under a simulation.
I now know that there was an extra fold in this story – one it took me years to see. The artist and blogger Miles Mathis, whose brisk and irreverent unmaskings of aspects of our consensus reality have captivated a growing audience, cautions fellow researchers to beware the dialectic. The official story, quite obviously, is a lie; but at the same moment, an anti-story is propagated, blaming the officials. Alex Jones launched his career by propagating this anti-story – which may be truer than the first, but still exists to conceal the essential reality; it is the third story, surrounded by traps and layered dissimulations, that contains the truth. In the case of 9/11, that third story is – well, ask Baudrillard. Or McLuhan. They give us, if not the truth, the language to express the truth.
Copies without originals, reference without referent; third order simulacra, of the order of sorcery. Global theater.
The answer, then, to the urgent question on the operations floor – Is this real world or exercise? – is neither; both. What crawled out from under the simulation – the terrorist act – was neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal.
I too watched those images on television and failed at first to question them. I was marching in the sucker brigades for a while. It was only six months later that I stumbled on something that tripped my stride and put me out of step. Then for a period of years I was just trying to think independently; others were doing the tortuous research that official bodies such as NIST and the 9/11 Commission were only pretending to do. It became clear to me fairly early on that the alleged collapses of World Trade Center buildings 1, 2 and 7 were too symmetrical and too fast to be explained by anything but controlled demolition. Regardless even of the pools of molten metal under the ruins, the intense heat persisting for more than a month, the iron-rich micro-spheres found in the dust by the City of New York proved in themselves that steel had been melted or even vaporized under temperatures at least a thousand degrees higher than could be created by ignited jet fuel. So I was in no doubt that the official story was a lie. However, it took me an unconscionably long time to strip away the next of ‘truth’s protective layers’ (to quote Neil Armstrong), thanks to a citizen journalist, Simon Shack.
Shack’s documentary film, September Clues, exhaustively analyzes all footage of the 9/11 attacks, and proves forensically that the images of aircraft striking buildings, whether purportedly captured by the network cameras or by amateurs with cellphones, are digital composites. On the day, Shack concludes, ‘live’ pictures were disseminated to the five major networks from a centralized feed, while local stations were taken off air and imagery-control imposed on the South Manhattan theater through electro-magnetic jamming.
Just like the building collapses, the plane impacts defied fundamental laws of physics. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for any action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What we saw: a plane in collision with a building, or building in collision with a plane, same thing in terms of physics. We see the evidence of impact on the building, the planes cutting cartoon-style outlines of themselves in the facade, right down to the wing-tips. However, no impact can be detected upon the planes – no crumpling of nose or fuselage; nothing breaking off or falling outside the building; the tail maintaining its velocity as the plane enters the building like a shopper strolling through an automatic door. The ultimate smoking-gun proof that the planes were not real is this: no wing vortices appeared in the flame and smoke erupting from the buildings.
What we saw on our screens is simply not possible in the physical world. Once this is understood it is easy to decode the basic methodology: the towers rigged with explosives, air-to-surface cruise missiles fired into the buildings, planted ‘eyewitnesses’ ready for interview, a central feed supplying images to the TV networks, and ‘the wire’ (Reuters and the Reuters-owned Associated Press) providing the narrative.
This doesn’t mean the bombs and explosions were not real, or that people didn’t die in the buildings. But the plane strikes we saw were two-dimensional animations, image overlays; simulacra, not real planes. In reality, a Boeing traveling at this speed at sea-level would be far exceeding its capabilities and would in all likelihood break up in mid-air. Based on the broadcast footage, the velocity of the second plane has been calculated at around 580 mph, an impossible speed for this plane at sea-level air-density. This is, however, the ground velocity of the AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile, in outline not unlike a Boeing, with wings and a vertical tail, but much smaller of course. Most eyewitnesses reported seeing a small plane or a missile, or nothing at all – it was only a small minority who reported seeing a large or commercial plane. The best explanation is that cruise missiles were used, ‘airliners’ were superimposed by CGI, and planted ‘eye-witnesses’ deployed to anchor the narrative around large commercial jets. Theories about holographic cloaking can be discarded as an unnecessary duplication of principles.
The Northwoods blueprint had finally came to fruition forty years on; the pseudo-gang strategy had found its direst enemy-image to date in the form of Osama Bin Laden and ‘Al Qa’eda’. Since the exposure of 9/11, it has become clear that the use of drills and exercises to cover false flag attacks is standard procedure and can be found in many terrorist and mass-shooting events where real life appears to mimic the exact scenarios simultaneously being gamed; the London bombings of 7/7/05 are a case in point, where participants in a training exercise suddenly found that fictional/game events were happening in real life: the drill had ‘gone live‘.
The September 11th attack on Manhattan was the great simulation to usher in a new era. An epoch-making Baudrillardian pseudo-event indeed, combining real slaughter and simulation, and where was the great philosopher of the simulacrum at the moment of precession?
Glued to his television screen, like everyone else; believing every word, as if he had never written his 1981 masterpiece.
But what else should he do, having announced that the simulacrum is real, and we must respect the illusion? In the eighties and nineties he had decreed that we must give up the quest for truth, because illusion has sucked all vitality from the real and truth itself become an illusion. The precession of simulacra cannot be resisted; the desert of the real will not bloom again. Reality is dead, and it is a false desire to want to prove otherwise. Instead, we must enter into this strangely seductive, unblinking, unthinking state of hyperreality.
“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”
The tragedy of Baudrillard was that his vision was too quickly realized on the world stage, and that he lived long enough to see it. 9/11 is the gateway event which invokes exactly the precession of simulacra envisioned in 1981. Of course Baudrillard would say I am misreading his work, and perhaps I am, by taking it literally, whereas in fact it is essentially rhetorical. For myself, I merely want to apply twentieth-century Baudrillard’s beautiful tetrad to the events of a new millennium the old man somehow managed to sleep through from the beginning. I am suggesting that he should have taken himself more literally.
Baudrillard’s Gulf War essays are about mediation: they are predicated on the comparison of reference to referent. This aspect is completely missing from his reflections on 9/11. No ‘The September 11th Attacks Did Not Take Place’, nothing like that. Instead, he mythologizes the terrorists, aggrandizes the ‘War on Terror’, and bows down before the ‘incandescent images’ of that day. The Spirit of Terrorism (2002), quite simply, is neocon propaganda. At the exact moment that his vision was vindicated, the Baudrillard I knew had vanished and been replaced by a replica. From that moment on, as his theory dictated, he was a shadow of himself, a simulacrum among simulacra.
From writing about the murderousness of the image, Baudrillard ends up paying homage to the murderousness of terrorists. At times, he seems nostalgic for his theory of the eighties and nineties and strokes it a little just to hear it purr. But nowhere is there any awareness of mediation, any question, not any more, of what is real or what is simulated. At first it seems like an extraordinary abdication – and it is – but Baudrillard had prepared an alibi.
In fact by 2001, twentieth-century Baudrillard had cunningly disappeared inside his theory, like a hermit crab inserting its tender ass into a carefully chosen shell. Two publications on the theme of Simulacra finalized his escape plan – The Perfect Crime (1996) about the ‘murder of reality’, and ‘The Vital Illusion‘ (2000), his lionization of the murderer. In these publications he confirmed that reality had already disappeared, thus justifying his desertion before the battle – the great battle of paradigms that has raged now for 16 years, and the struggle to dethrone the pernicious propaganda narratives that have mesmerized Western audiences, securing their consent for a state of permanent atrocity and ultimately the destruction of their own civilization.
Thus Baudrillard nullifies, epistemologically speaking, anything he might write after this point. Nothing after The Vital Illusion can address reality, by his own argument. And yet he continued to write as if it could. Every word of The Spirit of Terrorism, however infused with Baudrillardian poetry, is epistemologically worthless, since in his mind the distinction between fact and fiction has disappeared. The sophistry of his rational for abandoning any critical attention to his premises masks a reversion to artful naiveté – the second childhood of the master.
In Baudrillard’s hyperreal trance, the territory clings only in rotting shreds to the map he is reading, but this does not matter, according to him. The simulacrum is now true – always was, therefore. The result is a superstitious primitivism masquerading as critique of late capitalism: “When the two towers collapsed,” he writes, “it was as if they met the suicide-planes with their own suicide.” A fanciful idea, admittedly, but it’s not as if he could give any other explanation that makes more sense.
He mythologizes the terrorists as geniuses who ‘have taken over all the weapons of the dominant power’ – meaning cellphones, aeroplanes, and, er, boxcutters I suppose – granting them powers which the dominant power itself, possessed of the same and much greater weapons, is helpless to resist. Archetypally, whether in mythology or propaganda, the monster must appear superhuman, and Baudrillard dutifully contributes to its aura, arguing throughout the essay that the tactic of terrorism, though immoral, reveals an instinctive super-intelligence, an awareness so infallible that in its face, the superpower spontaneously commits suicide, just like the towers when the planes hit them.
This flies in the face of historical and political reality. Vincenzo Vinciguerra, one of the Ordine Nouvo fascists accused of involvement with NATO terrorism in Italy, understood the principle: Destabilize the public order, to stabilize the political order and strengthen the institutions of power.
Of course the relevant weapons in this case were all wielded by ‘the dominant power’, and the ‘terrorists’ were merely pawns in their game, of the order of appearances. Mohammed Atta and company were allowed into the United States on CIA orders, watched by FBI handlers, trained at military bases. None of them was remotely capable of pulling off this operation, but that didn’t matter – their job was over once they’d made exhibitions of themselves in various bars and strip clubs the night before. They weren’t required on planes which didn’t fly into buildings or crash in fields, and so they didn’t board on any planes on 9/11, as shown by the flight manifests. Atta’s son says he received a phone call from his father the following day, and that is an entirely reasonable claim.
But Baudrillard continues to dress his mythical terrorists with spine-chilling cinematic qualities:
As their most cunning trick, the terrorists even used the banality of American everyday life as a mask and a doubleplay: sleeping in suburbs, reading and studying in a family environment, before going off one day like a time bomb. The faultless mastery of this clandestine style of operation is almost as terroristic as the spectacular act of September 11, since it casts suspicion on any and every individual. Might not any inoffensive person be a potential terrorist?
‘Cunning trick?’ The naiveté here – the artful naiveté – is staggering. The police state will arise as a response to terrorism, he implies, but there is of course another way to look at it: terrorism is engineered to justify the rise of the police state. Baudrillard would know, if he had studied GLADIO, that the response of ‘the system’ is not, never was, and never will be, to collapse, but to become more centralized, intrusive and authoritarian. What collapses or comes under threat is not ‘the system’ but the spirit of the West – free speech, critical thinking, scientific truth, individual liberty and innate rights. Baudrillard could only make his statement in front of an audience completely unaware of the role of deception in the terrorist model, an audience which has forgotten the revelations concerning the state-sponsored GLADIO terror networks.
In 1981, Baudrillard wrote about the murderous capability of images. In 2001, he watched a disaster movie on television, and was dazzled by its ‘incandescent imagery’ into suspending disbelief, completely and forever. Thus Baudrillard in 2002 fulfills his own prophecy: in The Spirit of Terrorism, nothing is of the order of appearances at all; there is no sorcery in the ‘flash of unforgettable images’. Reality is short-circuited, as the simulacrum of a philosopher serenades the simulation as “the absolute event, the mother of all events, the pure event”.
What he should have done is stop publishing altogether, and made The Vital Illusion (2000) his last word. When asked why, he should have said, because events have outstripped my theory, and refused to say another word. Then he could have been the visionary who shut his mouth, instead of the visionary who watched TV. His silence would have been honored as the ultimate essay on hyperreality. But his death came too late to prevent the self-murder of his reputation through publications such as The Spirit of Terrorism.
The philosopher who warned us of the death of reality was dissembling all along – it was never a warning but an escapist wish fulfillment, the desire to wander in wonderland, lost in a lotos-eating dream. Never a battle-cry but a suicide note, Baudrillard’s work embodies the intellectual stand-down of the West.