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Spectacular Terrorism and the Terror of the Spectacle

by * Sunday, Sep. 25, 2005 at 2:22 AM

“Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic” (Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle).

“Obliging everyone to continually take a position for or against mysterious and obscure incidents, prefabricated in reality for this precise end, this is the real terrorism...” (Gianfranco Sanguinetti, On Terrorism and the State).

Many can see modern society has developed to the point where images dominate life. But few see the correlation between the nature of this spectacle society and the spectacles that dominate its surface. The “War on Terror” is itself a spectacle; a fabricated theatre of fabricated images. This is not to say that the war is not real, but that it is the very real violence born of a society based in unreality. Broadcast everywhere to a consumer society of spectators, the dominating spectacle of this war illustrates the direct results of a society based in spectacular domination. (1) The spectacle of terrorism is rooted in the very terror of the spectacle itself.

More than the massive amount of media coverage of terrorism and the war, and more than the PR tactics employed by governments to frame public perspectives as they broadcast official thought from press rooms, the spectacle is revealed in the absolutely spectatorist character of the entire society subject to its discourse. To a spectator in an entirely spectacular society, decisions already made are presented for passive admiration, while the social organization that requires such dissemination remains a mystery beyond question or reply. The unanswerable and prevalent nature of the elusive stories and lies surrounding the “War on Terror” is a testament to this spectacular power in our modern society. The spectacle proves its argument simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed, and believed, precisely because that is the only thing to which everyone is witness. Those with spectacular power can deny whatever they like, once, or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte, in the space of spectacular power or any other. There is almost no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay it. (2)

A 2004 Zogby poll found that nearly half of New York City residents believed the US government was complicit in the 2001 WTC attacks. How do so many New Yorkers live with this belief? Along with arms and reconstruction profits, oil control, international power struggles and other factors, the “War on Terror” is inextricably linked to the spectacle-spectator society’s passivity, and power’s desperate desire to maintain that passivity. There are no better secrets than the ones everybody knows, and today “the most serious phenomenon is that which all take part in without ever denouncing it” (Sanguinetti). Because the state’s artificial terrorism is well documented (3), we can see historically that the state use of terrorism is meant to destabilize society, authorizing force and paralyzing dissent, drumming up support for its crisis. Its paramilitary successes can be found in the maintenance and re-enforcement of its powers: “all the acts of spectacular terrorism have as their common objectives the silencing of the opposition, the justification of the imprisonment or killing of dissidents, the rallying of frightened populations to existing power, and the consolidation of generalized oppression” (International Friends).

The “War on Terror” has been used as a pretext and testing ground for advancing methods of control — censorship, orchestration of patriotism, suppression of dissent and demonstrations — and for new levels of public acceptance of such extreme measures as mass secret arrests and the suspension of civil and human rights for both foreigners and Americans alike. But the spectacle is so prevalent and the spectators so subservient to establishment policies that overtly repressive methods are hardly needed. The spectators, under the impression that they are expressing their own considered views, parrot the catch phrases and debate the pseudoissues that the spectacle has instilled in them day after day, and as in any other spectator sport loyally “support” the home team in the desert by rooting for it. Even the less aggressive spectator is given the chance to support the war while opposing it by “supporting the troops.”

The spectacle’s control is reinforced by the spectators’ own internalized conditioning. Socially and psychologically repressed, people are drawn to spectacles that allow their accumulated frustrations to explode in socially condoned orgasms of collective pride, hate, and racism. Deprived of significant accomplishments in their own work and leisure, spectators participate vicariously in military enterprises that have real and undeniable effects. Lacking genuine community, they thrill to the sense of sharing in a common purpose, if only that of fighting some common enemy, and react angrily against anyone who contradicts the image of patriotic unanimity. The fear induced by terrorism deepens the attraction and acts as fuel for jingoism. The individual’s life may be a farce, the society may be falling apart, but all complexities and uncertainties are temporarily forgotten in the self-assurance that comes from identifying with the state.

War is the truest expression of the state, and its most powerful reinforcement. Just as the capitalist economy must create artificial needs for its increasingly superfluous commodities, the state must continually create artificial conflicts requiring its violent intervention. The fact that the state incidentally provides a few “social services” merely camouflages its fundamental nature as a protection racket. When states goes to war, the net result is as if each state had made war on its own people — who are then taxed to pay for it. As Ken Knabb said in a slightly different context; “The Gulf War was a particularly gross example: Several states eagerly sold billions of dollars’ worth of arms to another state, then massacred hundreds of thousands of conscripts and civilians in the name of neutralizing its dangerously large arsenal. The multinational corporations that own those states now stand to make still more billions of dollars restocking armaments and rebuilding the countries they have ravaged.”

Whatever happens in the unfolding of this “war without end,” one thing is certain: The first aim of the state will be to crush or co-opt any truly radical popular movement. The more forward thinking say this war is really being waged against us. “Its true aim is the ‘crushing of all opposition, even the mildest one, to the total colonization of all aspects of life all over the planet.’ It is necessary to expect that ‘wherever any sign of dissent is found a terrorist is sure to found behind it.’” (International Friends). So long as this world continues to organize dissent against power’s capitalist globalization, as we have seen in Seattle, Genoa, Bolivia, New York, and Edinburgh, etc., we can only expect even more desperate measures from those who benefit from them.

In America the “war without end” has diverted attention from the acute social problems that the system is incapable of solving — unemployment, poverty, unfulfilling and unsustainable consumption lifestyles, lack of security, healthcare, etc. — reinforcing the power of the militarist establishment and the complacency of the patriotic spectators. While the latter are busy watching the latest manufactured spectacles of “embedded” war reports and exulting at early victory spectacles, the most interesting question is what will happen with the people who see through the show.

* * *

The most significant thing about the movement against the “War on Terror” is its unexpected spontaneity; its diversity and its global nature. In the lead up to the Iraq war and in the space of a few days, hundreds of thousands of people all over the country and millions around the world initiated or took part in vigils, blockades, teach-ins, and a wide variety of other actions. The real interaction was not between stage and audience, but among the individuals carrying their own homemade signs, handing out their own leaflets, playing their music, doing their street theater, discussing their ideas with friends and strangers, forming affinity groups, discovering a sense of community in the face of the insanity.

It was a sad waste of spirit to see these persons become ciphers when they allowed themselves to be channeled into quantitative, lowest-common-denominator political projects — tediously drumming up votes to elect more “radical” politicians who invariably sold them out for a system whose reign no one is supposed to be able contest, collecting signatures in support of “progressive” laws that will usually have little effect even if passed, recruiting “bodies” for demonstrations whose numbers will in any case be underreported or ignored by the media. If we want to contest the hierarchical system we must reject hierarchy in our own methods and relations. If we want to break through the spectacle-induced stupor, we must use our own imaginations. If we want to incite others, we ourselves must experiment.

Those who see through the war become aware, if they aren’t already, of how much spectacular society and its media falsify reality. Personal participation makes this awareness more vivid. To take part in a peace march of a hundred thousand people and then see it given equal-time coverage with a prowar demonstration of a few dozen is an illuminating experience — it brings home the bizarre unreality of the spectacle, as well as calling into question the relevance of tactics based on communicating radical viewpoints by way of the mass media. While the war rages on, protesters see that they have to confront these questions, and in discussions and symposiums on “the war and the media” they examine not only the blatant lies and overt blackouts, but the more subtle methods of media distortion — use of emotionally loaded images; isolation of events from their historical context; limitation of debate to “responsible” options; framing of dissident viewpoints in ways that trivialize them; personification of complex realities (Saddam = Iraq); objectification of persons (“collateral damage”); etc. These examinations are continuing and are giving rise to a veritable industry of articles, lectures and books analyzing every aspect of media falsification. (4)

With the exception of open publishing resources like the many Independent Media Centers online, alternative media has generally reproduced the dominant spectacle-spectator relation. The point is to undermine it — to challenge the conditioning that makes people susceptible to media manipulation in the first place. Which ultimately means challenging the social organization that produces that conditioning, that turns people into spectators of prefabricated adventures because they are prevented from creating their own. (5)

This text was produced from an earlier pamphlet; War and the Spectacle by the Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, 1991 – reworded and reworked by someone else in Portland, 2005. It may be freely reprinted or quoted in any way.

1 The media’s method of presenting official thought as reality reflects the present society’s social organization. The presentation of the spectacle as reality is necessary to this society and is required by it. As a result of this fabrication, and the generalized consumer culture of contemplative passivity and resignation that goes with it, the spectacle’s autonomous images end up shaping all of public opinion and discourse, all public thought of what is and what is not possible. The implications of this domination are of the utmost importance to anyone seeking an end to this war or the powers that demand its eternal presence.

2 The poverty of this society’s consciousness can be better understood with a consciousness of this society’s poverty: Nineteenth-century capitalism alienated people from themselves and from each other by alienating them from the products of their own activity. This alienation has been intensified as those products have increasingly become “productions” that we passively contemplate. The power of the mass media is only the most obvious manifestation of this development; in the larger sense the spectacle is everything from the arts to politicians that have become autonomous representations of life. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle). The “War on Terror” speaks to the contemporary advances of the complete integration of the spectacle into all aspects of life and to the subsequent spectacularization of that life. The fully integrated spectacle manifests a world with a deceived sense of the past and an eternal present. It conjures a world without history where lies can remain unanswerable, because what has happened only days ago is easily forgotten or re-contextualized by today’s spectacle. And because only official thought, its pundits, and loyal opposition may appear in the spectacle, the society of the spectacle has only one voice (though in many mouths). This eternal present without reply, which provides a perfect backdrop for “terrorism,” has terrifying implications for all aspects of modern life and its survival.

3 One example of US sponsored artificial terrorism can be found in the Defense Department’s declassified Northwoods document that describes the use of bombs and highjackings for false flag operations against Cuba. A quick overview of historical precedents can be found in the essay Smoke Screens: Who Benefits? about the 911 attacks (posted online at Many researchers have made strong, well documented, cases for government complicity in the 911 and anthrax attacks. Quite a few books have been published recently on this subject and are widely available. An overview of US artificial terrorism can be found in many of these books, pointing to the major precedents. For a detailed account of defensive state terrorism in 1970’s Italy (notably the Milan car bombing of 1969 and the Aldo Moro assassination) read Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s On Terrorism and the State (also posted online at

4 The most naïve see the falsifications as mere mistakes or biases that might be corrected if enough members of the audience call in and complain, or otherwise pressure the mass media into presenting a somewhat wider range of viewpoints. At its most radical this perspective is expressed in the limited but suggestive tactic of picketing particular media. Others, aware that the mass media are owned by the same interests that own the state and the economy and will thus inevitably represent those interests, concentrate on disseminating suppressed information through various alternative media. But the glut of sensational information constantly broadcast in the spectacle is so deadening that the revelation of one more lie or scandal or atrocity seldom leads to anything but increased depression and cynicism. Not to be underestimated, at their best alternative media like Independent Media Centers create a network, mostly online, that can carry important information to those with access to them.

5 We must remember, we’re prevented from creating our own adventures by ourselves, as well as by the professionals and establishments that are, in effect, in collusion with the spectactle-spectator state, who are the strength of received ideas and guardians of our consumption. These include professors, journalists, bosses, unions, politicians, parties and every one else who says now is not the time to be real and live full lives. We must also remember that when we are responsible for our own thoughts and actions, apathy, cynicism and heavy handedness are easily tempered with experiment, openness, and humor. History has shown the part that is played by creative intelligence shining light in the darkness.

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