September 11, Terror War, and Blowback

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By Douglas Kellner

    On September 11, 2001 terrorists hijacked an American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angles and crashed it into the World Trade Center in New York City, followed by a second hijacking and deliberate collision into another WTC Tower within minutes. During the same hour, another hijacked jetliner hit Pentagon, while a fourth hijacked plane, perhaps destined for a White House crash-landing, went down in Pennsylvania, perhaps by passengers who had learned of the earlier terrorist crimes and struggled to prevent another calamity.

    The world stood transfixed with the graphic videos of the World Trade Center buildings exploding and discharging a great cloud of rubble, while heroic workers struggling to save bodies were themselves victims of unpredictable crashing of the Towers or shifts in the debris. The World Trade Center Towers, the largest in New York City and potent symbol of global capitalism were down, and the mighty symbol of American military power, the mythically shaped and configured Pentagon, was severely wounded. Terrorists celebrated their victory over the American colossus and the world remained transfixed for days on the media spectacle of America Under Attack and reeling from the now highly-feared effects of terrorism.

    Momentous historical events like the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. military and other responses test social theories and provide a challenge to give a convincing account of the event and its consequences. They also provide cultural studies an opportunity to trace how the discourses of social theory play themselves out in media discourse, as well as to test how the broadcast and other dominant media of communication perform their democratic role of providing accurate information and discussion, and assume a responsible role in a time of crisis. In these remarks, I want first to suggest how certain dominant social theories were put in question during the momentous and world-shaking events of Fall 2001, how highly problematic positions generated by contemporary social theory circulated through the media, and how the media on the whole performed disastrously and dangerously, whipping up war hysteria, while failing to provide a coherent account of what happened, why it happened, and what would count as responsible responses to the terrorist attacks. I also argue that a combination of critical social theory and cultural studies can help illuminate the September events, their causes, effects, and importance in shaping the contemporary moment.

Social Theory, Falsification, and the Events of History

    Social theories generalize from historical experience and provide accounts of historical events or periods that attempt to map, illuminate, and perhaps criticize dominant social relations, institutions, forms, and trends of a given historical epoch. In turn, they can be judged by the extent to which they account for, interpret, and criticize, contemporary conditions, or predict future events or developments. One dominant social theory of the past two decades, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History (1992) was strongly put into question by the events of September 11 and their aftermath.1For Fukuyama, the collapse of Soviet communism and triumph of Western capitalism and democracy in the early 1990s constituted "the end of history." This signified for him "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." While there may be conflicts in places like the Third World overall for Fukuyama liberal democracy has triumphed and future struggles will devolve around resolving mundane economic and technical problems and the future will accordingly be rather mundane and boring.

    Samuel Huntington polemicizes against Fukuyama's "one world: euphoria and harmony" model in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). For Huntington, the future holds a series of clashes between "the West" and "the rest." Huntington rejects a number of other models of contemporary history including a "realist" model, that nation-states are primary players on the world scene and will continue to form alliances and coalitions which will play themselves out in various conflicts, as well as a "chaos" model that discerns no mappable order or structure.

    For Huntington, culture provides unifying and integrating principles of order and harmony and he delineates seven or eight different civilizations that are likely to come into conflict with each other, including Islam, China, Russia, and Latin America. I will argue below that while Huntington's model seems to have some purchase in the currently emerging global encounter with terrorism, and is becoming a new conservative ideology, it tends to overly homogenize both Islam and the West, as well as the other civilizations he depicts. Moreover, as we shall see, his model lends itself to pernicious misuse, as I suggest in the following section. I will argue in a later section that Chalmers Johnson's model of "blowback" (2000) provides a more convincing account of the September 11 terrorist attacks that better contextualizes, explains, and even predicts such events and that it also provides cogent suggestions concerning viable and inappropriate responses to global terrorism. First, however, I want to suggest how social discourses work themselves into the media, public policy debates, and can inform or legitimate certain practices.

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