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On global terror: September 11 one year on.

The attack by terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon continues to impact on global politics, drawing them in the direction of a military endgame commentators are refusing to contemplate. Event follows event with a rhythm that is increasingly predictable. A humiliated and fearful superpower is ready to strike wherever and whomever it deems it must, with forces that dwarf those of all other nations. Frustrated by a combination of the elusive terrorist organization and the incompetence of its own intelligence sources, the US administration is trigger happy and hyper-aggressive. It now has major disagreements with a key member of NATO, Germany, over the desirability of war in Iraq. And it treads a fine line with France and Russia over the same strategy. It now openly argues, with certain allies tagging along, for the right to make pre-emptive strikes against the nations it so chooses. September 11 heralds the end of a state of affairs that has, for four centuries, centred the international order of the community of nations on principles of no first strike.

Not only does our only superpower deny, in the name of freedom, all such guarantees to its world neighbours, it has also deserted any pretence of respect for liberal freedoms that lie at the core of conceptions of the modern state. It has argued for, and now quietly pursues, a regimen of torture against prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to whom it denies all legal rights in defiance of international law. It imprisons those deemed to be suspects for up to a year without any rights of legal due process. And it is about to introduce home security arrangements that make most notions of a surveillance society seem benign.

That the United States and the world have been so transformed politically in just one year is evident. These developments are stunning and to a degree speak for themselves, yet the accounts given of them are still radically reductive. They tend to limit the meanings of September 11 to dark forces and the means at their disposal: certain hatreds held by individual terrorists unified by extremist Islamic views and the powerful weapons and modes of communication they can now muster. This, combined with the response by the behemoth regime in the United States, constitutes the September 11 story.

But is September 11 merely another example of terrorism, albeit now on a more global scale? Or is global terror a new social phenomenon? If it is the latter, how it is composed, how it is to be understood socially, requires an answer. An account of a dominant but radically insecure West represents a conventional view of the situation. But there are good reasons to see global terror as one aspect of a more general phenomenon of cultural wars and cultural contradictions. There is a lot more to a War on Terror than the United States is willing to countenance.

While most of the commentaries since September 11 have been understandably reactive rather than interpretive, an article by Richard Falk (1) strikes a rather different note. It does not delve into or clearly define the new phenomenon of global terror, but it does outline the elements of an approach needed for such an interpretation. Falk first notes the well-honed capacity of US "communicators" to tap into an apparently 'infinite reservoir of American innocence and call forth a patriotic response of unquestioning approval for policies, however dubious they may be, from the perspective of law and morality' (2). He then identifies four elements that lie behind the tumult surrounding September 11.

First, he points to the centrality of globalization and notes underlying processes within globalization that affect the structure of all societies, for better or for worse. Falk refers to the process of de-territorialization that affects all states and then notes that this is a consequence of a shift that gives 'great historical weight to networked forms of organisation'. It will be argued, in support of his observation, that this is no passing phenomenon. This shift in 'historical weight' is structural, not merely phenomenal. Supporting these networking interconnections are processes that go by the name of the communications revolution. And it will be further argued that the shift to networking forms of interconnection is of paramount cultural significance, with multiple ramifications that include the emergence of global terror.

Second, Falk observes that this change allows the development of new forms of conflict. Structured networks allow the stronger emergence of 'asymmetrical warfare', or what Falk calls 'warfare by the weak directed at the vulnerabilities of the strong'. And when the state responds, this asymmetry is then inverted: 'the technologically more powerful, established state wreaking havoc and devastation anywhere on the planet at virtually no human cost to itself'. (3)

Third, Falk makes the claim that the 'tribal patriotism' that has been part and parcel of the response of the United States is 'rooted in the mainly obsolescent attitudes and perceptions of a territorially constituted world order'. As such it shows 'no capacity to interpret the world scene in the light of these new realities'.

Fourth, Falk comments on the approach of the United States to war. Historically, this has been one of great reluctance to go to war, a reluctance that, when overcome, inverts into going 'all out to win'. Nevertheless, this attitude has been modified over the last half century by notions of deterrence and compromise because of the extraordinary threat associated with nuclear weapons. But deterrence will not work with a networked group like Al-Qaeda which can, by virtue of the new networking structures, be 'anywhere, but is nowhere'. This fact especially, since September 11, has called out a renewed patriotic determination of 'going all out to win'. But this is now a threat to the world due to the nature of contemporary weapons.

These four observations and assessments allow significant insight into the nature of social life and conflict in the twenty-first century, and into global terror in particular. They are, however, only a beginning; they require considerable elaboration to allow their significance to surface. Some of them will also be modified as they are elaborated.

The first socially novel aspect of this development is the proposition that the terrorists are a sub-category of a society that gives heightened emphasis to networked forms of social organization. It is here that it is possible to begin to speak of 'global terror', as opposed to terror that is global. But what exactly is the significance of the social network here?

Terror organizations are organizations of disparate individuals, structured into semi- or fully autonomous cells. They are not composed in the same manner as social groups. This is to say, they do not derive their social bonding from a generational history that structures the knowledge of others predominantly through long-term face-to-face histories. For the person in the social group, the tangible availability of others over time is ensured via the multiple aspects of work and everyday life.

The notion of a network is a way of characterizing a different type of social bond: an interconnection that is, relatively speaking, fleeting and in one dimension. It does not necessarily entail bodily presence. Like many other social institutions, the terrorist social organization is a very good example of a form of the social that does not rely on such presence. Even the terrorist cell, that can hardly avoid some face-to-face experience to allow trust to develop and to fulfil a task, is nevertheless predominantly a product of the social network. Its face-to-face relations are, in a special sense, incidental. In principle the cell must avoid the type of working connection that draws on the complexity associated with everyday social bonds. Certainly the terrorists come together with a single purpose in mind. And like all forms of sociality structured by the network, the individuals are tied together via technological mediation--writing, the phone, the Internet, the trail of the secret message. (4)

If this is typical of both terrorist organizations and others, how is global terror a different phenomenon? Falk is only a very partial guide here but he does give an imaginative suggestion. He does so not by a focus on the terrorist organization, but rather upon society generally. The historical shift socially towards networked forms of organization is the key.

The simple fact is that globalization's leading aspect is its networking connections, facilitated by high-tech. Terrorist networks are merely a subset of this. And it is this very characteristic--loose-knit interconnection--that reshapes the social world generally; that is transforming the world of modernity we typically take for granted. While Falk observes the bare phenomenal bones of this feature of contemporary social life, it is important to examine the underlying process--how the shift is structured--if the full meaning of 'global terror' is to be addressed.

The structural process that issues in a historic shift towards networking associations is complex. Centred in the revolution of information and communication made possible by those technologies that emanate from the university research institution--high technologies--most social institutions have been transformed over the last two decades. The high sciences intellectualize their objects of concern, or re-describe them in more abstract conceptual-practical terms. They allow an analytical dismemberment of social and natural objects that facilitates their re-combination - with revolutionary implications. The new choices they make possible can only be taken up by moving away from relatively tightly integrated social groups towards the much more loosely connected social network. In short, the technologies effect a break-up of integrated face-to-face communities and families. It is possible to outline this change by identifying actual commodity choices or contents, but from a structural point of view it is more important to see the changes in their bare, formal interconnections.

Communications have always been made up of speech and gesture between tangible persons together with other more abstract forms of communication. The printed word has been a crucial example of the latter, especially over the last century. Now, given the impact of high technology, abstract communications are multiplying. They shift the balance radically towards the social network. This is facilitated by the capacity to technically transmit and represent images as well as the computerized transmission and storage of information. The social structure of the resulting communications, as opposed to their content, is that of the social network. Increasingly we communicate--connect rather than interact with others--via technologies of mediation such as the television and the Internet. And a structural expression of such a network connection is that we do so with those who no longer need to be in our presence. The balance shifts away from modes of association integrated around tangible persons, place and relations between the generations.

Economic production is also transformed by this cultural revolution. The whole of direct production is now framed by the high sciences, and as such is intellectualized. There is a dismembering of the production process and the objects to be transformed in production. Here too the modern need to situate production in a given place dominated by face-to-face social relations is radically modified by the social network, especially the global network.

In general our social institutions take a socially more abstract form. Adam Smith, for example, would find it hard to recognize today's market. It is true that markets have always been a form of network. But the reach of the market and its corrosive power socially is heightened many times over when it is augmented by high-tech communications. These now allow it to reach both across space globally and deep into spheres of the everyday previously largely untouched by market relations. Thus everyday life loses its relative stability and social density as families and communities are attracted to the 'openness' of network associations. Social life takes on a more fleeting quality.

In other words, what Falk observes as the changed character of social life is actually a cultural and social revolution that has been unfolding at least throughout the second half of the twentieth century and which took a more 'mature' shape in the decades of the 1980s and '90s. His observation of certain critical features relevant to understanding September 11 needs to be augmented by an account of this cultural revolution. It issues in a society that, relatively speaking, combines easy movement of persons with limited ties between persons and the generations. It is a society that specializes in forms of the social that work at a distance.

This predisposition to social interconnections that work at a distance also tends to give a definite shape to conflict. In particular, weapons and conflicts that work at a distance fit easily with the structured emotions and sensibilities of global society. This is one consequence of a society more composed of network forms of the social. To be able to push a button to wreak havoc without any direct engagement of persons and without endangering one's own forces is deeply attractive. The weapons that make this possible are not necessarily high tech. The massing of bombs to smash targets in World War II combined war at a distance (via the bomber) with modern weaponry. But there can be no doubt that high-tech weapons that rely on the new communications and the breakthroughs of the high sciences allow this process to be developed and 'perfected'.

But this 'perfect' state of war at a distance should not be regarded as war at all. Here too, the radical nature of the present is captured in the nature of 'war'. For now, with weapons that work at a distance, the object of war is no longer to destroy combatants. Rather it targets the much more general conditions of existence of the enemy. This is precisely the meaning of Total War, of 'war' that knows no limit. Such a form of war acknowledges no ethic of appropriate and inappropriate action. Whether it be nuclear weapons, biological or chemical weapons, high technology facilitates 'Anything Goes'.

It is this context that allows one to give meaning to the concept of 'global terror'. There are various aspects to this.

First, that feature common to all terrorism, the network form of interconnection, is now the predominant aspect of the broad social context from which terrorism emerges. Clearly this is more the case in the developed West than in those societies significantly closed off to such developments.

Second, while this hardly makes us all terrorists, the fleeting mobility of terrorism, whereby terrorists are anywhere and nowhere, is more of a feature of life generally than we would normally acknowledge. It is a structured process that continues to unfold.

Third, weapons that work at a distance facilitate that feature common to most forms of terrorism: the targeting of innocent people in order to achieve an end. Indeed weapons that work at a distance have supported the emergence of this same attitude in many societies in the twentieth century. Certainly the West has been in the forefront of targeting civilians--terrorizing them--in order to achieve its ends. This was a feature of World War II, for example Dresden and most notably Hiroshima, and has become quite general in the practice of high-tech warfare. (5) Recently much has been made of the new precision of high-tech weapons as a qualification to their indiscriminate effects, particularly their effects on civilians. While true enough of some high-tech missiles, the general impact of high-tech weapons is to destroy the means of life. This is so whether the reference is to tactical nuclear weapons or the deployment of degraded radiation materials. It is certainly the case with biological and chemical weapons. These are weapons of terror. They carry us beyond the historic definition of war.

Fourth and crucially, any definition of global terror needs to take account of how global transformations produce contexts that call out, at least for some people, a terroristic response. This is certainly not a justification of terrorism. It is rather an attempt to understand and empathize with a social situation if only because for every terrorist, there are many others who suffer under the impact of similar processes.

At the most general level these changes in context can be described in the same terms as Falk's: a historic shift towards a form of the social based in the social network. Such a change poses ontological problems for individuals and cultures. Historical social settings are thrown into motion; they are dismembered by the global market and individuals and communities experience an ontological threat or anxiety. It is at this level that it is possible to speak of cultural wars. These do not especially belong to either the Left or the Right, and are often simplistic, unrealistic and extreme. We saw one version of them in Bosnia and recent events suggest that we may well experience 'Bosnia' on a global stage. These cultural wars express a desire to establish a social order outside of the disruption to identity posed by globalization.

Many other expressions of such cultural contradictions are also associated with high-tech transformations. The species-identity threat of biotechnology, for example, stands side by side with the implications of a high-tech production system that has radically reduced the need for manual labour, threatening to install what the high-tech capitalists have gleefully termed the 80/20 society. Any grasp of the nature of global terror needs to take into account these ruptures in people's lives; these quite basic assaults on individual and cultural identity, that are integral with broad-ranging structural processes. These ruptures emerge both within developed societies and, via the global market, between developed and less developed societies.

Thus 'actually existing' global society makes possible a further elaboration of the terrorist organization. The network social structure of global society that so values action at a distance has common features with the terrorist organization. Global terror then is differentiated from earlier forms of terror in its symbiotic relationship with the emergent social structure of global society. It is strengthened by its similarities with this context; it draws on it and learns from it.

But global terror is also hostile towards global society. Sometimes this hostility is towards the form of global society because of the damage it causes to the local cultures that the terrorists defend. Sometimes the hostility relates to effects and patterns of life generated by global society--such as mass tourism--that are often abhorrent to more traditional cultures, and sometimes it is towards inequalities assumed and sustained by the dominant forms of power within global structures. Bin Laden combines all of these types of hostility.

War on Terror

There are distinctive characteristics to global terror and they are structural. Hence in the short or medium term they will not fade away. Global terror is one of the forms of politics of the twenty-first century. But if this argument about the meaning of global terror is correct, it does modify quite powerfully how a 'war' on terror might be pursued. Certainly there are the terrorists and their organizations that cannot be ignored. This much is obvious, but is only the start. The crucial question of the availability of high-tech weaponry to terrorists can be used to illustrate the necessary complexity of a 'war on terror'.

The obvious longer term danger of global terrorism lies in the combination of the global network, supported by high-tech communications, with mobile, significantly miniaturized, high tech weapons. Yet the latter have not been, as yet, the means of violence deployed by any terrorist organization. While there seems to be little doubt about an interest in such weapons for some organizations, so far their actual weapons--bombs and aircraft--are, relatively speaking, behind the times. Terrorists, no doubt, are pragmatists when it comes to the use of weaponry. But given availability there is little doubt about which weapons would be most destructive or 'effective'.

If the changed character of contemporary social structure is ignored in the assessment of global terrorism and the war on terror amounts to no more than a war on terrorists--as it does for the United States--it is predictable that the United States will lose. This is because the prospect of global terror taking the most 'developed' form by drawing upon high-tech weapons is not tied to the attitudes and desires of terrorists and their organizations as such. Rather, it is tied to the changed social structure implicit in the emergence of global terror.

Again, Falk gives a useful starting point. He draws on a radically simplified but instructive characterization of globalization deterritorializing states by virtue of the shift to network forms of association. The network, as we have seen, is not territorially bounded. It cuts across the boundaries of nation states. Such social extension is not new and where balanced by other dense community-based associations, it often has positive effects. But with globalization the network now takes a rampant and radically unbalanced form. It is especially promoted by global markets powered by the new forms of extension made possible by high-tech communications. And these processes generally make nation-states more vulnerable to external forces. Their capacity to organize and integrate themselves as states is significantly weakened.

This can be illustrated by the evident vulnerabilities of various Asian states after the crisis of 1997. In a very short period they found they had shifted from being highly prosperous developing states into embattled, possibly failed states because of a crisis in international markets. Or to take another illustration, global markets now support huge international corporations that are often larger and more powerful than the states they operate in. Yet neither of these examples quite pinpoints the underlying process that weakens the nation state.

The more basic issue here is the kind of allegiance that tends to emerge when societies recompose with a greater emphasis upon network associations. The boundaries of the nation-state no longer correspond to those acknowledged by persons in network associations. And of even greater significance, network associations now increasingly displace community- and family-based associations. The nation begins to lose its social 'glue'. This is complicated and exacerbated by economic crises that accompany globalization, but the core problem is cultural. It is a question of identity and social integration.

So, this is to argue that on the one hand structural transformations favour a shift towards looser social interconnection, and that as a consequence older forms of association begin to dissolve. For an indication of how this process affects the availability of high-tech weapons, one need look no further than the collapse of the old Soviet Union to see the relation between the dissolution of states and the proliferation of high-tech weapons--so-called weapons of mass destruction.

The point is that the terrorists are secondary in this process. What is primary is the change in the social structure. This is to say, the developments that make high-tech weapons possible--in particular developments within the high sciences--reflect changes in the social structure that undermine established capacities to hold the state together. This is an expression of a cultural contradiction. And it is de-territorialization, the dissolution of states as their internal social structures take on a more fleeting and unstable form, that potentially allows the availability of those high-tech weapons to terrorists.

A war on terror will need primarily not to be a war at all, but rather a cultural politics: a coming to terms with a cultural form that cannot find a way to renew associations which value the presence of the other; a politics that addresses the crisis of identity that accompanies neo-liberal globalization. (6) For the moment, this aspect of the rise of global terror is ignored because it is too hard to contemplate. Moreover, the United States does not appear itself to be suffering strains arising out of these forces of social dissolution. As far as it is concerned, the dissolution of other states can be interpreted as a failure of statecraft. But this could not be further from the truth--the United States is blinded from a proper assessment of these processes at home by an upsurge of patriotic feeling that engenders a powerful unity.

Falk interprets this unity as a falling back onto an older notion of patriotism appropriate to a territorial state. But there is reason to doubt this interpretation, because there is no reason why a unifying idea or set of ideas cannot be effective within a predominantly networked social order. Indeed, the openness of the networked social interconnection may sit well with new manifestations of fundamentalism. However this may be, what 'works' for the United States is circular. It relies utterly on the perceived ontological threat of terrorism against the United States, and is counterproductive because it blinds the United States to the fuller meaning of global terrorism.


The freedom that George Bush wishes to defend is no longer the limited liberal freedoms established in his country's eighteenth-century constitution that offset the constraints of community-based associations. Rather he champions a more dangerous ontological freedom: the loosely structured networking interconnection, the fleeting association. The further the United States, or any other state, goes down this path the more it will face forces of social dissolution. The reason why the United States finds it so difficult to either feel secure or ensure security relates to these transformations. When it establishes a strategy for home security it is hardly an accident that massive surveillance stands at the centre of its proposals. If community-based associations are an indispensable base for unity in the territorial state, surveillance stands in as a high-tech substitute for their loss with the emergence of the global state. The rampant social network and surveillance are two sides of the same coin.

But surveillance does not integrate the self with social others. It is a strategy that leaves individuals suspicious, vulnerable and open to suggestion. It is a Brave New World entirely appropriate to an information society that can only know its citizens from the 'outside', at a distance. Surveillance goes hand in hand with terror.

Global terror is not usefully understood merely in terms of the terrorist organization. It must be related to its broader context--the emergent change in the social structure that makes that form of terror possible. And a handle on the cultural contradictions of this total phenomenon is crucial to a grasp of how global terror, as well as the general situation for ordinary people, can get much worse. And it will, as long as those who feel that something must be done only see practical action in terms of military attacks, especially with weapons that work at a distance.

This is the time to quietly resist, to pull back and refuse to be drawn into the same whirlwind that gave the world Bosnia. A crusade pursued with high-tech weapons can have no convincing justification. We need to find a way to think differently so we can once more imagine an ethical future. Even those activities that seem beyond the embrace of the ethical--such as warfare--need, once again, to be given limits if there is to be a future after crossing the high-tech divide.

(1) R. Falk, 'Testing Patriotism and Citizenship in the Global Terror War', in K. Booth and T. Dunne, Worlds in Collison: Terror and the Future of Global Order, Palgrave Macmillan 2002, pp. 325-47. I should also note that I have just had drawn to my attention the collection in Theory Culture & Society, Vol. 19 No. 4. A number of writers, from different standpoints address the meanings of September 11 A mote expanded comment would be needed to give these writers, their due However I will note that none of them address the differentiation of the social that is here argued to be crucial for understanding and responding to September 11 An apparent exception to this may be been in the article by Michael Dillon on the 'network society but see footnote 6.

(2.) Falk, p. 329.

(3.) Falk, p, 329.

(4.) See especially G. Sharp, 'Extended Forms of the Social', Arena Journal, no. 1, 1993 for a full discussion of the significance of the social network.

(5) It is noteworthy that a rather conventional academic book on terror published in the 1980s remarks: 'So far as the change in general attitudes towards violence is concerned, the most important factor is undoubtedly the twentieth century phenomenon of total war. The Second World War, in particular, did much to eliminate any distinction between combatant and non combatant by legitimating the deliberate massacre of civilians. To that extent, the horrific threats and actions by terrorists against innocent passengers which are now a familiar part of aircraft hijacks are symptomatic of attitudes toward violence which the West itself has sanctioned, in principle at least'. N. O'Sullivan (ed.), Terrorism, ideology & Revolution, Sussex, Wheatsheaf Books, 1986, p. 16.

(6.) M. Dillon, 'Network Society, Network-Centric Warfare and the State of Emergency' addresses the significance of the network generally in the events of September 11. However he follows Derrida on this question and consequently cannot give any significance to social relations that are grounded in tangible bodies and presence with others. In other words the post-structuralist approach to society and September 11 is unable to avoid giving priority to the fleeting quality of the present, in line with the mobility of signs. The relative fixity of place and identity formed in inter-generational relations does not gel with poststructuralist method or ethics. Given this, the radically unbalanced social network that spawns both terror and the terrorised is uncriticized in this article.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Hinkson, John
Publication:Arena Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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