An excerpt from
The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present
W. J. T. Mitchell
Cloning represents a turning point in human history—the crossing of an important line separating sexual from asexual reproduction and the first step toward genetic control over the next generation.
There is, therefore, only one principle in Islam, one principle that is not one, but double: “La religion et la terreur,” says Hegel in French, religion and terror.
It is easy to forget that in the months before the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, the dominant story in the American media was not terrorism but cloning. The front-page story in the New York Times on September 11, 2001, was, in fact, a report from the National Academy of Sciences urging that cloning and human stem cell research be “publicly funded and conducted under established standards of open scientific exchange, peer review, and public oversight.” This report supported a national policy quite different from the one that Bush had outlined in a major speech on August 9, 2001, which prohibited any new development of stem cell lines from human embryos and signaled a deep hostility to all forms of cloning, both reproductive and therapeutic. Bush ignored the numerous warnings throughout 2001 that terrorists were poised to attack the United States because he was concerned with the stem cell issue—“one of the most profound of our time.” The debate over human cloning was the top “continuing story” of the moment. Bush’s ratings were below 50 percent as his handpicked Council on Bioethics recommended policies opposed by most of the scientific and medical community, and supported by Christian conservatives.
September 11 changed all that. The horror of cloning was replaced in public consciousness by the more immediate experience of terror. Or perhaps “replaced” is too strong a word. Cloning was driven off the front pages for a time by more urgent and seemingly less speculative dangers, but it remained as a crucial wedge issue. It resurfaced, for instance, at the Democratic Convention in July of 2004. Ronald Reagan, Jr., the son of the former president, gave an eloquent speech in defense of therapeutic (not reproductive) cloning and stem cell research, and John Kerry’s acceptance speech included a promise to be a president who “believes in science,” an implicit contrast to George W. Bush’s “faith-based” science policy, driven by Christian fundamentalist agendas.
Meanwhile the images of cloning and terrorism began to merge in popular fantasy. Osama bin Laden was rumored to be cloning Hitler to become an adviser to his inner circle. Five hundred elite Aryan SS storm troopers were reportedly being cloned in the mountains of Tora Bora, their blond hair and blue eyes coupled with perfect American accents making them ideal agents for al Qaeda. A much larger host of cloned storm troopers marched off to their destruction in the “clone wars” chapter of the Star Wars saga. And a Google search for images of “clones” and “terrorists” invariably dredged up an array of faceless, anonymous, homogeneous warriors. In advertisements, clones of the best-selling iPhone were depicted as shields carried by oncoming waves of masked storm troopers.
The most explicit convergence of cloning and terrorism in popular culture was Aaron McGruder’s cartoon series on the Kerry campaign’s support of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. McGruder envisioned an “October surprise” just before the 2004 election in which Osama bin Laden appears on TV calling all jihadists to engage in stem cell research. Bin Laden’s theory is that by encouraging Americans to clone themselves, they will age more quickly (a common fate with cloned organisms), leading the U.S. army to be staffed by ailing senior citizens. The moral of the story is then drawn by a Fox News commentator: any scientist caught doing stem cell research should be regarded as an illegal enemy combatant, and John Kerry is clearly an unwitting tool of Osama bin Laden.
But similar (and more consequential) convergences of cloning and terrorism could be found in the philosophical deliberations of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Leon Kass, the chair of the commission, portrayed cloning as a process that provokes an “instinctive revulsion,” leaving little room for ethical reasoning on a complex moral and scientific issue. Kass compared cloning to bestiality, cannibalism, incest, and rape, and concluded by urging us to steer a “middle course” between the Brave New Worlders (the cloners) and the Osama bin Ladens (the terrorists). Cloning and terrorism converge as forms of extremism and are merged as forms of radical evil, the former loaded with sexual and reproductive taboos, the latter with demonic, even Satanic overtones.
Cloning, like terrorism, is an iconic concept, loaded with ideological and mythic connotations. It is not merely an abstract or technical idea, but conjures up associations with abortion, test-tube babies, reproduction without sex or sexual difference, Nazi eugenics, and the commodification of organs and organ donors. It has the ability, then, to mobilize deep antipathy across the political spectrum, arousing both secular anxieties about “unnatural” processes and religious taboos on “playing god” with the creation and destruction of life. The figure of the clone has become synonymous with images of mutants, replicants, cyborgs, and mindless, soulless masses of identical warriors, ready to sacrifice themselves in suicide missions. What might be called “clonophobia” embraces a host of anxieties, from the specter of the uncanny double and the evil twin to the more generalized fear of the loss of individual identity.
If the so-called War on Terror was the dominant foreign policy melody of the Bush era, then, what could have been called the “Clone Wars” provided the baseline foundation for domestic policy. The war on terror united the faith-based community with a larger popular majority traumatized by the attacks of 9/11. Meanwhile, the stem cell issue fortified the faith-based community’s hostility toward science, especially the sciences concerned with life and reproduction, and coupled it with suspicions on the left about the commodification of life forms by technology. Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political advisor, made cloning the signature issue of the first year of Bush’s presidency. From a political standpoint, however, the shift from cloning to terror was the greatest good fortune the Bush administration could have wished for. Instead of fighting an indecisive battle over bioethics, it drew the winning hand in a holy war on terrorism. While cloning is debatable, a matter for serious ethical reflection, almost no one is willing to take the side of terrorism.
The iconic ideas of cloning and terrorism are not merely linked, then, by historical coincidence, but are connected by a deep cultural logic that began to manifest itself visibly after 9/11. This logic has roots that go down deeper than the era of the Bush presidency. They are symptoms of a comprehensive cultural formation summarized by Michel Foucault as “the birth of biopolitics,” and of a period that extends back into the Cold War era that I have called “the age of biocybernetic reproduction.” Biocybernetics is the historical successor to Walter Benjamin’s characterization of the modern era (in the 1930s) as the “age of mechanical reproduction,” a period defined by the twin inventions of assembly line industrial production, on the one hand, and the mechanical reproduction of images in the technologies of photography and cinema, on the other. In the age of biocybernetics, the assembly line begins to produce, not machines, but living organisms and biologically engineered materials; meanwhile, image production moves from the chemical-mechanical technology of traditional photography and cinema to the electronic images of video and the digital camera. The Turing machine and the double helix model of the DNA molecule might be taken as the emblems of the twin revolutions of biocybernetics—the decoding of the secret of life and the encoding of information, actions, and communication in the language of machines, i.e., the computer.
While it is relatively clear why the clone serves as a figurehead of biocybernetics, the twin revolutions of informational and biological science, the computer and the petri dish, it may not be evident how international terrorism fits the biocybernetic model. Terrorism has been a well-established tactic of warfare, insurgency, and the manipulation of mass emotions since at least the French Revolution, and probably before that. But contemporary terrorism has consistently been described in the framework of a bioinformatic model, as a social phenomenon that is comparable to an infectious disease. This is partly because the fact of new media and the Internet makes images of terrorist violence much more rapidly and broadly disseminated, as if a plague of images had been launched. Terrorism is so routinely analogized to things like sleeper cells, viruses, cancers, and autoimmune disorders that one is tempted to say that, at the level of imagery and imagination, all terrorism is bioterrorism, even when it uses traditional forms of violence such as explosives. (One should recall here that the anthrax attacks that followed soon after 9/11 were immediately assumed to be acts of Arab terrorism; it is more likely that they were homegrown.) The key thing about terrorism is not the weaponry employed (box cutters were the only thing the 9/11 hijackers required) but the psycho-biological assumptions that underlie it. Nonstate terrorism is a tactic of psychological warfare designed to breed anxiety and fear in a population; it is not a direct military engagement like invasion, siege, or occupation, but the staging of relatively limited acts of violence, usually against symbolic targets, designed to demoralize a population, and incite a reaction (generally an overreaction) by the police and military apparatus of a nation-state. Its aim, as Robert Pape has shown, is not conquest, but the influencing of political changes in established regimes—from the lifting of an occupation to the incitement of a civil war or revolution. “Shock and awe” and the murder of innocent noncombatants are the crucial elements in a terror campaign, whether or not it is state sponsored, not direct military engagements. If all wars deploy images and the destruction of images as attacks on the collective imagination of a population, terrorism is a tactic that operates primarily at the level of the imaginary. The attacks on the World Trade Center had no military significance, but were the production of a spectacle designed to traumatize a nation.
The concept of a “war on terror,” in this light, is revealed as a highly dubious fantasy, a form of asymmetrical warfare that treats the enemy as an emotion or a tactic (as if one could make a “war on flanking maneuvers”). And in fact the very idea of a war on terror is derived from earlier, explicitly figurative expressions that treat war as simply a metaphor for something like “maximum effort.” The phrase was probably first used, as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has pointed out, in the late nineteenth century’s “war on tuberculosis,” and it has been applied more generally as a “war on disease.” (The fact that terrorism is so frequently compared to a disease independently of the war metaphor should be noted here.) The metaphor was updated by Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” and Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” (another war, incidentally, that has proved to be endless and unwinnable). All these “wars” were properly understood in quotation marks, as serious efforts to solve systemic problems in public health. LBJ did not envision the bombing of poor neighborhoods as the way to conduct a war on poverty. (The drug war, on the other hand, is well on its way down the slippery slope toward literalization as military action.)
Of course innumerable commentators have insisted that the War on Terror is no metaphor, and in a sense they are right. It is a metaphor that has been made literal, an imaginary, fantastic conception that has been made all too real. And this is the key to the historic novelty of the postû9/11 era. It is not that terrorism was anything new; the radical innovation was the war on terror and terrorism. There is a striking parallel in this regard to the historic novelty of reproductive cloning in animals and humans. The idea of creating a living replica of an organism, an “imitation of life,” has been a goal of art, aesthetics, and image technology at least since Aristotle. But the clone is a literalization of this goal, a realization of what was previously imaginary. Modern advances in biotechnology have made what was previously “only a metaphor” into a literal, technical possibility.
Once established as a technical and material actuality, however, cloning has been remetaphorized as a figure of speech for all kinds of processes of copying, imitation, and reproduction—as, in other words, an “image of image-making,” or what I have elsewhere called a “metapicture.” The tool for copying parts of an image in Adobe Photoshop may be represented with the tiny icon of a rubber stamp, but it is named the “clone stamp” tool. The clone and cloning have become cultural icons that go far beyond their literal reference to biological processes. But it is the new reality and literalness of cloning technology that underwrites the proliferation of its metaphoric uses. Small wonder that the phrase “cloning terror” comes naturally to the lips as a way of describing the way that the war on terror has had the effect, not of defeating or reducing the threat of terrorism, but exactly the opposite. Of course, many terrorists have been killed. But why does it seem as if every time the killing of a terrorist is announced, it is quickly followed by an account of the more numerous innocent people who had to be killed along with them? Why are there as many stories of “mistakes” with drone attacks as there are successful targeted assassinations? Is conventional war (bombing, invasion, occupation) the proper cure for the disease known as terrorism, or is it one of those cures that has the effect of making the disease worse? Why does it seem like every tactical victory in the war on terror (e.g., the destruction of the city of Fallujah in Iraq) seems to contribute to a strategic defeat for the overall goal of democratization and “winning hearts and minds”? The perverse logic of a war that seems to make the enemy stronger, more determined, and more numerous is reminiscent of the earlier perversity of an American war in which the U.S. military could talk about “destroying” villages in order to “save” them.
If the Bush administration presided over an era of wars on cloning and terror, the arrival of the Obama administration has been punctuated by decisions that break more or less sharply with both of these “fronts.” Obama has basically “undeclared” the wars on cloning and terrorism. He publicly announced on March 9, 2009, his decision to reverse his predecessor’s ban on federal financing of stem cell research, much to the consternation of the antiabortion movement. By April 5, 2009, news organizations began to notice an unspoken parallel in the conspicuous silence surrounding the War on Terror. As Hillary Clinton noted when asked about this disappearance of the phrase: “I have not heard it used. I have not gotten any directive about using it or not using it. It is just not being used.” It is significant that no public announcement of the end of the war on terror was made by the president or any of his aides. The issue was finessed, no doubt to avoid the inevitable Republican accusation of being “soft of terrorism.” Perhaps even more to the point: the War on Terror could not be declared over because it is not over, and never can be. The euphemism that has replaced it, “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO), is a bureaucratic obfuscation. We may find it necessary at some point in the future to bring the image of a War on Terror back in the interests of truth in packaging. The United States is likely to have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come, and there is always the chance of a future attack on the United States that would completely reopen, and probably reliteralize and revitalize, the metaphor of a War on Terror. It is a dangerously stirring phrase, the poetry of which has not been exhausted. Nor has the image of the terrible, horrible clone, the “rough beast” that Yeats spied “slouching toward Bethlehem,” been fully exorcised. The clone and the terrorist are likely to be with us into the indefinite future, and that is why insofar as this book is a history, it is one that extends into the present. It is, in fact, an iconology of the present, an attempt to sound the dominant verbal and visual images of the epoch that opened on 9/11, and continues to unfold in our time.