P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

Terrorism, Technology and Translation

Finn Olesen

We are never confronted with science, technology and society, but with a gamut of weaker and stronger associations; thus understanding what facts and machines are is the same task as understanding who the people are.
Bruno Latour

This paper is concerned with an apparent paradox: To fight terrorism we maintain and solidify a life in terror. In recent years, not least after the September 11 attack in New York, the fight against terrorism has led to unprecedented steps in countering whatever possible action internationally operating terrorists may take. New national and international taskforces are set up; military forces are developing new means of intelligence, surveillance and combat; laws are enforced to allow a new level of scrutinizing and interrogating citizens; particular countries and ethnic groups are paid extraordinary attention based on terror profiles; the transport infrastructures have introduced new security measures; new patterns of behaviour have developed in everyday life, e.g. keeping an eye out for dubious bags or persons.

A statistical survey made in mid-September 2005 shows that 84% of all Danes are affected by terrorism, either in the way they behave in public spaces or in their thinking about everyday life situations. (Behrendtsen 2005). All this, to me, seems to keep us in the grips of a state of terror. Fear, anxiety and watchfulness are thus nurtured through our countermeasures against terrorism. If the initial paradox is correct, we may then involuntarily be teaming up with terrorists in achieving the intended state of terror, and consequently providing the attention they desire.

In this paper I will reflect on how terror can be seen, not just as a mental state in the minds of citizens, but also as a vast network of relations between people, technologies, laws, facts, organisations, and symbols. In order to discuss these interrelated issues, I will unleash the terms 'terrorism' and 'technology'. Both are somehow closely tied to contemporary systems of signification, where the former is narrowed down to signify particular forms of terrorism, whereas the application of the latter seems to produce or to sustain terror. Let me begin by discussing the term 'terrorism' formally and historically.

The Methods of Terror
One all-embracing definition of terrorism, which seems generally applied, is:

The systematic use of coercive intimidation usually to service political ends. It is used to create and exploit a climate of fear among a wider target group than the immediate victims of the violence, and to publicize a cause, as well as to coerce a target into acceding to the terrorists' aims (Modern Thoughts, p. 851).

According to this definition, terrorism is neither an ideology nor a movement, terrorism is a method. Below I will pursue that premise further.

Typical kinds of terrorism are bombings, shooting attacks and assassinations, hostage-taking and kidnapping, and hijacking. It is often feared that nuclear, chemical or bacteriological weapons may be used in terror-acts, but so far few examples are found (Hussein's regime used chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds; in Tokyo the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult used the chemical substance sarin in the subway).

It is also important to distinguish between state and factional terrorism. State terrorism, like Turkey's suppression of Kurds, or Iranian suppression of non-Shiite groups, has been and is generally more lethal than factional terrorism. Often, state terrorism is an antecedent to the latter. Factional terrorism might thus be developed and directed against a state using terrorism to fight its opposition. Such fights may be cases of internal terrorism as opposed to international terrorism spreading across national borders. Today, terrorism is generally international, though, with terror groups looking abroad for weapons, supporters and shelter in friendly states. At the level of state terrorism there is also the methodic terror created by states against other states, most notoriously by the USA and USSR in the post World War II period, during the Cold War, where the terror-balance became a meaningful expression of the delicate balancing of nuclear powers, and the general climate of terror-effected behaviour.

Today, most acts of terrorism have the killing of innocent civilians as a basic feature. This sets it apart from sabotage, which is defined in a Danish dictionary as: 'The destruction of things, buildings, means of transport, goods and machines, to harm a political or economical rival." The word is derived from the French 'sabot' meaning 'wooden clogs', and sabotage initially meant 'destroying something by stamping ones wooden clogs'. Sabotage may of course lead to the killing of innocent civilians by accident, e.g. in an act of arson, but that does not undermine the distinction between terrorism and sabotage. Although the World Trade Center and other buildings were destroyed in the attack, and American finance was paralyzed, it has not been seen as a case of sabotage executed by saboteurs. Rather, it was a case of terrorism intended to spread horror and panic in the minds of large numbers of people.

'Terrorism' is thus an ambiguous term, often defined by the parties in a conflict to characterize their opponent, subsequently creating an Us-Them opposition, where We are defined by not being like Them, i.e. not engaging in terrible, unjustified deeds as they do. (Foucault 1988). While we now consider it a common feature of terrorism to hit civilians, that has not always been a distinct feature of terrorism.

If one looks at its historical roots the term 'terrorism' has been used since the French revolution. In the years 1793-94 Robespierre's government, the 'régime de la terreur', ruled in France, using terror, including mass executions, to maintain the ends of the revolution, that is, modern democracy! Terror was then an instrument to create a revolutionary state. (Nauntofte 2002; Pinkowsky 2003). In the early 20th Century anarchists would use terrorism to fight governments, killing several heads of state. When the Serb Gavrillo Princip shot the Austrian-Hungarian prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, his act was characterized as terrorism although his action was directed against a specific person and not innocent civilians. Princip was seen as a terrorist because he wanted to change society through political violence. In the years following World War II a different kind of terrorism materialized around the world in independence movements fighting their colonial masters. Various nationalist movements applied terrorism as a method in their struggles to obtain this end and to become independent states, e.g. Israel, Kenya and Algeria. Usually, the terrorists went for military, structural or symbolic goals, and civilians were not a direct target of such actions.

This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s with the emergence of a new political kind of terrorism, e.g. Rote Armee Fraktion, RAF, in West Germany, and Action Direct in France. Their ends were nationally defined, e.g. to turn a government against the Vietnam war, or to force it to chose communism over capitalism, not least in light of the cold war. In Italy the Brigate Rosse kidnapped the leader of the Christian Democrats, Aldo Moro, and ended up killing him, because the Italian government did not meet the demands made by the group. A Palestinian group used terrorism in the hostage-taking at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. Here, innocent civilian lives were included in the use of terror, with Israeli athletes being killed, or threatened with death, if the hostage-takers' demands were not met.

In the following years, with the concurrent development of international media coverage and technologies to support police cooperation, the nationalistic focus in terrorist groups was gradually taken over by international ends and international cooperation nested in terror-networks. (Pinkowsky 2003). At this time, any one-dimensional picture of terrorism must be rejected. In 1968, 11 international terror groups were identified, and ten years later there were 55 such groups. (Hoffman 1999). In recent years we have seen e.g. an actor of terror over and in the Scottish town, Lockerbie, where a Pan-Am airplane exploded and crashed in 1988. Two Libyans were eventually pointed out as the terrorists, and with them a still unclear link to the Libyan government; the spreading of sarin by a cult group in the Tokyo Subway in 1995, mentioned above, was again a different kind of terrorist act with no political motive; and yet another kind was the act of terror in the Northern Irish town of Omagh, where a car-bomb exploded in 1998 during a carnival. A radical group, the Real IRA, was suspected of this act, which amongst other things led to the first condemnation of such acts from a Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams.

Of course, September 11 has added a whole new array of meanings to terrorism. The attack was planned and directed by religious fundamentalists, and that helped to produce a strong and easily followed polarization between Us and Them. The terrorists attacked the very symbols of American values, capitalism and military super power, and they killed innocent civilians. The attackers' clear background in Islamic fundamentalism has helped solidify a strong, contemporary conception of terrorism, as a fanatic fight against our world order and religious beliefs, motivated by their - primitive - world views and dogmatic religious beliefs.

Following this, I suggest that we see any dominant definition of terrorism as a figuration that includes humans, institutions, artifacts, facts, organisations, symbols, ideologies, etc. To appreciate the richness of this conception, let me say a few words about its origin in the work of the American social scientist Donna Haraway.

Donna Haraway has demonstrated the merits of trying to dissolve absolute ontological boundaries between material and symbolic dimensions of socio-technical life and practices. She has identified figures and figurations as explicit expressions of "... the tropic quality of all material-semiotic processes, especially in technoscience" (Haraway 1997, p 11). By that she wishes to point out that a figuration is not just a figurative ornamentation of literal speech. Neither are pictorial utterances 'just' images or symbolic expressions of literal meaning. Rather, we live with and through such figurations. Figurations are performative images that one may dwell in, and there are many such figurations (Ibid.; Lykke, Markussen & Olesen 2003). In Haraway's use of images, literal and figurative modes are always intertwined (Bartsch et al. 2001). It entails that rhetorical practices are also in effect political practices.

At present, it seems that the master definition of terrorism is global terrrorism. This figuration has solidified around a list, made by USA after the September 11 attack in 2001, of all their enemies including all organisations that participate in international terrorism. (Nauntofte 2002, p. 86f). To talk about global terrorism brings to life a number of figurations that are embodied and thus able to perform socio-technical work as such on top of human, verbal practice. For instance, the axis of evil, which very effectively, and instantly positioned North-Korea, Iran and Iraq as our most dreaded enemies. Osama Bin Laden may also be seen as a figuration. We are not sure that the actual person is still alive, but the figuration is doing things in the world in symbolic, political and military contexts. In a rare video with Osama Bin Laden after the September 11 terror attack, he was seen in conversation with other Al-Qaida members. (Fisk 2005) He talks about their expectations during the planning of the action: "Our hope was to destroy 3 to 4 floors" of the Twin Towers. The scale of the actual destruction, and the massive international reactions, changed the figuration of Osama Bin Laden from a dangerous terror leader to the most evil and wanted man on earth. Anti-terror programmes are fighting Bin Laden, he serves as symbol for Muslim anti-American movements and recruitment, etc.

To be included on the list of global terrorists is obviously bad, but it is equally bad to be excluded from having access to the list, for instance, to be able to suggest different views about international and national terrorism.

Countries like Israel and Russia have demonstrated that access to the list makes a difference as to what counts as international and national issues. The Israeli government wanted Hamas and Islamic Jihad put on the list. These organisations were not there in the first edition, because US found the Palestinian problem to be a national matter. But the organisations were added to the revised list after Israeli pressure. The result has been that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are also weaved into the mesh of global terrorism. (Nauntofte 2002, p. 86ff)

Let me turn to 'technology', to discuss that term as well. The discussion will use an article written in a NATO context as its point of departure. Here it seems evident that a specific, modernist concept of human-technology relations is at play, sustaining the paradoxical situation suggested in the introduction, that the fight against terrorism maintains a state of terror. Narrow conceptions of technology may thus stop us from seeing the work of socio-technical systems to uphold terror in everyday life.

Combating Terrorism Through Technology
In a web-based newsletter, NATO News from Autumn 2004, some of the recent military leanings in the fight against international terrorism are sketched out in an article by Marshall Billingslea, who is Assistant Secretary General of NATO's Defence Investment Division, and Chairman of NATO's CNAD and the NC3 Board. The title of the article is: 'Combating terrorism through technology.' (Billingslea 2004). The first section sets the scene for NATO actions:

The destructive capacity of terrorist groups is growing steadily as terrorists prove themselves adept at using modern technology for their own ends. NATO allies are working together to develop new and improved technologies to combat this increasingly sophisticated threat.

The reader is informed that at a recent NATO summit meeting in Istanbul, 2004, the leaders endorsed a 'Programme of Work for Defence against Terrorism'. The programme was put forward by NATO's National Armament Directors, who meet twice annually in a group called Conference of National Armament Directors, CNAD. The aim of the programme is to promote national expertise and research programmes to create new and improved technology in the fight against terrorism. Primarily the programme aims at facilitating systems that will help to prevent particular kinds of terror attacks in the future; to supply the military with new and sophisticated technologies to trace and prevent terrorism; and to track down terrorists. More explicitly, the initiative is directed toward improving the capability of NATO's military systems in particular problem domains: to prevent terrorist bombs from exploding or doing harm; to airdrop special operations forces with precision; to protect airplanes and helicopters against missile attack; to protect harbours and ships against explosives carried by speedboats or underwater divers; to improve protection against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons; to implement intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition of terrorists; and to combat mortar attacks.

To make the argument about an insufficient view on human-technology relations in the NATO initiative, let me take a closer look at the problem domain which aims at implementing intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition of terrorists. This domain underlines the dominant viewpoint on human-technology relations. A lengthy quote will serve to underpin my argument:

Anonymity and the ability to launch attacks at a time and place of their choosing are tactical advantages utilised by terrorists. NATO is working on reducing or eliminating those advantages. [...] In addition to a variety of technological measures that are being explored, the NATO Research & Technology Organisation and the NATO Science Committee are jointly exploring crucial areas in the behavioural sciences, such as "human factors analysis" and the psychological aspects of terrorism (Billingslea 2004).

In Billingslea's sketch of NATO's programme of Work for Defence against Terrorism a typical modernist assumption about technology is advanced. Technology and humans are separate phenomena with separate logics and logistics involved. Psychological factors are 'additional' factors to technological one. Hence, either we look into the technological realm of the fight against terrorism, or we look into the human factors including human psychology. The question then becomes: What plans are in the minds of terrorist and what are the technological means to execute those plans? How can we develop weapon systems to fight the - often - primitive technologies of terrorists, and how can we trace and calculate their thoughts? There are several good reasons to be skeptical of this stance, in spite of its dominant position today.

The Danish researcher on international affairs and terrorism, Birthe Hansen, has suggested that contemporary terrorism is "post-Fordist" in its approach to spreading terror. (Hansen, p. 19). Fordism is used to describe the 20th century as the industrial age with Henry Ford's assembly line as a basic metaphor. That age was characterized by mass culture, standardized goods, and uniform, monotonous work controlled by top-down management. Since the 1980s, however, Fordism has been supplanted or replaced by post-industrial society, information society, individualized social formations, multi-cultural life forms, etc. Let me add, that the event of postmodernism has been seen by many as a license to subvert any given set of regularities to obtain new and unprecedented social states and events.

Hansen argues, that contemporary terrorists have demonstrated proficiency in developing technology and means of productions based on the post-Fordist approach. Billingslea testifies to that in his article: Modern terrorists have shown "...the expertise to fabricate explosive devices out of a wide range of objects - from mobile phones to doorbells - and materials - from military explosives to commercial dynamite to improvised fertilizer mixes."

The September 11 attack provided evidence for this new approach on several accounts. First, an airplane is usually associated with being a huge, airborne carrier of humans and things, a fast and reliable means of transportation. With the September 11 attack, the plane was translated by terrorists (and later the world) into a highly explosive device, almost a self-contained cybernetic system with a clear, preset goal: to hit particular concrete buildings, symbolizing American values such as capitalism and military power. Humans, things, and symbols were mixed into a hitherto unknown array of practices. Furthermore, some mundane technical devices underwent the same transformation. Stanley knives, usually associated with crafts as a means to cut into things, were turned into weapons and threats to cut into humans. Razor blades, normally used for shaving off beards, but not to cut the skin, were also turned into deadly cutting weapons. It is significant that these devices had not been considered weapon beforehand in this setting. Nonetheless, they were immediately translated as such in the hijacking situation. In other words, the translation of these technological devices from everyday inoffensive tools to murder weapons was done not only by the terrorists, but also by the passengers. If this two-stage translation had not been successful the hijacking could well have had a different outcome. The September 11 attack was marked by another fusion as well, besides the mix of tool uses. Two well-known styles of terror, hijacking and suicide-bombing, were fused into one with the crashing into the twin-towers of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. (Birthe Hansen 2001).

Hansen has applied a terminology, normally related to commercial product-improvement, from the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, to reflect on the September 11 attack. That enables her to talk about the introduction of new products, so far unknown to the consumers, and the introduction of new methods of production in a domain. Hence, airplanes were turned into bombs, commonplace tools were used as hand weapons, and hijacking and suicide-bombing were mixed to become a new method of terrorism. And I would add that flight training courses and flight-simulators, usually meant to improve pilots' skills in the name of safer flying, were used by terrorists to learn to hit particular targets.

In recent years a new conception of human-technology relations, somewhat similar to Hansen's, has developed within the social sciences. I find it a convincing approach to understanding contem-porary socio-technical life, including the recent acts of terror. To give an idea as to what this approach involves, it is fruitful to discuss a distinction introduced by the French sociologist, Bruno Latour.

Translating technology
In modernist terminology new technological systems are often placed in abstract, purified categories. They may simply be classified as 'new technology' e.g. when a technical system is taken as a means to make a practical domain more efficient. This is also what NATO intends with its anti-terror programme. In contrast to such ideas I claim that 'new technology' in practice is an effect of a chain of complicated, dynamic processes, that happen in various places and ways. 'New technology' is what is left, when socio-technical processes of delegating responsibility have ceased, to use the words of Bruno Latour (Latour 1986).

The fight against terrorism, illustrated by the NATO approach, demonstrates both the military and political commitments to establish international standards for anti-terror technology, and the underlying modernist anticipation that 'new technology' will improve our means to fight terrorism.

To make this claim operational I suggest diffusion and translation as central models of technology, adapted and molded from Latour's proposals for a sociological understanding of power associations. The diffusion model encompasses the NATO view on technology, and the translation model underpins my own understanding of the dissemination of technical systems in society.

The diffusion model makes it possible to speak abut three moments in the circulation of technological artifacts and systems: 1) It is an original power or reason, that initiates the circulation of new technology; 2) This power is turned into a kind of inertia which is conserved during the entire transmission; and 3) The work of a social mediator may slow down or speed up the completed circulation. If we look out for these moments, it will be evident that there are rational human subjects, material objects and a mediating, social world, and consequently a number of a priori dichotomies to count on. Following this model, Osama Bin Laden and a few others, masterminded the September 11 attack. This very plan was transmitted in the secretive network of terror, where it was acted upon during the entire operation by those who hijacked the airplanes and used them as bombs.

In the translation model, on the other hand, one will assume that all participants, all agents - both humans and non-humans - receive and translate an original plan in accordance with their own projects and interests. What they dispatch to the next link in the chain is no longer 'the same' as that which they received, i.e. there is no simple transmission going on. The fate of the 'original' plan is always in the hands of later users, since every link will translate and transform what they receive to make it fit with their own plans and projects. One is reminded of the Italian aphorism "Traduttore, traditore": The one who translates is a traitor (to the original text). But you can do nothing but translate if the text is to be passed on! In the process of translating a plan to attack the World Trade Center and passing it on, people and artifacts get enrolled in the socio-technical network in which such secret plans are at work. Not just facts and artifacts, like personal identification, or Stanley knives and airplanes, but also humans are changed in the course of actions, e.g. from Al-Qaida supporters, to students in Germany with a mission, to pilot trainees in the USA, to hijackers, to martyrs.

Hence, facts, artifacts and people must be studied concurrently if we want to understand socio-technical practices. People, facts and artifacts are constantly being delegated new positions and roles in networks of politics and terror. This model cannot excuse the horrible things that were done on September 11. But it might serve to assist our understanding of the initial paradox - that the fight against terror seems to install a state of terror. Instead of assuming that things and humans belongs to separate realms, we can look out for particular socio-technical associations, that keep social agency in narrow lines of behaviour, e.g. terror laws that censor critical thinking, or international harbour protection fences that stop leisure activities, or model-based predictions of possible sites of terror-acts, which scare us off from visiting foreign countries and people.

Terrorism, as such, has become a very important figuration to define normality, or Us, as opposed to extremism, or Them. As argued above, 'global terrorism' is the dominant figuration to set its marks on the life we lead in important ways, by guiding us around, and determining our values and political inclinations. The tragic certainty is, however, that we will learn about new meanings of terrorism in the years to come, new figurations - often the hard way. In light of that - inexpensive - prediction, it seems wise to avoid the trap of developing strategies to fight terrorism without a keen eye on the historical diversity of the concept and phenomena. Otherwise we may not be able to develop relevant strategies to relate to future cases of terrorism, simply because our conception of terrorism is too narrow to encompass such cases.

To see technology simply as a rational means to fight terrorists and their actions will probably not lead to the intended ends. If terrorists are post-fordists in their treatment of technology, they have no problems in acting, e.g. as human missile-guides, or to crash computers to install socio-technical systems of anxiety in particular social groups. When we begin to see for ourselves, that technology is embedded in the social fabric, maintaining it, regulating it, translating it, and vice versa, then we can perhaps begin to grasp the dynamic workings of socio-technical agencies in current life, committing us to the ends of terror, by sustaining terror in everyday life situations.

Hence, the initial paradox may be confronted, if we want to, and broader interpretations of social values and world orders can be made. To look out for the practical and effective work of dominant figurations, and attempting to broaden our ideas about dynamic human-technology relations, may help to frustrate the effects of contemporary terror.


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