The NATO 3 and the Phantom Menace
The 2012 NATO summit, like all such summits, was a political spectacle. It was a symbolic image-motif designed to legitimate its own fiction. It was produced as a means of ideological reinforcement—all of the politicking within it was incidental and secondary, and could have happened anywhere, and more austerely. What mattered for the summit was its public appearance, the abstract and metaphysical communiqué that it represented. Its grandiosity, its pomp, its violence—they all were there to indicate something beyond its declared purpose, beyond its official function. The camera and the media outlets were its vehicles of production—they together were its Maker, the joint-source that instilled it with the breath of life. Every widely recognized form, every interpellated identity, every implanted meaning was given by this divining wind, this photographic equivalent of the Voice that enthralled Abraham and Moses. And like those ancients, the summit’s preachers and soothsayers took occasion to identify their Arch-Enemy, their Luciferian antithesis: the Terrorist.
The spectacular form of the summit was not denied by state-prosecutors during the trial against the NATO 3—during closing statements the state argued that the motivating condition that brought the defendants to Chicago was the fact that the city had been put by NATO upon “the world stage”. Stage is here a most appropriate term—its linkage to the theatre and dramaturgy could not be more inadvertently honest and accurate. But the inversion evident here would be astounding if we had not seen it all before. While blocs of extant power had manufactured a spectacle through which to display themselves, they turn it over on its head to proclaim that there was an underhanded desire to appropriate the stage, and that this attracted the Arch-Enemy to the limelight. The muted implication is that it is low and base to want to utilize such a spectacle for the purpose of spectacular violence. But this is the moment of high hypocrisy—such summits are nothing other than displays of violent power and social dominancy. The conjuring of a horde of the Fallen into the equation, through the manufacture of a spectacle of Terrorism, was the summoning of the summit’s own refracted mirror image, albeit of a lesser and imaginary kind. It was the setting up of an image of an Ultimate Other, which doubles implicatively as a justification for ‘whatever is necessary’ to ‘create security’ and ‘preserve order’. The free-pass of Terrorism was thus (operationally) not at first a fundamentally repressive but a productive affair—there was nothing to proclaim as a risk and a target until there had been a manufactured spectacle to point to. Once it was stitched into place however, it was allowed to sprawl onto and over other forms, forms that preceded Terrorism’s new shape—while it had already taken over the militant Islamist in the global ‘theatre’, it now consumed the anarchist on the domestic ‘stage’, absorbing it like an amoeboid predator. This digestion and incorporation process marks the operational transition from production to repression—it signals the deployment and application of the manufactured spectacle of Terrorism.
If spectacle consists of the production of reality and the mediation of social relations by way of images and symbolic exchanges, then one of the state-prosecutors in the NATO 3’s trial was perhaps more frank than he might have realized when he said, referring to images, that “this is how people understand the world”. Of course he was referring to the media-image’s importance with respect to the allegation that the defendants intended to appropriate the “world stage” provided by the NATO summit, but the prosecutor did so without seeming to grasp that such a stage is always-already co-extensive with an obscene field of organized force. Were not the thousands of police and other government agents deployed that weekend in Chicago an attempt to capture the world’s attention, on a constructed stage, through an audacious display of violence, through belligerent symbolism? But this obscene underside hardly negates the prominence of the spruced up theatrical shell. Theatrical is even an understatement—it was produced cinematically. We can clearly remember Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy portrayed ‘on the frontlines’, dressed in his whites, with his helmet and mask (the new masks on all CPD helmets was one of the minor security widgets that required politico-economic justification), directing his ‘troops’ against throngs of civilian protestors whom he’d ordered to be beaten with batons. He was framed in some pictures as though he was pushing his frontlines over trenches in France in the First World War, and in others like a frantic Napoleon, fighting on his heels at Waterloo. But historical references are probably less appropriate than fictional ones—he was made more to resemble something akin to Mel Gibson’s (historically re-written) portrayal of William Wallace in Braveheart—a hyper-masculinized macho-boss, authoritarian and fearless, and ready to show his mettle and shed blood alongside his subservient, dependent ranks. It hardly needs saying that what actually happened there was different—there was no real danger at the summit to police, and anyway the Superintendent was surrounded at all times by many rows and walls of officers, most of whom were decked out in full riot-gear and prepared psychically for conflict that day. His moments of ‘frontline action’ were poses, performances; he is a metropolitan political figure and not the ‘lawman’ of some forgotten Wild West town, as a reader of the news at the time might have surmised. But what happened was less important than what was presented as an image, or as a stream of images. In the context of spectacle, the image subverts and conquers the reality.
It has been argued elsewhere that a conflict of interests emerges within spectacular society, in which the requirements of the spectacle’s maintenance and reproduction eliminate the ability of the state to plan and act strategically. Retort has cited the long-standing U.S. support of Israel as a prime example of the spectacle-policy conflict. We do not disagree that such conflicts exist, but it is still possible for the state to act strategically within conditions of spectacle, albeit with the requirement that more nuanced image-exchanges and convoluted strategies be deployed. For Nicholas De Genova, the spectacle of Terrorism serves, within such fields as immigration and border security, as an instrument of assimilation and normalization along binary lines of good and bad migrant—between acceptable and unacceptable interpellations. The discourse occurs at a moralistic and patriotic level of ‘national security’, he argues, but its underlying function is the regulation of the flow of so-called illegal labor over the Mexican-American border (and other borders), which U.S. capitalists require in order to sustain regimes of accumulation. Terrorism serves a similar function with respect to good protestors and bad protestors. During closing statements in the NATO 3 trial, the state made the claim that the ‘peaceful’ protest and (laughable) strike of the Chicago Teacher’s Union in September 2012 was a kind of golden standard of how so-called protest is to be conducted. But the ‘strike’ itself was over a petty contractual disagreement, and the ‘protest’ was orchestrated along ideologically and politically ‘safe’ lines by the Chicago Labor aristocracy—the demonstration was self-policed, and pre-arranged to conclude at a set time. It was itself an item of spectacle, and, although it claimed victory at the time of its thrust, it was retaliated against a year later when Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed nearly 50 public schools in a dramatic round of privatization. When this retaliation came, the CTU was prepared to do almost nothing, and they accepted the school closings with their tails between their legs. Some golden standard this appears to be.
But the prosecution did not stop their ideological tirade there—one state’s-attorney, in a ridiculous shouting fit during closing statements, declared passionately his disdain at how, according to him, the defendants had “crouched behind the legacy of non-violent protest” attributable to such go-to icons as “Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, and Mother Theresa”, adding a charged rhetorical question: “HOW DARE THEY?” It is interesting to note that apart from his mention of a conservative pro-Lifer nun, two of the three examples given are individuals who attempted to take non-violent protest to its limits, and who were assassinated as a reward—apparently for the state, the image of the murdered martyr is the appropriate face of dissent, with all others being illegitimate and Terroristic. It is no accident then that a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hung over Judge Thaddeus Wilson’s head during the pre-trial hearings, in the high-security courtroom complete with glass encasement. Is King’s gaze not intended there as an admonition, as a paternalistic reminder of the ‘proper’ way to dissent, chastising from the grave anyone who takes matters more into their own hands? And wasn’t Dr. King’s immortalized image also trapped, with the defendants, behind that bullet-proofed security shell, appropriated and enslaved by the very power that King sought to resist? But this love of martyrs on behalf of the state produces an awkward encounter with the Islamist suicide-bomber, who, like Dr. King, pursues a notion of freedom unto death, and puts belief before life. Is the difference really to be that for the state, the only legitimate martyr is the martyr who dies alone, and at the hand of another power? Is this not the Christian image of the martyr, the submissive moralist who seeks justice and vengeance in another world, and who willingly takes his enemies’ abuses on both cheeks? Is it not antithetical to a more robust notion of protest, dissent, and struggle? Is it not a blatant rejection of the pursuit of social justice in the here and now, and thus a conservatizing move? And is this underlying notion of proper resistance recognizable too in the recent re-imagining of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, through which even Barrack Obama may now point to that former ‘Terrorist’ as a symbolic role model, about whom mainstream commercial films may now be made for liberal Western audiences? Isn’t such production a mechanism through which Nelson Mandela falls, by way of a shared encapsulation, into line with the likes of Steve Jobs and other so-called ‘great men’, about whom trite and predictable blockbusters are churned out shortly after their deaths? Such are some of the effects of the good-bad divide.
But there is also an effect of intensification. Once the divide has been established, once the Terrorist is made distinct from the protestor by a strict line of demarcation, then the two sides may polarize more freely without seeming to feel the tension caused by the stretching of the spectrum apart like the ends of a rubber-band. The spectrum itself is replaced by a ratio, a stark division with a clean breaking point between its halves. Now isolated, the two sides may be characterized according to different criteria, may be viewed with different lenses—there is no longer a need to treat them as elements of a self-same scheme of variation. In line with this, one may be legitimized while the other is de-legitimized and ostracized from an established field of social-ideological acceptance. Nothing was more obvious throughout the NATO 3 trial than the attempt by the state to impose this division, and to therefore prove a kind of tautological guilt on the defendant’s behalf, almost irrespective of the actual charges and evidences. Constantly the prosecution deviated from the logic of its own argumentation in order to play a spectacle game of vague imagery and suggestive terminology. It was a desperate attempt to inflict upon any squares on the jury a disciplined trauma and fear response—the prosecutors constantly referred to the Chicago Police as society’s “last line of defense”, thus giving the impression that indeed society had been whittled down to its last line, implying that shadowy barbarian hordes were practically banging at the gates of civilization as the prosecutor spoke. It was an attempt to inject the affair with a vague but fatal urgency, to distract everyone from a thorough analysis of the facts and claims, to bring a monster into the courtroom, and to perch it on the shoulders of the defense. It was shameful, but practiced and developed. Such practices have become normalized within the so-called justice system, and whole academic canons exist alongside it as a discursive imposition of their Truth and efficacy. The NATO 3’s prosecutors were neither fools nor innovators—they were merely towing the established line (in the double sense of the word), as is their formal duty as agents of the state.
Once the caesura between the good and the bad protestor, between the Terrorist and the ‘demonstrator’, has been realized as an ideological Truth, a new struggle emerges over which side entities fall on. In this way, and with respect to notions of legitimacy and illegitimacy, we can imagine the divide as a vertical one in which the ideologically dismissed are allowed to descend from the realm of the legitimate down to the underworld of illegitimacy. As with the Fall from Heaven, the Arch-Enemy undergoes a demonic transformation as it gravitates away from the True light of Power. The authority that asserts its own dominancy by way of its own Word, through Law, is here the Godhead that inscribes the Fallen with the mark of exclusion. But this authority is nothing but a collusion between state actors and capitalist classes—the absoluteness of the division that it strikes between the good and the bad is only a reflection of a class interest. It is hardly absolute in fact—rather it is utterly contingent. Thus the importance of the injunction to conform to the divisionary schema: without it, open revolt might seem plausible. The line between the acceptable and the unacceptable is thus also a barrier—a dike intended to hold back already fermented forces that only lay still because they are not aware of their own possibility. The revolutionary impulse, or even simply the impulse to active resistance, is thus contained like a great Anti-Leviathan behind the gates of Hell, though here there is another metaphysical inversion: Hell in this case is not the locked-up outside, but rather the interior of the actual world itself, and so this metaphysical exclusion of binary opposites occurs in a single place. ‘Gates of Hell’ is only a metaphor. In fact the Fallen live side by side with the forces of oppression and repression. Indeed, they are embedded alongside them within a contiguous tapestry. Thus the situation is a dialectical one—the (legitimated) World is also its own negation, physically speaking; it is a vast zone of contention. Lines of exclusion are therefore perhaps better conceived as relations of exclusion—as mutually antagonistic positions mixed up in a large, amorphous matrix of powers and influences. This is why the mythology of Terrorism allows ‘danger’ to ‘live in our midst’. The Terrorist is to be always near, always over-proximal, always lurking behind the next corner along with Death. It is to infiltrate our lives and our trust, to act as if it were something else only to make us more vulnerable. But isn’t this again a mirror-image—wasn’t it the Chicago Police who infiltrated protest groups and activist communities, pretending to fight for social justice, in order to foment violent ‘Terror’ plans, and thereby to entrap young men who fitted the bill of the Terrorist specter? It was the rats ‘Mo’ and ‘Gloves’, undercover Chicago Police, who insisted upon and helped manufacture the Molotov cocktails that were the center-piece of the NATO 3 trial. But this condition of exception so typical of power and the state seemed to go unfelt by these cops, even as they produced utterly laughable and duplicitous testimony in court. Similarly, when one of the state’s-prosecutors was making wild allegations about the defendants that were not supported by a shred of evidence, implying that Jared Chase was an “explosives expert” whom this prosecutor dubbed “Captain Napalm”, he asked rhetorically and incredulously “who even knows how to make napalm?” Perhaps he is unaware that napalm was originally developed at Harvard University for the U.S. government, who used it to burn Japanese people indiscriminantly, or perhaps he has simply not seen Fight Club.
But we can find even more absurd instances of this kind of exceptionalism. Consider that on February 7, 2014 an airline commuter reported that he was stopped and searched at Heathrow Airport in London only to have the plastic, toy gun that came with a Toy Story doll confiscated by airport security personnel, who themselves are always flanked by armed guards. Did these people really believe that the miniature toy gun was a risk to aviation security, or was it a decision imposed by the inane heights to which the ideology of spectacular Terror has risen? Have we really entered into a social reality in which even the absurd takes on a priority over what everyone else already knows, so long as it invokes the rites of Terrorism? Have we really relegated our sensibilities to the dictates of this symbolic commodity? Perhaps the jury’s verdict in the NATO 3 case, now being deliberated within the claustrophobic architecture of the Cook County Courthouse will give us some idea.