Masking terrorism

Cloning spends a lot of time in the headlines, and renowned scholar and professor William J.T. Mitchell has an idea why.

According to Mitchell, cloning has become representative of many moral issues in the United States and around the world. Cloning, Mitchell said, is seen as a kind of abomination that is in itself evil, unnatural and contains a range of moral consequences, primarily associated with things like abortion.

“There’s a kind of ‘clonophobia’ in the world, which I think is closely associated with the fear of not so much of difference, but the fear of likeness, the fear of looking in the mirror and seeing the enemy there, staring back at you,” he said.

Mitchell’s lecture, which he delivered to nearly 60 students and faculty members on Friday night, was titled “Cloning Terror: The War on Images – 9/11 to Abu Ghraib” and focused on terrorism and cloning, two subjects that are said to be fraught with much anxiety. Mitchell also detailed how the idea of “cloning terror” has emerged as a constant condition in the United States.

The term “cloning terror,” which is a chapter of a book he is working on, has become a vernacular phrase, according to Mitchell, who described the terrorist threat as a contagious ideological program fed by anger.

“The idea (is) that the war on terror is having the affect of cloning terror. Despite all of our efforts to destroy this mysterious and invisible enemy, it seems to make the problem worse, seems to produce more rage,” he said.

Mitchell pointed out that if one would search for the term terrorist under Google images, they would most likely get masked figures.

“This portrayal of both the clone and terrorist as simply faceless masks is our way of protecting ourselves from having any kind of realistic, ethical or political relationship with these ‘creatures,'” he said.

Of all the images he discussed during the lecture, Mitchell focused on one image in particular, which he described as the central icon of the Abu Ghraib scandal and which has established itself as an emblem of the entire episode. The image is of Satar Jabar, who is best known as the hooded man standing on a box with electric wires attached to both his hands and genitals. Jabar was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box.

According to Mitchell, this image has spread like a virus. He said that this was a recent phenomenon, since in earlier wars images could not be taken by amateurs and disseminated so quickly.

Mitchell said the image has become as familiar worldwide as the Nike swoosh or the iPod logo.

Mitchell emphasized, however, that he was not there to give the audience an anti-war or political speech.

“My aim is a little more long-ranged than that. I want to ask why this image became the icon for the entire Abu Ghraib scandal – how it acquired iconographic resonance that goes beyond this immediate event (and) touches on the deepest and lightest meanings of the contemporary world system,” he said.

According to Mitchell, among the many Abu Ghraib images leaked out to the public, the image of the hooded Jabar stands out for a couple of reasons. One is because most of the other Abu Ghraib photographs are chaotic images of action, such as tangled bodies, and two, because it’s powerful because despite its context; it has a curious modesty and dignity.

“The figure of the hooded Iraqi is not naked,” Mitchell said. “He is not imported into a stressed position or humiliated by having his nakedness photographer or forced to crawl on all fours, leashed like an animal. He is not smeared in excrement or stacked in a chaotic mass of bodies or forced to simulate a sex act. He is not a decomposing corpse packed in ice and subject to mockery.”

Although the hood renders him anonymous, he appears as a singular figure elevated on a pedestal, with dignity and poise, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said that the most elementary way of noting this is by putting oneself in the photograph.

“Imagine yourself bouncing vicariously on a cardboard box, with electrical wires attached to your fingers and genitals, stifled and blinded by a hood,” Mitchell said. “You have already been tortured with electrical shocks. You’ve already been told by your torturers that if you fall off, you will be electrocuted – and yet, you do this long enough to be photographed and thus transformed into an image that will maintain this pose as long as this image continues to exist.”

Mitchell said that this photograph and what it reveals was paid for by Americans’ tax dollars.

“We own it, and that means we have to own up to what it tells us about ourselves. Even though many of us opposed the war in Iraq, we are still responsible for this image,” he said.Brad Shanks, professor of printmaking at USF, voiced his agreement with Mitchell.

“The message here is scary, that Americans need to be more visually literate,” he said.