Imaging a War on Terror

Two days after Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, President Barack Obama announced that he would not to release photos of the Al Qaeda leader’s body. He said the releasing gruesome images could incite anger against American troops abroad and create unnecessary risks to national security. He also said that displaying bin Laden’s dead body runs counter to American ideals:  “That’s not who we are,” Obama told 60 Minutes. “You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”

But America’s use of images has not always been so high-minded. W. J. T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror takes on the issue of how images have been used in the so-called “war on terror,” which he describes as a “metaphor run amuck.”  Footage of the Twin Towers falling on 9/11, the televised “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad, a statue of Saddam Hussein being destroyed, and the much-criticized 2003 photo of Bush on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished”– these images resonated during the Iraq War and, for many Americans, solidified the misguided notion that terror could be an actual enemy in a war.  Launching a conventional war against a concept was a fool’s errand, Mitchell writes, “a misbegotten fantasy from the first.”

In 2004, the war on terror acquired a competing set of iconic images. Photographic evidence of torture and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib fueled anti-war protests increased doubts about other U.S. prisons, including Guantánamo Bay, and undermined Bush’s moral argument for war. Cloning Terror focuses on the now-famous photograph of a prisoner in a black robe standing on a box with his arms outstretched. The prisoner was told that if he lowered his arms he would be electrocuted. “The Hooded Man,” as the image came to be known, was reproduced time and time again by street artists and cartoonists, scholars and protesters, to represent the shame of America’s conduct abroad. It became a powerful recruitment tool for terrorist groups.

When Obama took office, he changed America’s rhetorical course. Mitchell writes that Obama, “without fanfare, stopped using the term ‘war on terror’.” In 2009, Obama committed to keeping much of the Abu Ghraib photographic archive classified and adopted a “look forward and not backwards” stance on investigations into Bush era abuses.  On its face, Obama’s decision not to release photos of bin Laden is another blow to the Bush administration’s rhetorical regime, even if Obama carries on many of the other policies that Mitchell critiques in Cloning Terror. But for Mitchell, “the appropriate strategy for international terrorism is not war, but the development of rational, open public institutions of international justice,” that should include holding America responsible for its own wrongdoings. If America has offered any kind of mea culpa, Mitchell has not found it sufficient; the animating images of the Bush years may have less play, but the wars rage on.  In the meantime, Mitchell offers Cloning Terror as a necessary if “fairly simple exercise in memory and the prevention of historical amnesia.”

Mitchell wrote much of Cloning Terror during the Bush administration, and he explains that for that administration, bin Laden was “less than satisfactory as an iconic figure of the enemy.” “No statues, monuments, palaces, or regimes could be leveled as ways of performing the destruction of bin Laden,” Mitchell writes. His book resonates now as we grapple with what bin Laden means — and what his image could mean — now that he is dead.