plume now scratches the screen at

{Monday, April 12, 2004}
some random thoughts on t e r r o r

The word terror brings to mind different things. It makes me think of terra, the earth, and of territoire, territory and a hill; as well as of terrine, an earthenware vessel and a kind of a French pie. It also evokes Polish words such as teraz, now, and terazniejszosc, the present. And it contains error, perhaps one relating to the terrain, to the ground we stand in or the ground we have in common.

The French Reign of Terror is contemporary to the tales of terror. Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho date to 1794. In her essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry” (1826), she defines terror as being characterised by ‘obscurity’ or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events – it is this indeterminacy which leads to the sublime. She says in the essay that it ‘expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life’.

Today, undoubtedly the most frequent use of the word terror has to with terrorism and with the so-called war on terror. I find that latter phrase to be an oxymoron of a sort: in the sense that one half involves assumptions undermined by the second. To declare a war presupposes a clearly-defined enemy and a territory on which a war can be fought. George Bush’s insistence on these terms, despite his awareness that the enemy isn’t easily locatable, is nothing other but a rejection of another kind of thinking that would show the inanity of any such wars, as well as of such territorial boundaries that set up easy oppositions – as those between the “allied armies” and “rogue states,” for instance (as well as, between good and bad, Christians and Muslims, etc…). The war in Iraq is a desperate attempt to divert world’s problems into a clearly defined frame of another nation’s territory… and create such chaos there as to make everyone believe that that is precisely where the problem lies. It’s nice to be able to locate the problem, target it, and fire at it (even if it’s only friendly fire). But, to “cover the territory,” such war must necessarily be global.

And yet, as we see, everything “slips from under control.” While combating the terrorists, the American troops are in the grips of terror, the Iraqis are terror stricken while the militant Muslims count on evoking a holy terror to incite people to opposing the Americans… Perhaps the word to be picked up from Ann Radcliffe’s early 19th-century definition is indeterminacy. What characterizes terror is, truly, error. Terrified or terrorized, one is beset by doubts as if besieged by the enemy, and it is hard to tell where the next blow is coming from or who will deal it. The instances of the so-called friendly fire are there to prove it. Recently, one of the Iraqi blogs* raised the question of the impossibility to distinguish between the civilians and the armed comabatants. The chances are that American soldiers will shoot without trying to find out (one must only remember the number of “civilian casualties” in the early days of Baghdad siege…).

Let me digress. Sometime before Bush declared war on Iraq, I was in bed with a cold that made me completely brainless. So, a friend brought me old black-and-white horror movies to watch, such as The Night of the Living Dead. I was struck with the currency of the film. First, we have an “enemy” that – before his untimely resurrection – was a friend, a family member, who now comes back not only to haunt, but also to kill. (There was a brief moment when someone spreading rumors of Iraqis having purchased American or British uniforms and hence of the prospect of American troops facing people who looked just like them - … as if, by the way, sheer humanity of the “enemy” weren’t enough to make you want to drop the guns.) Then, the living people, barricaded in a house, their windows boarded up to keep out the enemy, are glued to the TV screen and rely for their knowledge of “what’s going on” on the uninformative broadcast whose sensationalizing qualities are reminiscent of Fox news. The word is that “to kill the ghoul, you must aim for the head.” (This is very comforting. Again, as declaring war in order to establish a territory of combat, so knowing that the walking dead has a head that might be shot.) In the end, a band of armed Texans goes around chewing tobacco and shooting off the remaining “ghouls.” As they come up to the house harboring by now a lone survivor – who just happens to be black – poised with a gun in the window and himself not certain whether the approaching group is alive or dead. The Texans don’t ask any questions. One of them just shoots. The film ends with the leader spitting some tobacco and calling it “great shot, Jack!”

Ah, and did I mention that the “resurrections” in the movie were caused by a crashed NASA probe that spilled some radioactive agent it had collected on Venus? Or, translated, the “terror” is a response to some action done in the past and already buried in the memory.

Buried, forgotten, not unlike the August 6, 2001 memo warning George Bush of possible attacks…

*I will add the link once I find it again.

plumed @ 12:12 AM | 0 comments



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