- Introduction: Visual Culture and the War on Terror
[The war on terror] is different than the Gulf War was, in the sense that it may never end. At least, not in our lifetime.—Former vice president Dick Cheney, quoted in Washington Post, October 21, 2001
This American Quarterly forum explores the continuing centrality of visual culture to the war on terror. As the war on terror creeps through its second decade, the war is both omnipresent and routinely hidden from view. From its initial articulation by the Bush administration in the days after September 11, 2001, to its current incarnation, rebranded the “Oversees Contingency Operation” by the Obama administration, the war on terror has been mediated through an overwhelming array of visual forms and media, including photography, sculpture, painting, film, television, advertisements, cartoons, graphic novels, video games, and the Internet. At the same time, as a “different” kind of conflict, much of the war on terror is conducted covertly and remains, like an end to the war, out of sight.
Visibility and invisibility are deeply intertwined in the war on terror, and as such, the study of visual cultures offers a critical vantage point from which to understand what is seen and what remains unseen in this war. Each year brings new events, cultural productions, and images that highlight the relevance of visual culture to the war on terror, and the months in which this forum took shape were no exception. On September 11, 2012, the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked, and, in the following days, several US embassies in other countries were the sites of protests. Much of the US media coverage of Benghazi and the concurrent protests focused on a low-budget, anti-Islamic film, Innocence of Muslims, and the supposed failure of “Arab Spring” nations to understand the importance of freedom of speech. While Innocence of Muslims did prompt outrage, the media framing of the subsequent protests foregrounded the film’s bizarre production history to the exclusion of a more thorough analysis of how and why the film might have tapped into more specific and historically [End Page 157] grounded grievances with US foreign policy. While media reports detailing the various pseudonyms used by the film’s Coptic Christian producer, whether the actors were aware of the film’s anti-Islamic content, and when the film’s trailer was uploaded to YouTube may be interesting, they did little to help viewers understand the widely circulated images of the embassy protests.
At the same time that these protests were unfolding, buses in San Francisco and subway stations in New York displayed advertisements from the anti-Islamic American Freedom Defense Initiative. The posters read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage support the civilized man,” above the tagline “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The posters also became sites of countermessaging, with people affixing stickers reading “Racist” and “Hate Speech,” and circulating images of the altered posters through photo-sharing websites and smartphone applications. The most elaborate poster remix read: “In any war between the colonized and the colonizer support the oppressed. Support the Palestinian right of return.”1
On television, the second season of Showtime’s critically acclaimed Home-land explored the implications of modern counterterrorism, especially the toll that surveillance and the war on terror takes on families. Noting that President Barack Obama has mentioned Homeland as his favorite show, 20th Century Fox Television cochair Gary Newman said, “When the president’s out there calling it his favorite show, you don’t have to pay for a whole lot of marketing.”2 Obama’s praise for Homeland is intriguing because the show offers a critical view of drone strikes, which have become an increasingly important and controversial weapon in the war on terror under the Obama administration.
In the same vein as Homeland calling attention to the covert and largely unreported drone wars, Josh Begley, a New York University graduate student, created a “Drone+” iPhone application that maps drone strikes and alerts users every time a person is killed by a US drone strike. Apple rejected the app, describing it as “objectionable and crude.” “If the content is found to be...