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Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 139-150



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Terror as Thrill:
First Thoughts on the 'War on Terrorism'

Begoña Aretxaga
University of Texas-Austin

[Figures]

Los Desastres de la Guerra

A few days before September 11, I was in Madrid at an exhibition of Goya's series of drawings entitled "Los Desastres de la Guerra" (The disasters of war). The drawings are impressive in their stark depiction of the brutality and ironies of a war that came to occupy an epic status within Spanish history: the war of independence of 1808 against Napoleon's occupation, a war that some consider the first guerrilla war in history. Uncompromising in his vision, Goya masterfully and relentlessly depicts a devastating reality hidden behind the rhetoric of national freedom: the sacrifice of poor people to the coalescing interests of religious and sovereign power. The war of 1808 was a popular war in the sense of being triggered by a popular revolt against a foreign power and fought by peasants and artisans. It was immortalized in folk memory as a battle between the people and a well endowed foreign army. Reality was more ironic and complicated. The guerrilla war succeeded in ousting French troops and with them the liberal reforms they had introduced in the country. In its place came the despotic administration of an absolutist king, Fernando VII, whose regime of paranoid terror was first directed against the liberals and then against the impoverished population that had, ironically, restored him to his throne in the first place. [End Page 139]

I cannot help but think now about Afgahnistan and about the way the new disasters of war taking place in that remote country are skillfully cut off from the thriller-like media images of the war against terrorism. Among Goya's desastres, there is one entitled "Murio la Verdad" ("Truth Died"). The drawing shows a young woman as allegory of truth lying down on the ground. A bishop stands over her body, officiating, surrounded by a crowd held at bay by priests, while on the side Justice cries desperately. The drawing conveys the perverse ideological function of organized religion in the production of a version of reality in the service of sovereign power. Truth and Justice are sacrificed to the official reality of church and sovereign. As in Goya's drawing, the truth of the "War against Terrorism" is also disappearing fast in the interest of national security and patriotic unity. In its place, fantasies organize reality as fear and thrill.

The Scene of the War

I watched the attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) with the same sense of unreality as everyone I know. In the Basque city of San Sebastian where I grew up and where I was visiting, it was 3:00 pm, prime time news. An annual international festival was about to begin and small snippets of film were repeatedly shown on televsion. For a moment, the attack on the WTC seemed like a film preview that had crawled unannounced into the wrong place. The very familiarity of the scene, already seen in popular Hollywood disaster movies made reality unreal and shocking. It was not that a terrorist attack on the U.S. was unimaginable, it had in fact been imagined to satiety in films like "Independence Day." Not only had the imaginary of a disaster saturated public culture with apocalyptic anxieties during the last decade, but so too had filled the imagination of the United States Department of State. After the end of the Cold War, terrorism had become the object of obsessive publishing by the state department, replacing the old figure of communism as the spectral enemy.

The anxious scene of foreign terrorists attacking the United States was not new but was in fact in place and ready to be occupied. Fantasy constitutes a scenario within which real action can take place and be interpreted. What was unimaginable was then not the attack itself, but that the fantasy of the attack could materialize. If inside the United States there was trauma, outside the country what followed the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1518
Print ISSN
0003-5491
Pages
pp. 138-150
Launched on MUSE
2002-01-01
Open Access
No
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