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Social Text 20.3 (2002) 117-148

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Monster, Terrorist, Fag:
The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots

Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai


How are gender and sexuality central to the current "war on terrorism"? This question opens on to others: How are the technologies that are being developed to combat "terrorism" departures from or transformations of older technologies of heteronormativity, white supremacy, and nationalism? In what way do contemporary counterterrorism practices deploy these technologies, and how do these practices and technologies become the quotidian framework through which we are obliged to struggle, survive, and resist? Sexuality is central to the creation of a certain knowledge of terrorism, specifically that branch of strategic analysis that has entered the academic mainstream as "terrorism studies." This knowledge has a history that ties the image of the modern terrorist to a much older figure, the racial and sexual monsters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Further, the construction of the pathologized psyche of the terrorist-monster enables the practices of normalization, which in today's context often means an aggressive heterosexual patriotism.

As opposed to initial post-September 11 reactions, which focused narrowly on "the disappearance of women," we consider the question of gender justice and queer politics through broader frames of reference, all with multiple genealogies—indeed, as we hope to show, gender and sexuality produce both hypervisible icons and the ghosts that haunt the machines of war. Thus, we make two related arguments: (1) that the construct of the terrorist relies on a knowledge of sexual perversity (failed heterosexuality, Western notions of the psyche, and a certain queer monstrosity); and (2) that normalization invites an aggressive heterosexual patriotism that we can see, for example, in dominant media representations (for example, The West Wing), and in the organizing efforts of Sikh Americans in response to September 11 (the fetish of the "turbaned" Sikh man is crucial here). 1 The forms of power now being deployed in the war on terrorism in fact draw on processes of quarantining a racialized and sexualized other, even as Western norms of the civilized subject provide the framework through which these very same others become subjects to be corrected. Our itinerary begins with an examination of Michel Foucault's figure of monstrosity as a member of the West's "abnormals," followed by a consideration of the uncanny return of the monster in the discourses of "terrorism studies." We then move to the relationship [End Page 117] between these monstrous figures in contemporary forms of heteronormative patriotism. We conclude by offering readings of the terrorism episode of The West Wing and an analysis of South Asian and Sikh American community-based organizing in response to September 11.

The Monster and the Terrorist

To begin, let us consider the monster. Why, in what way, has monstrosity come to organize the discourse on terrorism? First, we could merely glance at the language used by the dominant media in its interested depictions of Islamic militancy. So, as an article in the New York Times points out, "Osama bin Laden, according to Fox News Channel anchors, analysts and correspondents, is 'a dirtbag,' 'a monster' overseeing a 'web of hate.' His followers in Al Qaeda are 'terror goons.' Taliban fighters are 'diabolical' and 'henchmen.'" 2 Or, in another Web article, we read: "It is important to realize that the Taliban does not simply tolerate the presence of bin Laden and his terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. It is part and parcel of the same evil alliance. Al-Qa'ida and the Taliban are two different heads of the same monster, and they share the same fanatical obsession: imposing a strict and distorted brand of Islam on all Muslims and bringing death to all who oppose him." 3

In these invocations of terrorist-monsters an absolute morality separates good from a "shadowy evil." 4 As if caught up in its own shadow dance with the anti-Western rhetoric of radical Islam, 5 this discourse marks off a figure, Osama bin Laden, or...