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  • The War of Networks
  • James Der Derian (bio)

After terrorist hijackers transformed three commercial jetliners into highly explosive kinetic weapons, toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center, substantially damaged the Pentagon, killed over three thousand people, and triggered a state of emergency — and before the dead are fully grieved, Osama Bin Laden’s head is brought on a platter, justice is perceived as done, and information is no longer a subsidiary of war — there is very little about 9–11 that is safe to say. Unless one is comfortably situated in a patriotic, ideological, or religious position (which at home and abroad are increasingly one and the same), it is very difficult to assess the meaning of a conflict that phase-shifts with every news cycle, from ‘Terror Attack’ to ‘America Fights Back’; from a ‘crusade’ to a ‘counter-terror campaign’; from ‘the first war of the 21st century’ to a fairly conventional combination of humanitarian intervention and remote killing; from infowar to real war. Under such conditions, I believe the best one can do is to thickly describe, robustly interrogate, and directly challenge the authorized truths and official actions of all parties who are positing a world view of absolute differences in need of final solutions. This is what I attempt here, to uncover what is dangerous to think and say. Or as Walter Benjamin put it, ‘in times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in a situation where he has to play detective.’

I begin by challenging the now common assumption that 9–11 is an exceptional event for which no theory is worthy, especially those theories tainted, as Edward Rothstein claimed in the New York Times (‘Attacks on U.S. Challenge the Perspectives of Postmodern True Believers,’ September 22, 2001), by postmodernism and post-colonialism. Second, I examine the representations, technologies, and strategies of network wars that have eluded mainstream journalism and traditional social science. I finish with an examination of the main dangers presented by the counter/terror of 9–11.

States of Emergency

On the question of exceptionalism, consider a few testimonials, the first from an editorial in The New York Times:

If the attack against the World Trade Center proves anything it is that our offices, factories, transportation and communication networks and infrastructures are relatively vulnerable to skilled terrorists…Among the rewards for our attempts to provide the leadership needed in a fragmented, crisis-prone world will be as yet unimagined terrorists and other socio-paths determined to settle scores with us.

Another from a cover story of Newsweek:

The explosion shook more than the building: it rattled the smug illusion that Americans were immune, somehow, to the plague of terrorism that torments so many countries.

And finally, one from the London Sunday Times:

He began the day as a clerk working for the Dean Witter brokerage on the 74th floor of the World Trade Center in New York and ended it as an extra in a real-life sequel to Towering Inferno.

These are all quotes from 1993, commenting on the first and much less deadly terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. I present them as a caution, against reading terrorism only in the light — the often-blinding light — of the events of September 11, 2001, but also against reading 9–11 as an exception that bans critical thought and justifies a state of permanent emergency. Obviously the two WTC events differ in the scale of the devastation as well as the nature of the attack. 9–11/WTC defied the public imagination of the real — not to mention, as just about every public official and media authority is loathe to admit, the official imagination and pre-emptive capacity of the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, airport security, military, and other governmental agencies. Shock and surprise produced an immediate and nearly uniform reading of the event that was limited to discourses of condemnation, retribution, and counterterror. But it is a public responsibility, if not a patriotic requirement, to place 9.11 in an historical context and interpretive field that reaches beyond the immediacy of personal tragedy and official injury. Otherwise 9–11...