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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 164-170
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Reflections and Reports
The Comedy of Terror
Cedric J. Robinson
They say this town is full of cozenage,
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin.
—William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors
Over four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare evoked the specter of public spellbinders: "nimble jugglers," "dark-working sorcerers," and "soul-killing witches" who "deceived the eye," "changed minds," and "deformed the body." In this, the first of his comedies, Shakespeare summoned the ghost of a corrupted city, a deformed body politic owed to "disguised cheaters" and "prating mountebanks." He was, of course, obliquely referring to Elizabethan London, a town immersed in disputatious politics, which swept over and implicated Shakespeare and others constituting England's cultural intelligentsia. And London's theater, a principal site of public opinion forming, contentious elite patronage, and artifice, translated the state's interests into beguiling entertainment. In all these matters, it is tempting to transfer Shakespeare's insights to the circumstances of present-day American politics and the dominant media and journalistic cultures that function to conceal that disturbing reality from the American public. Historically in America, national crises have tended to spawn the worst excesses in journalism and mass culture. And presently, with the formation of media conglomerates, the so-called war against terrorism has [End Page 164] inspired a conformist and sometimes duplicitous mainstream press. As is the case with Shakespeare's outsider, Antipholus of Syracuse, it devolves on strangers to the city—in this instance the American state—to discern its eye-deceiving practices.
For months, the peoples of this America have existed under a reign of speakable terror. And it is a transparently speakable occurrence, given the tens of thousands of words and pictures that have deluged this country each day that has followed last summer. The onset was the horrifying televised spectacle on September 11, 2001: commercial flights transformed into weapons of destruction. The visual scenes were profoundly shocking, but over the next several hours, another source of unease became manifest. Scanning the sea of networks, it became evident that they disposed of only marginally competent newsgathering contrivances. They could not report on who or what occupied the World Trade Center (WTC); who was likely to be in the buildings that morning; or what had transpired on those planes with so many cell phone-bearing passengers. Instead, following the train of horrors of the first few hours, little real information was attached to the recycling images of the already obvious destruction and death.
This would prove to be the first and last of those instances of verifiable abominations, which streamed across television screens, newspaper front pages, and magazine covers over the succeeding months. Unedited and unadulterated on that first day, from that moment until now the notion of terror was reappropriated and reapportioned by the state and its diverse cast of "disguised cheaters." A raw, collectively experienced event was deliberately and cynically reconfigured into an absurd abomination of propaganda, public manipulation, and the counterfeiture of human rights. Licensed by these machinations, everything that preceded September 11 was obliterated. And in lieu of an explanatory back story, a history, the public was lured into a sycophantic chorus on "evil." The history, as usual, was well worth forgetting.
State terror—that is, a government's employment of violence against noncombatants—had been a part of American history even before the founding of the American republic. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, state terror was almost inextricably linked to what were termed the "Indian wars," and both a distant parliament as well as the colonial officials at hand orchestrated it. And once African slavery replaced impressed Europeans and enslaved Native Americans, black women, children and men, too, became the victims of colonial, then state and, eventually, federal programs of terror. By the end of the nineteenth century, when the republic was being altered into an empire, "bandits," that is, their patriots, in the Philippines, Puerto...