Visions of Terrorism

13 January 2009

Cross-cultural communication takes many forms: language, music, movies, and images. These media can be used to frame particular narratives that can specifically reinforce hegemonic ideologies. In the War on Terror, the U.S. government and media have used these communication strategies to create a symbol that supports a neoconservative discourse. In this paper I argue that images, applied with hegemonic discourse, creates new symbolic imagery. This new imagery, dispersed to the public, manipulates public opinion and emotion. In framing this image it effectively filters the information we receive and distracts attention from important issues. To support this argument I will be using Derek Gregory‟s book The Colonial Present¸ and Melissa Britain‟s article, Benevolent Invaders, Heroic Victims and Depraved Villians: White femininity in Media Coverage of the Invasion of Iraq. Both authors examine how images are manipulated for use in the War on Terror. First, I‟ll analyze Gregory‟s arguments to explain how many images combined can create a single striking symbol. Then, I will examine Brittain‟s article and examine her line of reasoning on how one image can create multiple symbols.

The nexus of the War on Terror is the international and stateless terrorist network, Al-Qaeda. How did the U.S. obtain enough public and international support to invade Afghanistan? It is my belief, this support derived from the strategic manipulation of images and information. Gregory elaborates, “[a]dvanced systems of intelligence, interception, and surveillance were mobilized to produce an imaginative geography of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan” (52). At that time, there were seven military satellites in orbit. From analysis of satellite images, the U.S. military and intelligence divisions reterritorialized Afghanistan. They effectively imagined Al-Qaeda within a bounded geographical space, hence imaginative geography. The imagined geography created an „Al-Qaeda state‟ in Afghanistan. One could argue this is the result of sound intelligence gathering, but how could a transnational network be confined in a single country? How could most of the public and mass media support this invasion strategy? Simply put, by using technology, the symbol of terrorism now had a cartographic region. It was no longer an enemy in many states but an enemy in one state. The War on Terror had a target.

To further disconnect the ground truth from the imagined image, the military utilized images in another way. Gregory explains, before invading Afghanistan, “American pilots had flown virtual sorties over „Afghanistan‟ [in] a high resolution three-dimensional computer space…it combined aerial photographs, satellite images, and intelligence information” (53). This exemplifies the proficient skill of combining abstract images to create a virtual world. The training program‟s intent is to make the pilots feel like they are there, so when they are on bombing or recon mission they will feel like they‟ve been there before. Pilot simulation programs have been in use in the military for decades, but the enormous gains in image rendering technology make the simulation realistic. The satellite identifies the topographical layout of Afghanistan and isolates the targets, and then this data is applied to the pilot simulation. The cartographic confines of Al-Qaeda compared to this virtual world are no different.

Both exist due to the conglomeration of abstract data sets into one image stream. Both the creation of an Al-Qaeda state, and pilot training program, are virtual worlds designed to overlay and obscure the visual legitimacy of the ground truth. The abstract images come together to create a landscape designed to look real, but in actuality is not. It matches the cartographic landscapes of reality, but altered to serve a certain purpose – its use as a virtual pilot program, or a virtual Terrorist state.

The opposite of combining abstract images to create one symbol, is the use of one image to extrapolate abstract symbols. Brittain, in her article, uses one picture to explain how it can be manipulated to further the Neocon‟s Iraq war strategy of liberation. The picture shows a white female British soldier receiving a flower from an Iraqi man. She is fully armed and smiling. One could assume the Iraqi is thanking her. However, this picture is designed to reinforce the liberation discourse. The opinion piece next to this photo in the Globe and Mail is by Randy Scheunemann, founder of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, and board member of the Project for a New American Century. It is entitled Keep the UN out of Iraq. Scheunemann‟s states, “the armed forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom have done more to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people in 19 days than the UN has done in 19 years” (78). The operation is a success because it is saving the Iraqi people and improving their living conditions more than the UN ever could. This opinion piece with the photo portrays the invasion as an act of liberation. Because the image of a woman traditionally symbolizes the traditional characteristics of caregiver, nurturer, nurse, mother, the act of liberation becomes an act of selfless mercy and charity. Brittain argues, “the image of a white women „liberating‟ the natives is congruent with the history of colonial discourse that extends the moral value of bourgeois white womanhood to the civilizing mission” (78). The image by itself may be innocuous, but this image was used to manipulate public opinion, thus negating any innocence. The image has transformed into symbol of liberation of the Iraqi people.

Apart from the image being used as a medium for the neoconservative agenda, Brittain analyzes the picture in a theoretical way. In common practice, when you give a woman a flower it expresses a romantic interest. When you juxtapose this interest with the Iraqi man giving a white woman a flower, we see an interracial sexual insinuation. There‟s nothing wrong with this supposed relationship. However, Brittain argues this, “reintroduces, on the level of latent historical memory, the stereotype of Arab masculinity as violent and threatening” (79). Besides the latent historical memories, the terrorist image burned into popular consciousness is one of an Arab man. Most of the 9/11 orchestrators and actors are Arab; we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, two Arab countries. Thus, it is not too extreme to overlay this stereotypical image with the image analyzed here. So now we have the feminine white woman and the Arab terrorist.

The process of extrapolation I‟m explaining here is the opposite of the Al-Qaeda example earlier. Now we have one image that has formed another albeit different image. Brittain argues that this image implies a sexual threat to the soldier and an invasive threat to the west (81). The threat is invasive because it can be combined with the popular historical and current „rescue‟ discourse. This man is threatening a woman and she must be saved. Specifically, this terrorist (east) is threatening a white woman (west). This logic furthers the invasion strategy. Not only do we have to liberate the Iraqi people, but now we must save the white women from their grasp.

This method of constructing meanings from a single picture may seem like a logical stretch. However, this is used daily by the mass media and the government. A single picture could be used as a basis for an entire story. You can see it in the television and in the papers. How the story unfolds, or how the image can be understood, changes with each individual‟s perspective. The flower picture analyzed above takes note of Scheunemann‟s opinion piece, but also the academic theoretical perspective of Brittain. These are just two ways to view the picture. Theoretically, there are more meanings that can be symbolized from this simple image. This single image can, therefore, be constructed into multiple discourses.

By citing both the arguments of Gregory and Brittain, I have attempted to illustrate the use of images to manipulate the discourse on the War on Terror. Through this analysis I have explored some of the strategies that could be used to this purpose. This is not a thorough investigation of image manipulation techniques, but I do argue that these techniques are in use, and knowingly so. Images, the most powerful cross-cultural communicative device, do shape our thought patterns, especially when they are used with a narrative. Consequently, it is important for citizens to critically examine the symbols used for persuasion and consciously recognize the ground truth.

In this paper, I looked at the application of symbolic imagery and how it effectively reterritorialized Afghanistan ultimately resulting in a military operation; the reconstruction of virtual Afghan space resulted in a prepared pilot and increased bombing efficiency; Brittain‟s theory of how one image constructs a full discourse surrounding the importance and success of the War on Terror. This brief explanation can be further elaborated upon especially concerning the discourse of the War on Terror. Further questions could be asked. What symbols are being used to support bringing democracy to Iraq? How are women‟s rights and the image of the veil portrayed in American media and thought? How and what images and symbols make us believe something that is not true? To answer these questions requires a critical examination of government motives and strategies. It is no longer enough to turn on the Television or read the local newspaper. The possibility exists that the reports are the results of strategic image and information manipulation.


Britain, Melissa. Benevolent Invaders, Heroic Victims and Depraved Villians: White femininity in Media Coverage of the Invasion of Iraq. In (En)gendering the War on Terror: War Stories and Camouflaged Politics. Edited by Krista Hunt and Kim Rygiel. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006

Gregory, Derek. The Colonial Present. Malden: Blackwell , 2007.