Terrorism of Viral Power

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

The 20th century took place under the sign of nuclear superpower: a cold war with bloc to bloc political confrontations; a military rhetoric of graduated escalating respnses; a strangely comforting illusion of "mutually assured destruction." Deterrence was everywhere. Dissuasion was the code. A bored culture living in the shadowland of apocalypse now.

That ended September 11th. The field of power flipped. The triumphant era of the last superpower suddenly gave way to the contagious logic of viral power. In place of the certainty principle of nuclear stalemate, there emerges now the radical uncertainty of the terrorism of micro-power. The always suspended fantaticism of technological holocaust is challenged by the fanaticism of religious zealotry.

The logic of deterrence no longer functions. Deterrrence only works in a deadly game in which adversaries have a primary interest in preserving their own lives. Sacrificing one's own life is the first gambit, and real psychological fuel of suicide commandos.

Dissuasion is inoperative. Again, the code of dissuasion is intimately linked to a politics founded on preserving territory. However, viral power is terroristic precisely because it occupies only the imaginary territory of symbolic exchange. The religious ecstasy of a sudden, unexpected, devastating strike against the symbolic capital of the American empire: the trinity of the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the airlines of America.

The terrorism of the new age of viral power has these symbolic qualities:

It is a micro-power, not a superpower.

It is low tech, not high tech--and thus invisible to the optical scanners of the ruling technological regime. Paradoxically, the (technological) weakness of viral power is its strength.

It is subterranean, secretive--driven by a crusading spirit equal to the religious zeal of the Middle Ages. Breaking the rules of publicity culture, it claims no responsibility and thus speaks clearly to the cultural imagination of the suppressed and powerless everywhere.

It is a matter of biological violence, not physics. Flowing invisibly through the rhetorical screen of the 'anti-ballistic missile system,' viral power adopts the strategy of the attacking parasite: invading the body of the host (the American homeland), bleeding its tactical intelligence (those flight schools in Florida), circulating in its commercial bloodstream (American airlines), and imploding in a violent fatal metastasis that has as its aim the infiltration of the mediascape through its apocalyptic effects. Viral power avoids conflict with the real military assests of the host nation because its actual intention is a strategic media strike. Viral power is understandable only in the language of the media: the twin spectacles of sadness and terror; the doubled language of fascination and dread. In the days ahead, the media spectacle will shift to the viral language of rage and revenge.

Tragically, the real missiles were those American people taken hostage in the air. The real targets were not hardened missile silos, but the dominant symbols of American power. The real terrorism was the destabilization of the American government. The real war is the coming war on civil liberties as the price for combating terrorism. The real 'ground zero' was provoking America to acts of vengeance that will only fast-feed the future rage of viral power. The scenario of terrorism, then, as a mutating virus that copies itself to American rage on its way to revenge against the host-scapegoat.

Viral power goes into the sea, the sky, the earth. It cannot be defeated by the normal methods of nuclear warfare. It can only be copied.

The virus of terrorism is about to enter the American bloodstream, taking democracy hostage. Listen to House of Representatives Minority Leader Richard Gephardt:

"We are in a new world. We have to rebalance freedom and security. We can't take away people's civil liberties. But we're not going to have all the openness and freedom we have had."

The implosion of American democracy, then, as the ultimate objective of the suicide commandos. The 'war on terrorism' may have finally begun, but the first casualty may well be American freedom as it was envisioned before September 11, 2001.

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are the editors of CTHEORY.