Apocalypse By Deed

The scale of potential terror meets the scope of available media.


In the midst of an early report from the burning Pentagon, a reporter for CBS' Washington, D.C. affiliate noted a military jet scrambling overhead. The camera tilted up to follow the aircraft's flight while the newsman worked to include the event in his extemporaneous narrative. Suddenly, the reporter realized that he couldn't assume anything about the plane. Not anything.

Who was piloting the plane? What would it do next? Was it protecting the nation's capital or attacking it? After all, commercial American aircraft were the weapons used to assault the nation's military nerve center, and to destroy New York's World Trade Center. Now, anything might be happening. "I'm praying," the reporter suddenly confessed, "that this plane is one of ours." He fell silent, and he and his viewers watched the plane as it shrank into the distance. Then everyone turned back to the apocalypse at hand.

For several hours Tuesday morning, that apocalypse was literally incomprehensible. A series of staggered catastrophic events on a nearly inconceivable scale was reported via the new media of plenitude, overwhelming them. The effect was not the familiar act of "media witness," in which one absorbs a developing news narrative. The purpose of engaging in the usual act of media witness is to learn "what happened." Rather, the effect this time was one of complete narrative chaos. Appalling acts, reported in more or less real time, followed each other into the news. The purpose of Tuesday's act of media witness quickly ceased to be "what happened?," and instead became "what is happening?" The only certainties were destruction and death.

Terror fulfills itself through media. That has been its central character ever since 19th century anarchists developed the idea of "propaganda by deed." The basic argument, first offered by an Italian independence fighter named Carlo Pisacane, was that ideas by themselves are disseminated in too weak a manner, and to too few people, to lead to effective action, much less to results.

It is action—deeds that become known and inspire others to struggle—that alone can disseminate an idea effectively, and eventually lead to a desired outcome. Pisacane's was a founding idea of modern political action. Its "peaceful" version—acts of protests designed to attract media attention—has been subsumed into every mass-based activity of the past century or more, from Gandhi-like anti-colonial struggles and civil-rights movements to the "velvet" anti-totalitarian revolutions of Eastern Europe and China.

Of course, the original, bloody version of "propaganda by deed"—terror—exploits its available media to disseminate a double-edged idea: The same deeds that are used to inspire others to action are intended to demoralize the enemy, and to limit his opposition. The enemy is to be left in a state of uncertainty, feeling unsafe and not knowing may happen next. Indeed, effective deeds of terror will leave the enemy uncertain not only about his security, but even about the propriety of his own reactions. The more he responds to terror in kind—by massacre, by torture, by the suspension of law—the more the enemy demoralizes himself. That script has played out repeatedly, from Czarist Russia to mid-century Algeria, and is playing out again now in Israel.

But if terror requires media exposure to fulfill itself, then revolutionary changes in the nature of media will impel dramatic increases in the intensity of terrorist acts. Even now, with an ever-accelerating news cycle and a multiplying number of specialized news sources, terrorist acts have been able to command ever-decreasing periods of attention. Suicide bombings, for example, used to command front-page focus for a week or more. Now, along with other once-long-lived stories, they are quickly overwhelmed by other events.

The destruction of the World Trade Center and the assault on the Pentagon may well represent an effort to overcome Western media speed and diffusion, and to do so by staging a startling cataclysm involving potent national symbols. But more than that: It would represent an adjustment of the scale of potential terror to the scope of available media. That is, it would not merely have overcome a diffused and quickly distracted media, it would have used the real-time abilities of the new media to stage an epic of murder and destruction, immersing a worldwide audience in horror and confusion as the events occurred. In the end, it would not merely have used media as a tool to disseminate an idea and demoralize an enemy, it would have used the media as one of its primary weapons, and made the audience participants in the apocalypse itself.

That's exactly what was going on when the newsman at the Pentagon looked up to see a jet fighter, and wasn't sure what it might do next. He and his audience watched that plane fly off toward the horizon, and neither he nor they had any idea what might happen. No wonder the reporter prayed.