In the fall of 1991 a car filled with explosives managed its way through the well guarded American University campus in Beirut, then suddenly rushed towards the main administrative building on the upper side of the campus, and as the driver jumped out of the car and run away before the explosion took place, the totality of the building collapsed in seconds and was reduced to rubble, but as the attack took place by midnight there were no extreme casualties. The building, known as College Hall, was the first one in a series constructed by Protestant missionaries from Boston in the second half of the nineteenth century for what was to become the Syrian Protestant College (the association of Protestant with Syrian must make Max Weber smile in his grave), and later the American University of Beirut. The Boston missionaries had made the point in their first inaugural statement that they wanted the people of the region, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire (the sick man of Europe), "to have a better life."
In the wake of such a disaster, where anything from the administrative and departmental offices to the mainframes of the university have all been suddenly destroyed, the administration made the decision the following day, in an emergency meeting with faculty, staff, and students in Chapel Hall, to reconstruct College Hall stone-by-stone as it had been originally planned by the Boston missionaries. For that purpose, the administration had deployed all its efforts in the following years to complete the reconstruction, with a total cost of at least fifteen million dollars, most of it alumni donations. The new building kept the layout of the old one, but with a high-tech infrastructure, and one that would resist the shock of kamikaze bombers.
But the costs and pains of the reconstruction notwithstanding, the real problem was elsewhere. In fact, and as the investigations pointed to no visible and convincing culprit, no one ever claimed the bombing. No one ever threatened the university or requested anything from the administration. No one had made the request from faculty and staff to change anything in the programs and curricula, or in the way recruitments among them were made, or in the way higher administrators were appointed. The university thus suddenly found itself and for no visible reason with a no-name and no-face "enemy," one who brings down a complete building without making any request. No apologies either. We're into an assumed anti-American, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-Zionist, anti-orientalist, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, and anti-globalization discourse, which has become so malleable and so passe-partout (in a way similar to the many post-modernist discourses circulating in academia these days) that it has been shared over the years by radical Islamic groups and Marxists and liberals alike. The only difference, however, is in the construction of such groups, their aims, and what they consider as their techniques of resistance to a world-hegemony. Thus, in the case of the so-called G-8 ("group-of-eight") summit in Genoa this past summer, the anti-globalization militants, which apparently destroyed between 20 to 25 million dollars worth of property to make their point (assuming, of course, they had one), were at least "visible" groups with real bodies and spirits, who came to confront the security forces protecting the summit face-to-face. In that kind of situation one at least hopes a "rational" discussion at some point, or at least that they will turn to one of those "green" parties in Europe once into their forties in an effort to sublimate their anger.
When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said only few hours after the attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) that the twin towers will be reconstructed from scratch exactly as they were, I immediately had in mind College Hall and the no-voice-no-face-anonymous aggressor. The United States and the rest of the world will have to "reconstruct" a culprit who never came forth openly as if committing a private family crime rather than a political one. That will be in fact the biggest malaise that the "free" world will be facing in the days, months, and years ahead: namely, that there is no specific reason for such acts, and no one that could be pinned down with certainty. The FBI, we are told, has already managed the list of the eighteen or so men that hijacked the four planes, and that we thus already have prime "leads" or "circumstantial evidence" pointing to the Saudi born terrorist Usama bin Laden. But, as was the case with PanAm 101, or the WTC episode one in 1993, or the bombing of the two US embassies in Africa in 1998, such preliminary "evidence" will become more and more "circumstantial" as the plot thickens, only pointing to more networks within networks, organizations within organizations, and proxies acting on behalf of clients who paid them well and who prefer to remain hidden with their wives and children rather than opt for an open debate.
In that context, bin Laden acts like a nebulous name, more like a founding father who might have lived and died centuries ago, than a "real" institutional framework. If we patch together every bit of an interview that was videotaped or recorded from bin Laden, each memo that might have originated either from him personally or from his organization (the Qa'ida), we will be ever more confused and puzzled at the general tone of the discourse, its parochial nature and its unwillingness to be time-specific (or "real") on any issue, and would look without much personality of its own when placed within similar discourses that have populated Arab and Islamic societies within the last few centuries. Bin Laden's "base" --his Qa'ida-- looks more like the "foundations" (usul) of the old schools of jurisprudence or the mystical (sufi) brotherhoods --or even the notorious order of the Assassins-- of medieval and early modern Islam, in that it conveys a particular discursive practice, which has presumably originated and been uttered at some point by its mythical "founder," and to which others kept pouring layers over layers of interpretation and personal praxis. Thus, bin Laden's Qa'ida is a never ending hermeneutical process, which has characterized many institutional and non-institutional frameworks within Islamicate societies, and which under advanced capitalism looks and behaves more like a pay-as-you-go system where potential clients come forward with their deadly "proposals," only to check whether the Master would be interested in pursuing that particular task. In that "open" system, anyone could become a potential client, or anyone could become a potential target.
Thus, in the weekend right before the tragedy of September 11, the Afghani opposition leader, Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, had apparently been assassinated by two Arabs (which some identified as Moroccans, while others as two Algerians) that posed as journalists and who detonated a bomb placed in a camera. If the official Iranian sources which claimed that bin Laden was behind the killing, turn out to be true --but is it possible to get into any "truth" in that system?-- or at least plausible, then the Saudi terrorist must have been very busy that weekend. First, he got rid of Mas'ud as a further gesture of reconciliation with the Taliban --some kind of "gift" to his main clients and hosts-- and then went on with a systematic attack on US symbols.
It's the image that finally matters and makes all the difference --not discourse. The video images and still photographs of the twin towers being attacked by hijacked planes forms an unprecedented case of a major event being directly "live" on the air, and to which the so-called Gulf war would look in hindsight as having been staged by the US military. By the time the second hijacked plane was approaching the southern WTC tower, there were already so many reporters and cameramen on the ground and in nearby adjacent towers, or even on the other side of the Hudson river, that the second explosion had the privilege to have been videotaped from six different angles, each one worthy on its own of the attention we normally give to images produced by geniuses like Antonioni and Bergman. The commonly accepted view regarding the distinctive nature of video and film versus photography has been blurred thanks to all those newspapers which, the morning after, carried photographs on their front pages which in reality were no more but manipulations, through sophisticated software programs, of the video images that most networks around the world had already carried.
The point here is the "sophistication" of those terrorists' "minds." They had nothing to say, but they realized the importance of the image. An image does not "say" anything as such, but only conveys emotions. Who cares to listen to the incessant anti-Americanism of many of the discourses around the world, including in the US itself? The terrorists realized that their words would be redundant, lost in the sea of emptiness and indifference that the printed word generates these days. So they opted for the spectacular and visual, and in such a way that no Hollywood movie would even dare to compete with, at least for some time to come. The WTC episode in particular reveals for the first time, and in the most wired and photographed city of all times, that an "event" could become a publicly photographed movie instantaneously relayed across the world, and with no specific metteur-en-scène. Under such circumstances, there is always one to "hold" the "event." Thus, when the first northern tower was hit, it was thought that no one witnessed it. But then a young Frenchman presented to the Gamma agency his own footage which he had shot in a counter-field position from below, and which CNN had put on the air by midnight eastern time. In Rome's largest Internet café, people were downloading those video clips through fast ISDN connections, and analyzing them frame-by-frame, something that they would not do --I know that as an educator-- for a written text.
An Iranian in Hamburg had apparently prematurely alerted the
German police by the weekend that there will be sometime this
past week a massive attack against US symbols such as the White
House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. He even insisted on calling
the White House and speak to the president in person. But no one
took him seriously. And no one knows for certain whether he is
in fact connected to the terrorists in any way. Actually, the
German police thinks that he is not and that he is a "madman"
suffering from delusions, and he simply made at some point the
"right guess." But that's the whole point: all images
are on the verge of delusions, and that's why they could be shared
and imagined by so many people from so many different cultures.