The Spectaclular Politics of Security

The arrest of the teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud for attempting to detonate what he thought to be a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland Oregon provides the latest example of the conservative strategy to relegate political discourse to concerns over the physical security of the population by manufacturing a climate of fear which acts to buttress the increasing power given to repressive organs of the state. What Georgio Agamben calls the politics of security, or the distortion of government’s pastoral function under pressure of a perpetual state of crisis management, effecting the dramatic incursion of state power into the lives of citizens (both domestic and foreign), is supported by these periodic “attacks” by “terrorists” on Western soil. Alongside gaining support for authoritarian government policies from a cowed populace, these incidents serve the further purpose of disguising the root causes of social anxiety (the unraveling of the social fabric by neo-liberal policies?) by deflecting them onto an alien threat which often takes the form of a racial other. Rather than questioning the political and economic structures that have stripped citizens of the protections offered by the post World War Two social settlement, the new politics of security locates the dangers to Western society in external threats (immigrants, the Middle East, the Global South), framing the current social and political crisis as an epic “clash of civilizations” and thereby deflecting public attention from the infiltration of capitalist, profit-oriented paradigms into ever more spheres of social and individual life.

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The recent event in Portland has been constructed by the media in a way that reads like the plot of an episode of the popular “realtime” television drama 24: the ruthless, Somolia-born killer Mohamud attempts to strike at the heart of America’s “greenest” city, choosing this location precisely because it is the place where no one would expect such an attack to happen. His desire for everyone attending the tree-lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square (affectionately known as “Portland’s living room”) to “leave dead or injured” (Associated Press) appears to have been expertly neutralized by the FBI, who outmaneuvered Mohamud, arresting him as soon as the nineteen year old would-be killer dialed the number on a cell phone that he believed would set off a car bomb. Borrowing from the stock plot components of theater, the media coverage framed this as a moment of dramatic reversal in which the explosion failed to occur and Mohamud was swarmed by FBI agents while the lighting of the Christmas tree proceeded as planned. Mimicking Jack Bauer and his operatives from 24, and in a display of sentimental pathos that would be almost comical if its effects were not so perniciously and cynically positioned, the FBI agents saved Christmas from the heathen Muslim jihadist.

This narrative nakedly illustrates the disheartening reality of a discursively produced racism that, in the new climate of xenophobic paranoia, seemingly must attend the Western tribal ritual of Christmas: the public kindling of the tree of light as a symbol of hope at the darkest point of the year is spectacularly linked to the public humiliation of a nineteen year old boy who becomes the cipher for an Orientalist view of Muslim culture as violently opposed to everything America stands for. The psychological and social realities that would lead this young person to attempt such an act are paved over by a sensationalist focus on the heartlessness of the perpetrator and the mastering of this threatening alien by a skillful police force, and we are left to wonder the extent to which Mohamed Osman Mohamud might have been coached and encouraged by the FBI in its sting operation. Is it possible that Mohamud’s sense of disenfranchisement and anger was detected by security forces and directed toward the production of the act which they could then step in and play the part of the hero in neutralizing? To what extent was this alleged terrorist event enabled or even encouraged by the intervention of the FBI in the first place?

The manner in which the event unfolded, with the FBI secretly in control of the situation, the car bomb a mere prop provided by the security agents, and the would-be perpetrator thwarted at the very instant he expected to execute his plan, plants it firmly within the realm of a spectacular politics in which crime does not constitute a rupture with the given social order, but rather becomes the orchestrated means by which that order reifies and justifies itself. As in Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum, the difference between an actual crime and its simulation becomes irrelevant: what matters is that reality—the actual social relations between Christian America and Muslims, for instance—is effaced beneath a construction that is no longer even ideological, but rather inscribes the relations of domination directly into a carnivalesque spectacle of state-controlled violence and oppression. To this extent, the burning of the Corvallis mosque which Mohamud attended can be seen as the direct result of the FBI’s, rather than Mohamud’s, actions: knowing full well the strong anti-Muslim sentiments the spectacular arrest would make, state power nevertheless chose to apprehend Mohamud in this, rather than in a less public and inflammatory manner.

And yet, the question of whether Mohamud was a victim of entrapment or not, while important from the perspective of determining the guilt or innocence of the accused, is absolutely irrelevant to the spectacular politics of security that the event was constructed to support. Even were an investigation to reveal entrapment on the part of the FBI and thus at least partially absolve Mohamud, the roles played by the actors in this drama were scripted well ahead of time, and the event has already done its work of confirming dominant social mythologies. The idea of an FBI conspiracy behind Mohamud’s alleged plan to detonate the bomb actually serves to reinforce the spectacular nature of this “event” by producing the illusion of a political reality beyond the generated fiction. Following Baudrillard’s advice, we must resist the temptation to call this event a political scandal, as to do so simply reinforces the idea that there is a legitimate, moral order to contemporary politics that this particular instance ideologically manipulates and distorts. The Portland event, like the Watergate of Baudrillard’s historical example, is neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal. The hyperreal is fiction that conceals an absence by producing the illusion of depth. To believe that Nixon’s deception was a scandal is to assert that the political order has a modicum of accountability that it does not, in actuality, hold as an operating principle. In a similar vein, to assert that the Portland bomber’s arrest is a travesty because he is the victim of entrapment is to overlook the fact that the current “war on terror” is, itself, a screen for Western colonial interests in the Middle East, and that unjust American policies have generated the social tensions that would dispose a young Muslim man to such an act in the first place, with or without encouragement from the FBI. To navigate past the obfuscation provided by hyperreality, we must accept the two versions of “reality”–the bomber as “genuine” or as victim of entrapment–as interdependent and mutually-reinforcing products of an immanent yet unrepresentable social Real that prevents people from identifying the actual adversary exploiting them. It is this misrecognition which leads us to generate false threats (whether they be in the form of a racial other or a conspiratorial state power) to placate a sense of anxiety which originates in a completely different location altogether.

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