The Semiotics of a Terrorist Bombing

By Smith, Sam | Insight on the News, June 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Semiotics of a Terrorist Bombing


Smith, Sam, Insight on the News


That we live in a postmodern world where the symbolic and the abstract easily supplant the tangible and concrete was brought home sharply by an April letter to the New York Times from the Unabomber In the letter, the self-proclaimed anarchist defined the goals of his unidentified group: "the destruction of the worldwide industrial system. Through our bombings we hope to promote social instability in industrial society, propagate anti-industrial ideas and give encouragement to those who hate the industrial system." To this end, the Unabomber demanded that the Times (or other national media) publish a long article or a small book written by the organization. In short, its demand was not for the resignation of a government, payment of a ransom, release of prisoners or general amnesty, but rather for the dismantling of a symbolic construct known as a system and for the distribution of the group's own symbolic analysis upon the printed page.

There is an inference here that society has become too complex for traditional forms of insurrection such as regicide, assassination or even revolution. Certainly, power no longer is concentrated with individuals or in clearly defined institutions; rather, it is held within great, amorphous "systems" bearing more similarities with, say, the Milky Way or a biological organism than with a specific government or ruler. Was it accidental that the Oklahoma City target was not the headquarters of anything, but instead represented the bland, faceless, ubiquitous intrusiveness of the "federal system?" Was the building itself the real target or only a means of access to the mass media?

It is not just targets that have become elusive, but also those who aim at them. Paramilitary literature proposes organization by "leaderless resistance" -- small cells devoted to certain general principles but autonomous in tactics and timing. Meanwhile, these cells talk to each other (increasingly like the rest of us) through an amorphous system known as the Internet. Thus we find leaderless resistance to leaderless oligopolies, each using a leaderless electronic network for communications. To describe it all, we really need something more akin to a Tolkien saga than an Associated Press dispatch or FBI investigative report. It is not surprising that we find our way to truth strewn by myth; facts by themselves have proved too weak, deceptive and uninformative.

For such reasons, we should pay attention to the symbolism being used these days, for in these words we can find some of the forensic evidence of our times. A few cases in point:

Terrorism and terrorists. These are words that serve well those carrying out bombings and assassinations, but what purpose do they serve the rest of us? Do they make us braver, wiser, more resolute? Or do they tend to intimidate, inflame and encourage hysteria? Why are politicians and the press so enamored of these words? Who is trying to terrify whom and why?

Extremism. Much media attention is paid to the notion that extremism is extreme, far less to what it is an extreme of. …

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