TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Technology and Terrorism: Engineering the Caliphate

Discussions about Islamic extremism or Islamic fascism derive from the obvious fact that many of the key players (al-Qaeda, etc.) defend their actions with explicit invocations of Islamic teaching and a corresponding political agenda. Legitimate objections to that connection can be raised about this nomenclature with the argument that such extremist claims may be highly idiosyncratic within the range of Islamic thought. An appropriate hermeneutic inquiry ought to ensue.

In the meantime, though, it is worthwhile to consider other features of the terrorist actors—what features do they often share other than religion—among which one seems particularly prominent. Mohammed Atta was an engineer, as was one of the recently indicted participants in the failed attack on the German train system. Engineers blow up machines! Today’s New York Times furthermore describes how the conspirators in the foiled attack on trans-Atlantic flights were engaged in “experiments” to determine how best to mix liquid components into explosives. Other terrorists, too, participate in this fascination with technology and science.

At the very least, one has to concede that many terrorists are not “rural idiots,” as Marx might have put it, uneducated refugees from the underdeveloped backwoods of the Third World. On the contrary, they form part of a rising class of a technical-scientific intelligentsia. Located at the cusp of cultural transfer—familiar with premodern, traditional values but thrust into the hardly conservative cultural atmosphere of western university life—they experience the cultural tensions most dramatically. That profile opens onto a gender analysis: engineering (with its still primarily male clientele) draws aspiring students from patriarchal Islamic backgrounds who then recoil with horror at the much greater gender equality of Western societies.

Perhaps, but there may be more to the matter of the disciplinary substance itself: engineering. Does a critique of terrorism require us to return to the traditions of technology criticism? There is certainly a negative connection that we should take into consideration, the problem of Reactionary Modernism, as Jeffrey Herf dubbed it in his book: the capacity of anti-modernist social forces to assimilate modern scientific culture. A modest conclusion from this observation is the crucial need to recognize the potential to disaggregate the various discourse components that make up modernity. One can have up-to-date technology in the lab and still be reactionary at home: Iran.

Yet there may also be positive affinities between technology and terrorism. Not all science, of course, but a certain fetishization of technical efficiency gives expression to a cultural reification: turning oneself into a thing in order to avoid the ambiguities of lived life. A mentality fearful of the uncertainties of existence may be attracted to rigidly literalist readings of texts and, simultaneously, to the fantasy of perfect technological control. Adorno suggested as much in “Education after Auschwitz.” His starting point, in a Weberian spirit, is the necessary process of specialization, which nonetheless has larger cultural consequences:

” . . . in connection with reified consciousness one should also observe closely the relationship to technology. . . . A world where technology occupies such a key position as it does nowadays produces technological people, who are attuned to technology. This has its good reason: in their own narrow field they will be less likely to be fooled and that can also affect the overall situation.”

Yet this emergence of a class of technological specialists, which provides the benefits of scientific applications to modern life, has a shadow side:

“On the other hand, there is something exaggerated, irrational, pathogenic in the present-day relationship to technology. This is connected with the ‘veil of technology.’ People are inclined to take technology to be the thing itself, as an end in itself, a force of its own, and they forget that it is an extension of human dexterity. The means—and technology is the epitome of the means of self-preservation of the human species—are fetishized, because the ends—a life of human dignity—are concealed and removed from the consciousness of people.”

In other words, a mentality emerges that transforms the human curiosity in the natural world into a program of manipulation that loses site of human desiderata.

“As long as one formulates this as generally as I just did, it should provide insight. But such a hypothesis is still much too abstract.”

Few would disagree with Adorno’s self-assessment. But then:

“It is by no means clear precisely how the fetishization of technology establishes itself within the individual psychology of particular people, or where the threshold lies between a rational relationship to technology and the over-valuation that finally leads to the point where one who cleverly devises a train system that brings the victims to Auschwitz as quickly and smoothly as possible forgets about what happens to them there. With this type, who tends to fetishize technology, we are concerned—baldly put, with people who cannot love. This is not meant to be sentimental or moralistic but rather describes a deficient libidinal relationship to other persons. Those people are thoroughly cold; deep within themselves they must deny the possibility of love, must withdraw their love from other people initially, before it can even unfold. . . . The alarming thing about this—alarming, because it can seem so hopeless to combat it—is that this trend goes hand in hand with that of the entire civilization.”

Our public discourse on terrorism tends to take the religious or political pronouncements of the terrorists as full and adequate accounts. Adorno suggests that there is also a psychological dimension, or rather, psychoanalytic because it stands in relation to larger cultural-civilizational developments. What are the particular personality deficiencies of the terrorists and how are they related to their own as well as to larger societal fetishizations?

The point is not to “pathologize” the terrorists, but to understand their pursuit of violence as related on a deep level to their apparent fascination with technology. In the forthcoming Telos 136, Andrew Hewitt makes a related argument regarding the violence in the film Fight Club.

Technology: The totalitarianism of the twentieth-century celebrated technological accomplishment—Mussolini had the trains run on time, and Hitler famously descended from the clouds in the airplane sequence at the start of Triumph of the Will. The postmodern totalitarianism of Islamic fascism blows up trains and planes through a studied utilization of advanced technical means.

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