CLONING TERROR: The War of Images, 9/11 to Abu Ghraib

W. J. T. Mitchell

1.  Biopictures


In 1992 I coined a phrase, “the pictorial turn,” that has become something of a cliché, sometimes even an interesting concept, in the criticism of culture, society, and politics.  My idea (hardly an original one) was that the image had become a conspicuous problem, both in popular culture (where “image is everything” was the mantra of the day), and in the study of the arts, the media, cultural theory, and philosophy, where a turn from language to the image seemed to be occurring.  Richard Rorty’s “linguistic turn,” in other words, was being succeeded by another shift, this time to pictures, images, iconic signs in all the media.   The idea was given other elaborations—the “iconic turn” of Gottfried Boehme, and the “visual turn” of a newly invented proto-discipline called “visual culture” or “visual studies.”[1] 


I want to describe another version of the pictorial turn, a turn toward the what we might call the “biopicture,” or the “biodigital picture,” the icon “animated”—that is, given motion, expression, by digital animation or DNA, which treats the image as an organism, the organism as an image.   The biopictorial turn can be best summarized with a still image from Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park showing a Velociraptor with the letters of the DNA code projected on its skin.

Fig. 1:  Digital Raptor

In the film narrative, the Raptor has just broken into the computer control room of the dinosaur park, and has accidentally turned on the film projector loaded with the park’s “orientation film.”  The letters of the DNA code that governs the cloning of the park’s dinosaurs are being projected onto its skin.  The still captures in a single image the entire premise of this film:  that dinosaurs have been cloned from extinct DNA, and creatures that previously existed only in pictorial or sculptural recreations have now been literally resurrected from, not just death, but species extinction.  These are not merely “ghostly” re-animations of the dinosaur as image, in other words, but all too real, embodied, and fleshly.  But of course at the same time we know that this is only a film, and these images are merely shadows. The revealing of the code of life here also suggests a strictly cinematic technology, the code of digital animation which was pioneered in Jurassic Park, and displaced the older analog animation technology of robotics and animatronics.   This is the first explicit avatar of what I want to call the “biodigital picture.” 


The biopicture, then, is the fusion of the older “spectral” life of images (the uncanny, the ghostly) with a new form of technical life, epitomized by the contemporary phenomenon ofcloning.  What we are seeing in the “digital raptor” of Jurassic Park is a “cloning of terror,” literally, the artificial duplication of a life-form, the dinosaur, whose name (“terrible lizard”) is synonymous with terror.[2]


2.  Cloning Terror


If the biopicture or animated icon is the technical foundation of the contemporary version of the pictorial turn, its political, moral, and aesthetic foundations are located in the twin phenomena of cloning and terrorism.  We are in the midst of a double revolution, one involving the mutation of political violence into international terrorism (and the “war on terror”), the other based in technical innovations in the biological sciences.  The convergence of these two revolutions is what I call “cloning terror,” by which I mean 1) the paradoxical process by which the war on terror has the effect of producing more terror, “cloning” more terrorists in the very act of trying to destroy them, and 2) the horror or terror of cloning itself, which presents a spectacle of unleashed forces of biological reproduction and simulation that activates some of our most archaic phobias about image-making. Cloning and terror converge, in other words, at the level of images understood as life-forms—the biopicture.  The figure of the clone as digital raptor perfectly captures this logic, showing the monstrous new life-form at the moment when it is invading the control room of Jurassic Park, threatening to devour the controllers who created it in the first place. The linch-pin between terrorism and cloning is the image in collective fantasy and memory, endowed with an unprecedented virulence by the new technologies of capture, storage, and transmission provided by the digital revolution.  


The terrorist and the clone, then, are the mutually constitutive figures of the pictorial turn in our time.  That is why the terrorist is often portrayed as a clone, a headless or at least faceless automaton, masked and anonymous, a mindless, pathological and suicidal life-form comparable to a virus, a cancer, or a sleeper cell that “incubates” inside the body of its host, turning the body’s defenses against itself in what Jacques Derrida has diagnosed as a socio-political form of autoimmune disorder.[3] 

Masked Palestinian Fighters; Helmeted Storm troopers from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones


The clone, in turn, embodies a host of ethical, religious, and aesthetic horrors:  the reduction of human beings to mere instrumentalities or commodities (what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life”); the impious effort to “play God” with technology; the spectre of reproduction without sexual difference which leads quickly to fantasies of unleashed homosexual reproduction;  the figure of the macho gay male (popularly known as a “clone”) who subverts the reassuring stereotype of the sissy;[4]  the spectre of abortion raised by the technique of cloning, which involves the destruction what some regard as an embryonic organism in order to create a new life form; the spectre of the “monstrous double” or “evil twin” who perfectly simulates the “donor” or “parent” organism, and threatens to replace it with a new race of aliens, mutants or replicants.  The real horror of the hooded suicide bombers, then, is not that there is some monstrous face concealed under the mask, but that when the mask is taken off, the face might be that of a perfectly ordinary person who could mingle among us, turning us against ourselves.   The figure of Dolly the Cloned Sheep is not frightening because she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but because she is a sheep in sheep’s clothing, impossible to distinguish from the “real thing” by visual, or even genetic examination.  The clone represents an even deeper threat than easily profiled aliens or “racial others” who “all look alike,” as the racist stereotype would have it.  The clones do not necessarily look like each other (thus, no profiling stereotypes are available), but they may very well look exactly like us, and thus be indistinguishable and unclassifiable.  Like terror, cloning takes the logic of the image as figure of resemblance, similitude, and copying to the limit of virulence, toxicity, and insidious invisibility.


Perhaps the most vivid fantasy of terrorist as clone (and vice versa) is a report in the online tabloid Weekly World News that the “mad mullahs of Iran and Syria” are cloning “toddler terrorists” from “the DNA of ruthless SS men who once formed Adolf Hitler’s elite bodyguard.”[5]  CIA “sources” (unidentified) are quoted to emphasize that “the most insidious part of the scheme is that these killers won’t look like Arabs, and no traditional form of racial profiling will work to screen them.”  This “invincible army of ‘superior’ German warriors” will be trained to speak English with an American accent.  A “respected Israeli historian and intelligence expert,” Aviv Shimson, supplies the connections between Nazi Germany and  Middle Eastern terrorists, reminding us that one of the most “notorious allies” of the Nazis was Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.   Islamic fascism’s anti-semitic and anti-American alliance with Nazi Germany was only waiting for the technical breakthroughs of human cloning to produce its invisible Aryan army.


Bizarre as these associations of cloning and terrorism may seem, they would not have any efficacy if they did not engage some level of historical reality and collective fantasy in the American populace.  The fact is that the onset of the current epoch of terrorism in 2001 was launched in the context of a national debate in the U.S. about cloning and stem cell research. The off-lead in the New York Times on 9/11 was, in fact, a story about the National Academy of Sciences report which came out in support of cloning to produce new lines of stem cells.  Nor was this some kind of anomaly or coincidence.  The lead story in American newspapers throughout the summer of 2001 had been the cloning debate, and the August 9th decision of President Bush to prohibit the development of new stem cell lines.  The cloning issue was “buried,” as it were, by the onset of the terrorist attacks, but it seemed to hover over the ruins of the World Trade Center, as if the gray dust that hung in the air for weeks after their destruction contained traces of the DNA of the victims. 


Since 9/11, an intense new epoch in the pictorial turn has opened up, a “war on terror” triggered by and waged against images.   To call this a war of or on images is in no way to deny its reality or to minimize the real physical suffering it entails.  It is, rather, to take a realistic view of terrorism as a form of psychological warfare, specifically a use of images, and especially images of destruction, to traumatize the collective nervous system via mass media and turn the imagination against itself.   It is also to take a realistic view of the “war on terror” as quite literally, a war against an emotion (like “pity” or “love” or “hate”).  It is thus a war on a projected spectre or phantasm,  a war against an elusive, invisible, unlocatable enemy, a war that continually misses its target, striking out blindly with conventional means and waging massive destruction on innocent people in the process. The aim of terrorism is, in fact, precisely to provoke this overreaction, to lure the “immune system” of the social body (its military and police powers) into responses which will have the effect of  increasing the power of the terrorists, in effect “cloning terror” in the process of trying to destroy it.[6] 


If terrorism is primarily a war of images, however, we must ask what images are and what they are becoming in our time, when the biodigital picture has emerged at the technical frontier of image production and circulation.  This necessarily involves a moment of aestheticization of the images loosed upon the world since 9-11, a consideration of their formal, sensuous, affective properties within the epoch they have come to define.  The moment has evidently passed when the image repertoire of the war on terror (the whole sequence, from the attacks of September 11 through the Abu Ghraib photos) can have an immediate political impact.  In fact for many months leading up to the Novmber 2004 Presidential election, it was widely believed that these images were revealing the naked, awful truth about the futility and horror of the War on Terror, and that they would have enough power to bring down the Bush administration.  Now that their immediate political urgency is behind us, the moment has arrived for a more considered analysis of what these images mean, even as the historical epoch they marked fades in memory.   


2001-2004 was an epoch marked and defined by unforgettable and traumatic pictures, from the destruction of the World Trade Center to the photographs of torture taken in Abu Ghraib prison.  I want to trace a pattern in these images which expresses the logic of the biopicture.  I have in mind, first, the obvious fact of a new, virulent life afforded to images with the invention of the internet and digital photography, the way images “clone” themselves, and circulate with incredible rapidity, sometimes reversing their meaning and coming back to haunt their producers.  I also have in mind the figure of the terrorist as clone in the sense of “double,” twin, or mirror image of his opponent; the spectacle of terror as iconoclasm, the destruction and mutilation of images (especially the image of the human body) as itself an artificially “produced” image, or “photo-op”;  the recurrence of the headless, faceless, and hooded figure, or what Jean Baudrillard has called the “acephalic clone,” a mindless repository of “spare parts” or an automaton without will or agency; the reduction of the human form to “bare life,” and the (usually futile) attempt to censor, prohibit, and contain these reductive images.  I will conclude, finally, with a meditation on the Abu Ghraib photographs which I believe define a certain kind of end to this epoch, though its consequences are still unfolding for us as I write.



3.  The War of Images


Twin Towers


“As though architecture . . . was now merely a product of cloning.”

- Jean Baudrillard


The destruction of the World Trade Center in New York has provided the most memorable image of the 21st century so far, destined to join the iconic mushroom cloud, as the principal emblem of war and terror in our time, leaving behind it a space known as “Ground Zero,” a label that links it (quite inaccurately) to a nuclear bomb.  The “twin-ness” of the towers and their destruction has frequently been noted:  the initial doubling of the image of destruction by the two moments of impact and the two moments of collapse, followed then by the indefinite doubling and redoubling of every detail, every conceivable angle of perspective on the disaster.  The towers themselves were, of course, understood as iconic forms in their identical twin-ness and their mutual facelessness.  Jean Baudrillard compared them to bearers of digital information, the “punch card and the statistical graph,” “as though architecture, like the system, was now merely a product of cloning, and of a changeless genetic code.”[7]  The World Trade Center was already a global symbol, a “world picture” in its own right as well as an epitome of the “biodigital” moment of the pictorial turn.  Its destruction had been foretold since the moment of its building, staged repeatedly in disaster films, and even attempted in the early nineties. 


The destruction of the twin towers was a classic act of iconoclasm (the destruction of the “idol of the other”) as the creation of a counter-icon, one that has become, in its way, much more powerful as an idol than the secular icon it displaced.  The site was immediately declared “hallowed ground,” the victims apotheosized as heroes and martyrs.  This is a process similar to the elevation of the Final Solution from a hideous extermination program into a “Holocaust,” a sacred sacrifice, technically, a “burnt offering.”  The monumentalization of the holy place has proceeded with similar grandiosity, most notably in Daniel Liebeskind’s proposed “Freedom Tower” which, exactly 1776 feet high, and with features such as the “Park of Heroes,” the “Garden of the World,” and “Memory’s Eternal Foundations,” will surpass even his Jewish Museum in Berlin as a coercively allegorical contribution to the  trauma industry.[8]


A more open and evocative memorial was provided by the Kevin Clarke/Mikey Flowers photo collage of the ruins overlaid by the dust-filled scrim inscribed with the DNA code.[9]  Flowers, an Emergency Medical Technician, took the pictures of the smoldering ruins in the days immediately following September 11, and Clarke (an artist who also lives in lower Manhattan) overlaid the image with the letters of the DNA code (a practice he had been using for a number of years to create what I would call “deep portraits” or “biopictures” of human subjects).

Fig. 4:   Clark/Flowers: From Dust to DNA

This image evokes the longing for traces and relics of the victims that was so vividly evident in innumerable informal memorials that attached themselves to the site, and throughout lower Manhattan.  But it re-codes this longing as a desire for literal biological re-animation, just the reverse of the funerary liturgy, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  The logic of “From Dust to DNA,” by contrast, leads on to “from DNA to cloned resurrection.” Or if not resurrection, at least identification of the particular victim whose dust has been reclaimed.   The Clarke/Flowers image is also perhaps a reminder of the biodigital picture that was already inscribed in the twin towers, their monumental flaunting of doubleness, twinness, and architectural cloning, and hints at the ironic coincidence of cloning and terror in the summer of 2001.  While the men of al Qaeda were making their final plans, while Richard Clarke, the head of U.S. counterterrorism, was vainly trying to get the attention of the White House to warn them of the impending threat, the Bush administration was preoccupied with stopping the dangerous acceleration of biomedical research in cloning.


Uncle OsamaThe Uncanny Double


We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

- Walt Kelly, Pogo


“Only when modeledt1:place w:st="on">U.S. military treatment of Iraqis, “the” Arab male is extremely insecure about his masculinity.[21]  But it turns out the American male is too, and what better way to secure one’s masculine superiority than forcing another male to submit to domination by women, or to be thrown into piles of anonymous, headless “homosexual” bodies?  


The famous photograph of the pile of naked, hooded, male bodies served as a screen-saver on one of the computers in the military intelligence office in Abu Ghraib prison.  No ordinary “cover up” of these images seemed possible in May of 2004 when they were first released to the public.  They could not be completely censored the way the images of flag-draped coffins were.  Instead, the neutralizing tactic was, as Mark Danner has pointed out, to focus attention directly on the images themselves, “the garish signboards of the scandal and not the scandal itself.”[22]  This focus on symptoms rather than causes facilitated the “deviant behavior” and “few bad apples” defense, which scapegoated those seven soldiers who were stupid enough to stage themselves as jubilant torturers within the pictures.  All right-thinking people (led by President Bush himself) could declare themselves “disgusted” at the images and deplore the conduct depicted there.  When questions about the causes and the systemic basis for the images were raised, the pornography industry made a convenient scapegoat.  The actual architects of the global detention and torture system that these photographs represent were kept invisible and unnameable, except at those moments when they—Geoffrey Miller, Donald Rumsfeld, Albert Gonzalez, and others who designed, approved, and justified the flagrant violations of international law and common human decency—emerged to express their horror at the “deviant” conduct they had made possible and even inevitable.


In the spring of 2004 these photographs were greeted by many Americans as the “smoking gun” that would finally reveal the moral bankruptcy of Bush’s “war on terror,” and produce a scandal that would force the resignation of the most incompetent Secretary of Defense in U.S. history.  But the images rapidly faded out in the course of the “news cycle” of the American mass media.  They were no longer news within a month, disappearing down the memory hole along with Richard Clarke’s revelations about the incompetence of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policy.  The Democratic Party chose not to make them an issue during the election campaign.  The system that produced them—the Bush White House, the Pentagon, and the shadowy world of “intelligence”-- now seems immune to investigation and exposure.  Hundreds of the photographs with reportedly even worse images of rape and child abuse remain classified, and the internet is awash with fraudulent, staged photos that  undermine the credibility of even the most firmly legitimated photographs.     


So why bring them back now?  What is to be seen?  Now we can concentrate on the images as symptoms of a systemic problem that goes well beyond the Bush administration, to the “system beyond the system,” the culture that could be exploited by vague bureaucratic euphemisms about “unlawful combatants,” “high-value detainees,” “sleep adjustment,” and “enhanced interrogation tactics” to produce these specific images. Now we can see their relation to standard practices in American prisons, to the history of lynching photography (especially in their status as photographic trophies to be circulated, complete with the exultant faces of the torturers), and to the homophobia that is so deeply entrenched in straight American male culture.[23]  Now we are in a position to diagnose the systemic problem as a clonophobia that provides the general logic of these images.  The steps in clonophobia are as follows:  1) project an image of yourself, a narcissistic self-portrait; 2) reverse the valence of that image so that it becomes the “evil twin” of yourself, the repository of your darkest desires and fears; 3) project that image as a mask, veil, or hood to conceal the humanity of another person;  4) subject the person on whom that image has been projected to the most degrading humiliations you can devise. 


Why is this clonophobic procedure necessary?  Because the “bad guys” (as they are routinely labeled in American military lingo) do not wear uniforms (except, perhaps, the racial uniforms of brown skin and Arab names):  they look like civilians, as the friendly Iraqis the “war on terror” was supposed to liberate.  They do not identify themselves as combatants like our “honest soldiers” do.  They do not obey any rules.  And we have no rules for  telling the innocent from the guilty, the good guys from the bad guys.  (85-90 percent of the detainees in Abu Ghraib prison were innocent, rounded up in random nighttime sweeps; they had little or no intelligence value, and were a product of “cordon and capture” techniques that treated non-combatants as illegal combatants).[24]  That is why the perverse logic of clonophobia has to begin, not with a simple stereotype of “the other” as a clearly marked alien, but with the self as a figure of even deeper anxiety.  The racial version of clonophobia is the distinctly American ritual of blackface impersonation, in which the mask is applied to the self, not the other, and one temporarily “assumes the position”of negritude in order to enter a carnival atmosphere of unleashed role reversal.  It doesn’t seem accidental that the sexual humiliations of the Iraqis were accompanied by a fair amount of sexual experimentation (also documented photographically) by the American MPs themselves.  The right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh was not completely off-base, then, when he noted that the sexual humiliations of the Iraqi men at Abu Ghraib were, something like an “American fraternity initiation,” perhaps even the sort of thing portrayed in the film Animal House as the quasi-Nazi initiation rituals of the “good” fraternity; perhaps even something like George W. Bush himself had to endure in his initiation to Skull & Bones at Yale.  This is why we must not overlook the obvious signs of obscene enjoyment in the faces of the torturers, the clear signals that they were “just having fun” with their Iraqi captives.  It was, in a certain rather precise sense, all part of the initiation into the brotherhood of American democracy.  


Cloning Jesus


“The God of Islam is an idol.”

- William Boykin


Or perhaps we should say, initiation into American Christian democracy, because the, after all, one of the most religious countries in the world, and the war on terror is a holy war, a crusade against evil.  In unguarded moments, this view is expressed with remarkable clarity, as it was by Bush’s appointee to the position of  Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Lt. General William Boykin.  General Boykin’s speeches to Christian audiences have included declarations that “the God of Islam is an idol,” and that the war on terror is a war against “Satan.”  Bush himself, of course, declared the war on terror by characterizing it as a “crusade,” an incautious remark that he later avoided (though the language of “evil” has continued). 


The most vivid example of the monstrous double is the image that has now become iconic of the entire Abu Ghraib scandal, and perhaps of the whole “war on terror.”

That is the famous “Hooded Man” with a black cloak standing on a box of C-rations with electrical wires connected to his hands and genitals. [Fig. 8: Hooded Man] It has been obvious since the first appearance of this image that there was something special about it, something that differentiated it from the degrading, pornographic spectacles of enforced nakedness and humiliation that characterized the other Abu Ghraib photographs. 

Fig. 8: Hooded Man

The image is, to begin with, formally simple and memorable, quite unlike the chaotic, almost unreadable piles of naked bodies with their air-brushed genitalia.  It achieves an instant recognizability that is easily reproduced in other media.  There is also a curious air of dignity about the image, a suggestion of poise and balance under severe stress, that invites the viewer to empathize and identify with the figure despite (or is it because of?) its hooded anonymity.  If one tries to project oneself into the experience of the figure, one must imagine being blinded and stifled by the hood, and then terrified with the warning that, if one falls off the precarious pedestal, one will be electrocuted.  A few carefully administered electric shocks to sensitive areas of the body would make this seem far from an idle threat.  When one combines this empathic exercise with the stillness, symmetry, and balance of the image, one notes an immediate paradox, and that is the transformation of an image of humiliation, terror, and abjection (as imagined from inside) into a figure of poise (as seen from outside).  A fleeting moment of balance has been frozen by the still photograph into an image of endless equilibrium.


The Hooded Man has clearly been transformed into a “Christ-figure.”  It seems very unlikely that this was anyone’s intention, though some of the other torture images (a naked, excrement-smeared Iraqi compelled to stand in a cruciform posture with his legs crossed)  make one wonder.  If the pornographic images seem to record a homophobic ritual of “fraternity initiation,” this one registers an even more profound transformation of the (suspected) terrorist, the tool of Satan, into the avatar of the Christian “son of god” himself.   The figure of the (supposed) Islamic martyr, a warrior prepared to sacrifice himself in holy jihad, is converted into the Christian martyr, the patient “suffering servant” who endures terrible pain and humiliation without protest, as an expiation for the sins of mankind.[25] 


Look at this image through the eyes of an iconologist, and you will see something even more specific, and that is the particular stages of the passion narrative that are echoed by the Man with the Hood.  This is clearly not  a crucifixion:  the arms are at the wrong angle. It is, rather, a synthesis of three distinct moments from the iconography of the passion of Christ:  the first is the mocking of Christ (which usually shows him blindfolded);  second, the Ecce Homo (“behold the man”) when Jesus is presented to the crowd as a mock “king,” wearing the Crown of Thorns, sometimes standing on a pedestal;  and third, the “Man of Sorrows,” a non-narrative image that shows Jesus taken down from the cross, his body washed, and often displayed (as in Fra Angelico with his arms out at 4 and 8 o'clock. [Fig. 9: Fra Angelico, Lamentation.  Alte Pinakotek, Munich]  It also evokes certain treatments of the resurrected Christ, arms extended in a gesture of welcome and blessing. 

Fig. 9: Fra Angelico, Lamentation

Although the Abu Ghraib image is generally reproduced as a singular, isolated iconic form, it implies an address to and relation to others that is a central feature of the tortured and dying imago dei in Christian iconography.  We know that the torturers are not far away, and we know from the pornographic images that they were having a good time, giving the “thumbs-up” sign to the camera as they gloated over their victims.  But this, too, is a central feature of the photographs, which, like canonical scenes of the passion of Christ, incorporate the torturers as an essential part of their iconography.  Did Lyndie Englund know that a frequent motif in scenes of the mocking of Christ is the leading of him on a leash?  Certainly not.  These tableaus are not to be taken as expressions of the intentions of the torturers, but symptoms of the “system behind the system” that brought them into the world.


 It seems only fitting that, in May 2004, just at the moment that American Christians were wallowing in Mel Gibson’s sadistic portrayal of torture in The Passion of Christ, an image should surface in the mass media that synthesizes the phases of the passion into a single memorable icon as a kind of summary of everything accomplished by the American crusade in Iraq.  On the one hand, the image is a kind of ideological X-ray, exposing that mission as a Christian crusade that aims to “convert” the Muslims into Christian martyrs. On the other hand, it provides (like the Uncle Osama poster) a kind of mirror reversal of its intended purpose.  Instead of eliciting useful intelligence about the Iraqi resistance, it had the effect of intensifying that resistance, serving as a recruiting poster for jihadists throughout the world, and destroying the last, threadbare alibi for the American occupation of Iraq.  By this point in that war, all the pretexts for pre-emptive war—the weapons of mass destruction, the notion of Iraq has a haven for terrorists, the linkage of Saddam Hussein with 9/11—had been shown to be utter illusions, if not outright fabrications.  The only casus belli remaining was the moral crusade of “liberating Iraq” from tyranny and bringing democracy there, a pretext that was rather effectively undermined by the Abu Ghraib photos, especially this one.


If ever an image has been “cloned” in the circuits of the mass media, this one was, both in the sense of indefinite duplication, and in the further sense of taking on “a life of its own” that eludes and even reverses the intentions of its producers.   The Man with the Hood appeared throughout the world, on television, over the internet, in protest posters, and in murals, graffiti, and works of art from Baghdad to Berkeley.   It became so ubiquitous and recognizable that it could insinuate itself subtly into commercial advertisements for the I-pod in New York subways, where it merged almost subliminally the figures of “wired” dancers wearing  I-pod headphones, and the Man on the Box with his wired genitals. Within Iraq, it took on a quite specific role in its re-naming as, and “twinning” with, the Statue of Liberty.  An Iraqi mural artist,  Sallah Edine Sallat, captured this double cloning in a wall painting that pairs the Hooded Man with a Hooded Statue of Liberty. [Fig. 10: Sallat, Baghdad Mural: Hooded Man & Statue of Liberty] The difference between the two figures is as simple as black and white—the black robe and hood of the Iraqi, and the white robe and hood (with eyeholes) of the Statue of Liberty, portrayed as a knight of the Ku Klux Klan.  The Statue of Liberty’s arm is raised, not to hold up the torch beckoning immigrants to America, but to flip the electric switch connected to the wires on the genitals of Iraqi prisoner. This image undoubtedly took on a bit of extra irony, given the conspicuous inability of the U.S. occupation forces to restore electric power and other vital services to the Iraqi infrastructure.

Fig. 10:  Sallat, Baghdad Mural: Hooded Man & Statue of Liberty


The cloning of the Man with the Hood was made even more emphatic by San Franciscoartist Guy Colwell, who portrayed the figure as triplets in a tableau reminiscent of the surrealist artist, Paul Delvaux. [Fig. 11: Guy Colwell, “The Abuse”] Three hooded men with wires on their hands and genitals stand on pedestals, stripped naked from the neck down (perhaps to emphasize their connectedness to the pornographic scenes from Abu Ghraib) while American MPs brandish nightsticks and chemical lights, the now-familiar instruments of sodomy, and a blindfolded Statue of Liberty is led into the room, perhaps to “witness punishment.” 

"Fig. 11: Guy Colwell, "The Abuse

The San Francisco gallery that dared to show this image was attacked by vandals and had to shut down, perhaps a forecasting of the American reception of these images.[26] Although images, especially pjhotographs of this sort, are extremely powerful in exposing people to the truth, they are not all-powerful, and they can be neutralized by clever strategies of containment, censorship, and outright denial.  Even the straightforward realism of the video of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police, for instance, was finally overcome by a defense team that cleverly treated the video to a slow-motion, frame by frame analysis that deconstructed its plain evidentiary character.  It’s as if the longer and more intensely one contemplates these kinds of images, the more opaque they become.  As Mark Danner puts it:


The images themselves . . . having helped open the door to broader questions of how the Bush administration has treated prisoners in the War on Terror, are now helping as well to block that door; for the images, by virtue of their inherent grotesque power, strongly encourage the view that “acts of brutality and purposeless sadism,” which clearly did occur, lay at the heart of Abu Ghraib.[27]


Danner’s own investigation into the “hidden story” behind the images (which the official investigations are doing their best to keep hidden) have tried to keep the door open.  And the work of Seymour Hersh, and the initial interpretations of them by Susan Sontag and others have made it clear that a great deal more lies behind the door.  Certainly, in a world where the notion of human rights and international justice had any force of law, the United States’ actions in Iraq would be condemned as those of a rogue state placing itself above the law.  The flagrant disregard for international law that was expressed by the highest officials of the Bush administration (including the President) would, in a just world be grounds for criminal proceedings.  But we do not live in a just world, and international law has no way of enforcing itself.  So the question remains:  what is to be done with and about these images once their “hidden story” has been revealed, and their political efficacy has (at least for the moment) been exhausted? 


The answer, I think, lies in that “inherent grotesque power” that Danner observes in the images.  Although this power can have the effect of blocking a concentration on the narrative and documentary meaning of the photographs, it can at the same time open up new dimensions of meaning in them, what I have called the “system behind the system” that made them possible, and that made something very like these images inevitable. What I am suggesting, in other words, is that there is something more to be learned from these pictures than the story of what happened at Abu Ghraib, and who is to blame for it. These images were, after all, paid for with the tax dollars of American citizens.  We own them, and must own up to what they tell us about who we are, and what we are becoming in the age of the biodigital picture.

"Fig. 12: Hans Haacke, "The Stargazer

Let Hans Haacke have the final word in his stunning image, “The Stargazer,” [Fig. 12]which shows a man in an orange jump suit with a star-spangled blue hood over his head. This image summarizes perfectly the whole complex of biopictures we have been exploring,  from the “acephalic clone” to the hooded terrorist or torturer to the hooded terror suspect transformed into a torture victim.   The hood as an instrument to produce the faceless anonymity and blindness of the torture victim has been synthesized with the emblem of  American sovereignty, summarizing the American “war on terror” as the self-destructive process it has been.[28]   The curious mirroring of the torturer and the victim is eloquently expressed  by a subtle ambiguity about the location of agency in the figure.  On the one hand, the star-spangled hood stages this figure (like the hooded Man on the Box, or the statue of Saddam Hussein) as the passive, suffering trophy of American power.  On the other hand, the man’s white skin and relaxed arms (no “stress positions” here), and the title of “Stargazer” hint that this man has pulled the hood over his head all by himself. Stargazing Americans  have indeed hoodwinked themselves with a peculiar combination of ignorance and idealism, blindness and innocence, a refusal to understand the consequences of their invasion and occupation of Iraq, coupled with the utopian rhetoric of freedom and democratization that has been employed throughout this war.  So Haacke’s image may also be suggesting that the wearer of this hood is capable of removing it and seeing things as they are.  Whether the American people are ready to look without blinking at this and the other images of the war on terror, to face what they have done to Iraq, to themselves, and to the world order, is quite another question.



[1] For further discussion, see Sandor Hornyk, “On the Pictorial Turn,” Exindex 25.2.2005.   The original essay version of “The Pictorial Turn” appeared in Artforum, March 1992, pp. 89ff.  The German translation appears as the first chapter in Privileg Blick: Kritik der visuellen Kulturen, ed. Christian Kravagna
 (Berlin: Edition ID-Archiv, 1997), 15-40.

[2] The raptors of Jurassic Park are, in fact, the terrorists of the park.  They are “clever girls” who hunt in packs, and are “figuring things out,” including how to open doors designed for human hands. 

[3] “Autoimmunity,” in Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror:  Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[4] “Clones symbolize modern homosexuality,” notes Martin P. Levine, in Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone (New York: NYU Press, 1998); see also Roger Edmondson, Clone:  The Life and Legacy of Al Parker, Gay Superstar (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 2000). 

[5]  November 18, 2005.  The Weekly World News also reports that the terrorists have perfected a bomb that will turn everyone within thirty miles of its detonation point into a homosexual.

[6] See Derrida, “Autoimmunity,” op. cit.

[7] Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 2002), 38, 40.

[8] See David Simpson, 9-11 and the Culture of Commemoration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), for a critique of the “memory industry” around September 11.

[9] See Kevin Clarke’s website for a discussion of this image:

[10]Ruggiero, “Terrorism: cloning the enemy,” International Journal of the Sociology of Law 31 (2003), 23-34; 33.

[11]Clarke, Against All Enemies (New York: Free Press, 2004), 138.

[12] The photo opportunity of  Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech was, of course, quickly disavowed by the White House when it became evident that this image was becoming the subject of parody, and had even been cloned as an “action figure.”

[13] The Vital Illusion (NY: Columbia University Press, 2000), 4,

[14] See the film, Control Room, for al Jazeera’s television coverage of this event, denounced by the Pentagon for aiding the enemy.  Al Jazeera’s reporters noticed that the crowd assembled to celebrate the destruction of Saddam’s statues was quite tiny, and contained very few Iraqis.  Evidently it was mustered by the U.S. military  to produce the proper backdrop to this photo op.

[15] trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Blackwell: Oxford, 1953), 178.

[16] Or alternatively, “the presence of photographers may have inflamed the crowd’s passions,” according to David Klatell, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.  Chicago Tribune, April 2, 2004, p. 11.

[17] See Michael Taussig’s discussion of symbolic mutilations in Columbia, “The Language of Flowers,”Critical Inquiry 30:1 (Autumn 2003),

[18] The distinction between modernist “shock” and postmodern “trauma” is discussed by Tanya Fernando in her PhD dissertation, Shock Treatments, University of Chicago, 2005. 

[19] “Powerful Images Debated,” Chicago Tribune April 2, 2004, p. 11.

[20] Sheik Farzi Nameq “condemned the mutilations of the four Americans” as “un-Islamic desecrations.” He also warned that this would bring destruction to the city.  “Cleric in Fallujah Decries Mutilations,”Chicago Tribune April 3, 2004, p. 3.  It seems unlikely that this declaration was based on any notion of human body as an imago dei.  That is a doctrine more attuned with Christian theology, and especially with the incarnation and the Catholic doctrine of the resurrection of the body.   From an Islamic point of view, mutilation of the dead body is primarily a social sin, explicitly defined as such by the prophet himself, one to be avoided because of its capacity to mobilize revenge from the enemy. I am grateful to Abdolkarim Soroush for his advice on Islamic prohibitions on mutilation.

[21] Patai’s The Arab Mind is used in the training of U.S. military personnel.

[22]Danner,  “Abu Ghraib: The Hidden Story,” NYRB Oct. 7, 2004, 50.

[23] On Abu Ghraib and American prisons, see Jean Snyder;  on the background of American lynching photographs, see Hazel Carby.

[24] See Danner, op. cit., 45.

[25] Actually, the man under the hood was suspected of nothing more than car theft, and (like most of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib) probably had nothing to do with the resistance.  It now appears that he was a minor Baath Party official who managed a  parking lot near Baghdad.  He has since become an advocate for victims of American occupation forces, and says that he forgives the people who tortured him.  See Hassan M. Fattah, “Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare,”  New York, Times,Saturday, March 11, 2006, A1, A7.

[26] Capobianco Gallery, San Francisco.  The owner, Lori Haigh was forced to close her gallery after several attacks of vandalism.


[27] Danner, NYRB, 44.

[28] Another image that resonates with Haacke’s “Stargazer” is the cover of the leading German magazine,Der Spiegel, immediately after the Presidential election of November 2004.  The cover shows the Statue of Liberty blindfolded with the American flag, accompanied by the caption, “Augen zu und durch” (“Close your eyes and plunge forward”).  A less literal, but more poetic translation, is offered by title of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut.” 

W. J. T. Mitchell is Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. He is editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Critical Inquiry, a quarterly devoted to critical theory in the arts and human sciences. A scholar and theorist of media, visual art, and literature, Mitchell is associated with the emergent fields of visual culture and iconology (the study of images across the media). He is known especially for his work on the relations of visual and verbal representations in the context of social and political issues. His publications include: "The Pictorial Turn," Artforum, March 1992; "What Do Pictures Want?" October, Summer 1997; What Do Pictures Want? (2005); The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (1998); Picture Theory (1994); Art and the Public Sphere (1993); Landscape and Power (1992); Iconology (1987); The Language of Images (1980); On Narrative (1981); and The Politics of Interpretation (1984).

The Left, the Right and the Holy Spirit, October 2008