Pouring Cooking Oil on the Road, or the Great Traffic Accident of US History

It can be difficult to read about terrorism if your goal is actually learning something. If ever there was a use for the word “pleonasm” (h/t Henri Lefebvre), it’s the aftermath of a terrorist attack. In this post, I will talk a little bit about what the aftermath of the Boston bombings tell us about what we choose not to know, with the main point of showing how the jokes about terrorists’ harebrained schemes (also here and here) might become less funny if only we were less ignorant about the history of US empire.

There are a few elements in the pleonastic terrorism bullshit chorus. First is the media. Decimated by their liberalism (with a small l), which means they believe in their heart of hearts that open access to information can be profitable, and hamstrung by their ideological commitment to the chimera of objectivity, journalists are, with occasional exceptions, not waving but drowning. 

Second are the experts, who populate the panels, rearrange the deck chairs, and have little or nothing to say of utility. Their expertise is in constructing what we think we already know. Any day now an already award-winning book by Lisa Stampnitzky will be released that will demonstrate how, in the 1970s, terrorism was invented as a category of expert knowledge without the necessity of any experts’ having knowledge about it. (My dissertation covers the period right before this book's, and it analyzes some of the same figures.)

Third are the conspiracy theorists, who range somewhere between 90% and 99% of the American public to judge by online comments sections and graffiti all over my neighborhood. There is a direct link, no doubt, between the health of conspiracy theory and the vapid experts and the objectivity ideology (followed as if the gulag awaits any deviants). Conspiracy types think objectivity in the media disguises the state’s machinations and aids those in power. Well, that’s mostly true. They also think that the experts called upon to tell us something about terrorists are government agents. That’s partly true. Many of them are former military/intelligence dudes, probably currently consultants. But, really, the problem with conspiracy theory is simple: the neoliberal state, or the anti-state state, is a lumbering bureaucratic mess that prefers its actions to take the form of inaction. A conspiracy of the gutting of regulatory powers enabled the West, Texas, explosion. Its culprits could be named, traced, tracked, etc. A drone attack on them would level K Street.

It may even yet be revealed that the FBI or DHS knew something more about the Tsarnaev brothers that did not filter down to the right office. No surprise there. So many data are being collected at any given moment that the sheer mass of the info surely prevents any agency from doing anything with it expeditiously or thoroughly. Those reality-television shows about hoarders are the perfect encapsulation of our times, whether taken literally as about consumption of cheap goods made in China or as about the NSA’s SIGINT hoovering up every intimate detail. 

A very sophisticated argument has been mounted by historian Moishe Postone that analyzes conspiracy theory, particularly in the form of anti-Semitism, as a fetishized understanding of the abstract processes of capital.1 No need to delve into it in further detail here other than to say, right on, and to point out that sometimes I wonder about the mirroring between conspiracy theorists’ understandings of Jews or the 1% in these terms and terrorism experts’ and various warmongers’ understandings of al Qaeda. The latter are simultaneously insignificant scum and diabolical masterminds.

A recent On the Media show included a discussion of the al Qaeda magazine Inspire, which supposedly taught the Tsarnaevs how to build bombs (according to the younger brother, during a hospital-bed interrogation). J. M. Berger, of Foreign Policy magazine, injected some sanity into the discussion of Inspire by saying that the publication has become a talisman, credited with far more evil than it ever actually is known to have caused. (Conspiracy theorists claim it's a CIA publication.)

First, let’s just get something out of the way: you can buy magazines that include just as much dangerous information at most gas stations. I remember picking up a copy of Soldier of Fortune in the Pathmark in East Hanover, NJ, when I was about 8 years old in the 1980s. Play with toy guns? Now read about how to kill Communists in Sub-Saharan Africa; all you need is a passport and a beard. Today, the market is saturated with martial arts, firearms, police, military, and paramilitary publications. The Tsarnaevs, if it is true that they read Inspire, could have simply gone to a magazine shop. Less of an online trail that way! As John Cassidy points out, they could have killed far more people with AR-15s, and they could have read about how to do so in magazines published by major US corporations.

The occasion of a mention of Inspire by a real, (barely) live terrorist meant that many experts could trot it out again. This magazine is supposedly a treasure trove of idiotic ideas, written poorly, and thus deserving of mockery combined with the usual jingoism, alarmism, racism that is standard fare in discussions of terrorism. Even Berger, who plays the role of the voice of reason among alarmists, can’t resist poking fun at some of the ideas in Inspire. They come across as fantasies of acne-faced burnouts, scrawled in marbled-cover notebooks, from the back row of remedial algebra. There’s a good reason: whod'yathink they hope to recruit? With visible condescension, Berger has written:

[I]t is apparent from reading the operational advice in Inspire that its writers and editors have no direct experience of violence. They have not dirtied their hands—fired guns at the enemy, blown up buildings, executed prisoners. Their advice on committing violence is completely speculative and often childishly stupid, as in last issue’s “Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” and this issue’s “Ultimate Mowing Machine” in which aspiring terrorists are advised to weld lawnmower blades to the bumper of a truck and drive it into a crowd.

(As someone whose political commitments include both overthrowing the value-form and making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, I do wonder whether we should thus consider drivers who “lose control” and plow into people waiting for the bus to be terrorists. Is the only difference the lack of the lawnmower blades?)

The condescension, though, is merited by a distinction Berger is trying to make between the jihadist "social movement" and “lone-wolf” terrorists. Inspire is aimed at the lone-wolves, and, clearly, though possibly aspirants to the former, the Tsarnaevs were members of the latter. He writes, “Jihadism is a social movement. It’s trying to create social change in Islamic countries, within Islam writ large, and in the West. Lone-wolfism is the Unabomber, a pathological narcissist hurling bombs from a remote cabin in the woods. There is a meaningful distinction between jihadism and lone-wolfism.” I suppose the serious social-movement types deserve drone strikes, and so do their sons. By the way, does calling these terrorists a social movement actually have the effect of besmirching social movements? It’s hard not to think that the effort to take al Qaeda seriously in this manner elides distinctions between movements for social change that use peaceful methods, like strikes, demonstrations, occupations, kidnapping bosses (j/k!), etc., and those that fly planes into buildings. But, hey, maybe that's just me.

Here, though, is the real point of all this. In addition to the lawnmower death fantasy,2 Berger mentioned on On the Media and in a recently published article another funny terror tactic: "[Inspire’s] tactical advice has ranged from bad to ludicrous, suggesting people weld lawnmower blades to a truck in an early issue, and degenerating in its most recent issue to a recommendation that lone jihadists rub highways with cooking oil in order to cause traffic accidents."

Only a brutal moron, an amateur, a psychopath, a deluded murderer-wannabe who doesn’t have the spine to get real with the murder shit would come up with such a stupid idea. Well, only that guy—or the Pentagon.

*     *     *

I am writing at length about the slippery/sticky substance method of security in my dissertation. Here’s a preview. From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, chemists, military and police scientists, and willing operational experimentalists tried to come up with non-lethal means of deterring movement. In volatile civil-disturbance situations, one peace-making possibility was to contain a crowd by restricting its movement. Enter slippery/sticky substances. (Cattle prods, though non-lethal, were considered too risqué.) Put down something like tar on the road and those rampaging youths would get stuck like saber-toothed tigers in La Brea. Or, put down something slippery—one branded product was referred as “instant banana peel” or "slippery barrier"—and the crowd would fall down in one hilariously slapstick law-enforcement success. Also, it was hypothesized that snipers on rooftops could be thwarted by, before the riot, a sticky substance applied to potential sniper roosts. In addition to slippery/sticky substances, there were foams. Even better than smoke, which was subject to the vagaries of weather conditions, a street with an aggressive crowd could be blanketed with a dense foam that would disorient those it enveloped and prevent them from moving freely or according to their nefarious goals and intentions. "Although the bubbles are completely harmless, the over-all effect is like having a bad dream," wrote an author in the magazine of the US Chamber of Commerce. You don't say.

These substances are of interest on their own, and they make a good story. One purpose of my analysis, however, is to argue that they reveal something about the Cold War security apparatus’s conception of space and mobility. It is maybe best illustrated by other operational uses for these substances. One that was proposed was ringing hamlets in Vietnam with foam. Even after the dismal failure of the Strategic Hamlets program in the early years of the war, the imperative of village security did not go away. The idea behind Strategic Hamlets was relatively simple: separate the good (or at least indifferent—they were peasants after all, went the thinking) people from the bad guys and the bad guys will lose their material support and sustenance. Once separated, the task was to keep them separated. Foam barriers could be quite useful, argued one chemist in a letter to a National Security Advisor. No bad guy could penetrate a foam barrier. 

Another proposal, which actually was used (along with weather modification), was the placement of slippery/sticky substances on the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail. The idea was to interdict the shipment of fighters and matériel that would be used against the Americans or the ARVN. (Never mind that one major source, if not the major source, of matériel was US supply bases via theft and the black market.) In the case of the trail and foam around hamlets, we can understand the simple logic: prevent exogenous influences from harming, or recruiting, the pure or innocent South Vietnamese peasants. Thus, the largely metaphoric conception of exogenous influence—uniformly Communist—was again and again mapped in actual space and dealt with accordingly. The experiments with slippery/sticky substances for domestic law enforcement were also concerned with mobility, and the prevailing understanding of civil disturbance until the publication of the Kerner Commission report was that riots were likely to have been caused by outside agitators, not legitimate community-based anger. The problem, however, is that the war in Vietnam, was not caused by exogenous influence of China, the USSR, or North Vietnam. Nor were the rebellions of Watts, Detroit, or Newark caused by exogenous influences. The exogenous influence that caused the Vietnam War was the United States, and the source of fighters was endogenous. (That is why in Vietnam it is remembered as the American War.) The United States, as Nick Turse demonstrates, could never figure out how to distinguish between the innocent peasants and the dastardly fighters, at the cost of killing innumerable innocent peasants. The point is not that the peasants weren’t so innocent—which is what revisionists, conservatives, racists, and warmongers would have us believe. Instead, it is that the legitimate grievances of people struggling for self-determination against imperialism could not enter the cosmology of the US warmachine.

I might even argue that there is an epistemological chain that links Vietnam War–era modernization theory, with its innocent but easily swayed and therefore suspect peasants living in a prior stage of growth, and the notion of malignant exogenous influence. Modernization theory depended on the nation-state as the unit of analysis, the necessary condition for evolutionary development on the proper path, and the political-organization object of its telos. Modernization theory, in historian Harry Harootunian's words, "often labored to identify prescription with description, a what ought to be with what actually is" (30). He notes that, its "chronology marking the inevitable progression of stage-ism is actually bonded to the nation-state, a category it unproblematically presupposes, rather than to the itinerary of capitalism itself which both intersects with the nation and exceeds it through expansion" (25). Given that the United States has since at least 1898 garbed its imperial projects in the vestments of anti-colonialism, it could conjure integral and separate nation-states like North and South Vietnam and then through further epistemological sleight of hand narrate the problems of the South as owing to invasions from the North, regardless of whether the free and nominally autonomous residents of these new nation-states actually believed they lived in separate and discrete political bodies.

Ever since 9/11, critical discussions of terrorism invariably include references to “blowback.” The historian Chalmers Johnson wrote in detail about the phenomenon. The argument goes: in tactically supporting enemies of its enemies, US empire supported anti-imperialists, and when the US empire was the only empire left, they became its enemies. (Conspiracy theorists love this stuff, but it is a real concern for the state: note the reservations about arming Syria's rebels today.) But my goal is somewhat different. Blowback is one phase or moment of a larger, cumulative globe-encircling process of the take-off, circulation, landing, and take-off again of a range of people, technologies, and ideas about security that bloomed in the Cold War. This process crosses foreign and domestic divides. The slippery/sticky substances were tried in Chicago and Berkeley, in Vietnam, and they eventually found their way into the arsenal of the British in Northern Ireland, as my dissertation will document. “Blowback" does not describe the full range of circulations, nor what historical sociologist Dale Tomich in another context calls the "historical mosaic of interrelated, interdependent, mutually formative loci" (119). Wielded carelessly, the concept of blowback can ultimately reinforce or reify the foreign-domestic security divisions that US empire has relentlessly firmed up ideologically while negating materially.

Moreover, there is almost no chance that Inspire's writers, whether bumbling fools or well-informed warriors, have any knowledge about US experiments with these substances. Oil slicks in Inspire, thus, are not evidence of blowback. More likely, just as was the case with the United States, in the 1960s at home and abroad, the crazy schemes signal desperation. In the 1960s, for the United States, the seemingly all-encompassing, everywhere enemy was global Communism. For al Qaeda, such as it is, today the everywhere enemy is the US warmachine. Which seems more immediately lethal, the Cubans who gave Stokely Carmichael and Robert F. Williams a chance to broadcast freedom dreams globally or Predator and Reaper drones? Hindsight would be 20/20 if it weren’t the case that Carmichael and Williams understood such disproportion back then.

We can enjoy a good laugh at the zany ideas of “lone-wolf” terrorists. And/or we can wring our hands over whether these domestic terrorists are actually foreign,3 or vice versa. But we would do well to step back and look at the bigger picture, which, this event shows, straddles borders.

Gun control dead in the cradle? Check.

Martial law widely accepted? Check.

Immigration reform off the table? Likely check. (And let’s not forget that idiotic citizenship requirements are what probably “radicalized” the elder Tsarnaev, not some online magazine.)

The most powerful Liberal in the United States calling for getting rid of the Fourth Amendment? Check. (BTW, google this story. Most of the links are on extreme-right/conspiracy theorist websites. Just sayin.)

The thing that terrorism experts will not and cannot ever address is actually simple. Martin Luther King, Jr., said it in a speech you never hear memorialized in the sanitized version of history with which the United States consoles itself:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But, they asked, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
What King in his later years, Carmichael in the late 1960s, and Williams at points shared was a critical conception of the nation-state. They recognized that the problems of oppression they faced, to use Du Bois's phrase, belted the world. The problems, and their solutions, worked through and instrumentalized, but also exceeded, the nation-state. And US state power alone could not save black people. Recognition of this fact was key to King's transformation. The racism that underwrote the white vigilante violence that sent Williams on his odyssey ended at the US border as much as US military might ended at the US border. The cacophony of convolutions in which experts and politicians must engage to explain the Tsarnaev brothers results from their trying to identify what ought to be with what is—meaning their dream that US empire either doesn't exist or is wholly benevolent is not so easily reconciled with the ramified, foreign-domestic consequences of US aggression. It is blowforward upon blowback and on and on. To listen to the news about terrorism is to enter a funhouse. What the jokes about cooking oil and lawnmower blades belie is that the funhouse is of the United States' own making.

1. “Whereas most forms of race thinking commonly impute concrete bodily and sexual power to the Other, modern anti-Semitism attributes enormous power to Jews, which is abstract, universal, global, and intangible. At the heart of modern anti-Semitism is a notion of the Jews as an immensely powerful, secret international conspiracy. . . . the modern anti-Semitic worldview understands the abstract domination of capital—which subjects people to the compulsion of mysterious forces they cannot perceive—as the domination of International Jewry” (99).

2. Nb, there was a 1980s metal band called Lawnmower Deth, who are currently being interrogated in a black site, no doubt. Hey CIA, they were a joke band!

3. The Insular Cases, Supreme Court decisions on whether the Constitution follows the flag, as necessitated by turn-of-the-century US imperial expansion, provides the most apt phrase: "foreign in a domestic sense."

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