Friday, June 09, 2006

View Finder

Today's story in the New York Times about slain terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi contains a slant that might not be apparent to most readers. As a feminist and pacifist, I certainly would not defend the digital rhetoric of a rapist and murderer, but the sources used in "Zarqawi Built Global Jihadist Network on the Internet" are very problematic. My reason for concern is that the article relies exclusively on web-surfing agencies from the political right: The SITE Institute and Global Terror Alert. I've blogged about issues about translation for the SITE group before, but it is worth pointing out how Global Terror Alert also feeds the twenty-four hour news cycle and a conspiratorial logic that oversimplifies complicated international affairs.

It's all connected to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, we are reminded, through visual rhetoric that opens with black and white images of the wreckage at Ground Zero and transitions to an earlier shot of the towers billowing smoke. In its moody Flash presentation, complete with pensive, cinematic music, Global Terror Alert's sponsoring organization, NEFA explains that it seeks "uncompromised answers to complex questions," which sounds like an oxymoron to my rhetorician's ear. The fact that NEFA stands for "9/11 Finding Answers" is also an odd inversion of the usual tendency in electronic communication to substitute numbers for letters in acronyms.

Organizations that "monitor" the World Wide Web for jihadist websites do have ideologies. To present them as neutral archivists is to sell readers short. It is particularly unfortunate since the Times writer makes a legitimate observation about how Zarqawi mastered the jihadist digital sound bite, which could be transmitted via cellular telephone and other low-memory mobile devices. His style was in sharp contrast to the longer video "news" releases of Osama Bin Laden, whose professorial demeanor is more reminiscent of a lecture from a distance learning course.

Since his first communiqué appeared on a jihadist Web forum in April 2004, Mr. Zarqawi's media operation has posted hundreds of others, often with video clips. Lasting only a minute or two, the clips gave jihadist oratory far more immediacy: masked snipers shoot at American soldiers; a suicide bomber's car speeds toward an armored personnel carrier before disappearing in a fireball; a bomb detonates in a truck convoy, with drivers fleeing the flames.

Yet, as the BBC points out, it has been eight months since the last beheading video, so web analysts who are critical of U.S. policy may be correct in asserting that the visual rhetoric of the insurgency was already moderating itself through the self-regulatory mechanisms of audience response.

Of course, the actual Global Terror Alert home page -- which the Times is citing -- has many digital markers that make me question its authority, despite the slick work showcased at NEFA, its parent organization. Banner ads, black backgrounds, and distorted photographs make me wonder if those at GTA are really equipped to analyze the digital rhetoric of others.



Post a Comment

<< Home