Mugshots and Terrorists

This past week Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was returned to the headlines in (in)glorious fashion since the U.S. Attorney General announced he will be tried in New York City for his part in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

Most of the buzz surrounding the announcement concerned the fact that, and the AG made the point especially strongly, he will be tried just a few blocks from site of the horrific attacks of that day.

(I remember watching TV that Tuesday morning and seeing the second plane fly into the second tower.  I don’t remember why I had the television on at that time, but the TV was on that morning and I saw it live.)

Additionally, concerns were expressed about the fact that his trial will be a civil affair and fall under United States’ jurisdiction with all the ambiguities and potential complications regarding what evidence, testimony, and procedures will be allowed.

The worries expressed by some media talking-heads that he could actually get off because of some procedural or evidentiary mistake and the complicating hothouse atmosphere of the New York City seemed to be the main concerns of the majority of analysts and commentators, i.e. the fear he would not be convicted.

But this media event as it is already shaping up to be was again as it was when KSM was first apprehended and photographically captured symbolically and ideologically in his “mug” shot.  Of course, his was more than a mug shot.


The representation of him in the photo as one blogger has noted, was “greasy, grimy….” His wild head and body hair, a partially naked upper torso with only an undershirt, made it possible for the media to reinforce the kinds of arguments and rhetorics that had been forwarded by the Bush Administration to justify their Middle Eastern foreign policies and desires to invade Iraq including portraying Arab nations as fundamentally retrograde, uncivilized, corrupt states.  They required the strong, clear, authoritative interjection of U.S. military force to cleanse and prepare them to enter the modern world of capitalist, democratic nations.

Hayden White, in his Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Johns Hopkins, 1978), in chapter seven where he assesses the idea of wildness in history and different cultural/religious/national traditions, succinctly, I think, describes what I saw/see happening with the media presentation of the KSM photo and the symbolic and rhetorical exercises evolving from it:

“The notion of ‘wildness’ (or in its Latinate form, ‘savagery’) belongs to a set of culturally self-authenticating devices which includes, among many others, the ideas of ‘madness’ and ‘heresy’ as well.  These terms are used not merely to designate a specific condition or state of being but also to confirm the value of their dialectical antithesis ‘civilization,’ ‘sanity,’ and ‘orthodoxy,’ respectively.  Thus, they do not so much refer to a specific thing, place, or condition as dictate a particular attitude governing a relationship between a lived reality and some area of problematical existence that cannot be accommodated easily to conventional conceptions of the normal or familiar.” (151)

This “other” man, who embodies the “grotesque”—and I am thinking of the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion here of the (primitive, natural) body that exceeds what are considered “normal” boundaries, or what some might consider “ideal” civilized ones of dry smoothness and containment, with all bodily cavities well covered, hair trimmed and nicely domesticated, no fluids (sweat) or odors or other bodily extrusions in evidence, etc.—is this wild man who lives within and outside any given community’s borders, who is ever-present, but invisible until he does something to threaten the community.  (In this case, a nation-state.)

And while White does make a fine distinction between the Wild Man and barbarians—the analogy might be applied to the media’s rhetorical difference between “terrorists” (non-state agents) and non/anti-modern, authoritarian Arab nations (like Hussein’s Iraq)—I think “wildness” suitably describes the symbolic treatment of KSM and Osama Bin Laden’s “gang.”

White again, clearly paints a picture of this deviant for us, contrasting him to the “barbarian”:

“By contrast, the Wild Man is conventionally represented as being always present, inhabiting the immediate confines of the community.  He is just out of sight, over the horizon, in the nearby forest, desert, mountains, or hills.  He sleeps in crevices, under great trees, or in the caves of wild animals, to which he carries off helpless children, or women, there to do unspeakable things to them.  And he is also sly: he steals the sheep from the fold, the chicken from the coop, tricks the shepherd, and befuddles the gamekeeper.  In the medieval myth especially, the Wild Man is conceived to be covered with hair and to be black and deformed.  He may be a giant or a dwarf, or he may be merely horribly disfigured, rather like Charles Laughton in the American movie version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  But in whatever way he is envisaged, the Wild Man almost always represents the image of the man released from social control, the man in whom the libidinal impulses have gained full ascendancy.” (166)

In the small (post)modern world we live in, the medieval myth told from the community perspective is now reiterated from a transnational one.  The Wild Man is within the nationally imagined community—he is born in Virginia and serves in the U.S. military counseling fellow troops with PTSD—and he lives in the mountain caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And, this (savage, primitive, unruly) man is hairy, hairy, hairy…

I would speculate that of all the aspects of the image that represents wildness the most in KSM to most American viewers, it would be his hairy body.  Indeed, it wasn’t just that he was unkempt and rough looking (sweaty, etc.)—I’m not sure if he was found in that state—but that he “exuded” wildness because of his coat of body hair.

As William Ian Miller explains in The Anatomy of Disgust (Harvard, 1997), hair is at the center and foundation of disgust when it isn’t where it should be and when it is associated with sites of obscurity and sexuality. (pp. 54-58)  Indeed, hair is in some sense like a weed—my analogy, not Miller’s—it grows and grows and grows and grows where we don’t want it to grow.  And when we don’t pull it out and zap it gone in uncivilized places, train it to work together collectively where we can’t help but display it, and mistakenly find it in the wrong places  (our food or mouths), we symbolically become the wild creatures, not civilized humans, we endeavor not to be.

I traveled to an American Studies conference just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, well before there was any kind of rational thinking about how to respond domestically to the attacks to ensure citizen safety.  Likewise, the airlines and TSA, for sure, didn’t have a rational plan for evaluating passengers in a thorough and fair way.

Standing in line to board flights from Salt Lake City to Washington,D.C., I was pulled out of line three times to be questioned and have my carry-on items checked.

These were clearly not random choices, in my view.  On each occasion I watched the airline personnel scan the lines of waiting passengers and eventually focus on me.  My best guess was they had a swarthy profile in mind.  Something darker with what my Mom usually identified as my “Roman” nose. (Now I call it my Mexica(n) nose.)

My mixed, hybrid racial profile is somewhat ambiguous—part Mexican (therefore part indigenous), part Scot, (black?)Irish, Welch, English.  I have even been seen implicitly as Jewish by strangers who don’t know me: “has anyone ever told you look like Paul Simon?”

So when I see KSM’s wildness portrayed wildly in the media I think about my own potential wildness and how others have perceived it including those airline employees who isolated me as one worth investigating when profiling potential terrorists was de rigueur after 9/11.  I can more clearly imagine now how my body might be construed as grotesque for ideological, mythical purposes under the right conditions (of political and cultural terror).

I think of my own hairy back and chest and the other places where hair “shouldn’t” be seen publicly that need constant trimming and pulling: the nose, ears, eyebrows. (How I trim my neck/back hair so it is below the neckline of my t-shirts, which is my preferred attire.) I think of the morning radio show I listen to and the ads for hair removal endorsed and used by the hosts and how happy they are to not be molested any more by the “wildness”—not their term, of course—that their hair represented to them before its removal.

I think of the illegal, the “alien” bodies of my Mexican and Central and South American family and how they have been misconstrued as grotesque for ideological purposes, assigned a subordinate, less than human value because of the culturally specific, narrowly racialized values that seep from the “war on terror.”  (Maybe better described as the war on “wildness.”)

Of course, I’m not justifying terrorism, its horrific reality and the lives lost directly in and following the attacks and as the United States have followed a misdirected path to somehow imagine eradicating terrorism.  I am simply trying to understand and comment on the ideological/mythologizing processes that continue with, too often, unfortunate consequences for people who have no interest in and nothing to do with terrorism.

For me, this piece is part of an ongoing attempt to identify unfortunate, but real cultural processes that establish patterns of economic, cultural, and political power and privilege within our national community and transnationally.  It’s a small, rough statement that I have been thinking about for some time, ever since Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was first represented in the U.S. media after his capture.  And it probably won’t be the last.

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