Secrecy and absence in the residue of post-9/11 covert counter-terrorism
Kearns, Oliver Ben
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This thesis examines how secrecy and absence shape the representation of covert counter-terrorism in the public sphere. Contemporary covert practices, from missile strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles to special forces 'kill/capture' operations, have come to exemplify U.S. counter-terrorism in public debate. This is significant because these practices shift the ethical stakes of witnessing state warfare. Previous scholarship on war and news media has argued that public glimpses of state violence, alongside official declarations, can demonise or dehumanise the targets of such violence, and thus prompt witnesses to accept the state's rationalisation of these actions and the use of secrecy. News coverage of contemporary covert action, however, offers no such glimpses. Instead, coverage draws primarily upon residue: the rumours and debris left behind. By applying this concept of residue to drone strikes, the special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and kidnap rescue efforts in the Sahara-Sahel, the thesis argues that it is all this speculation, rubble, and empty space, rather than the state itself, which signifies to newsreaders the possibility of state secrecy. That suspicion of secrecy then frames the absences in this residue, the conspicuous lack of certain bodies and objects. Secrecy makes those absences appear suggestive, in that the latter cannot publicly corroborate different aspects of these unseen events. This allows residue to intimate – to hint at unverifiable ideas about that which is absent, in a way which can undermine more explicit claims and justifications of what has taken place. To examine how this dynamic reframes the ethics of witnessing, the thesis develops an historical affiliation, a method of linking disparate practices of violence based on similar representational qualities, in order to examine whether witnessing is being shaped by these qualities in obscured or unspoken ways. This affiliation is made between representations of covert counter-terrorism and those of lynching in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite their differences, in both cases unseen violence and absent bodies are represented as significant in their being disconnected from wider society and difficult to comprehend, to understand how and why the violence takes place. This occurs in today's counter-terrorism through hints and allusions from absence, which represent these covert events as physically intangible. As with lynching, violence and its casualties are implicitly represented in their absence as reflecting the public's intellectual and moral distance from the practice. This takes covert counter-terrorism beyond a binary of fostering assent or dissent towards the state. Instead of prompting newsreaders' complicity with state narratives for its actions, residue intimates doubts and unspoken possibilities about these events that curtail their rationalisation. Insodoing, however, these representations marginalise the violence inflicted upon casualties from ethical consideration. They do so while obscuring how that marginalisation occurs, as newsreaders are prompted to see themselves as distanced from these events and to focus upon that distance, rather than on how absences are being given significance in the public sphere. Using the historical affiliation with lynching, the thesis concludes that an ethical witnessing of covert counter-terrorism through its residue cannot be based on an attempt to recognise and 'recover' lived experiences of suffering from rumours and debris. Rather, ethical witnessing would involve an awareness of how distance is constructed through that residue, and how this gives unspoken meaning to absence.