When watching Star Wars: Rogue One, many realized something interesting: The Rebels looked like terrorists. What might be even more interesting is the response to this realization. A wave of think pieces, which could be thought of as Star Wars apologetics, emerged discussing this phenomenon. These pieces, for the most part, compared the Rebels to Terrorists and the United States to the Empire (as I do below). Yet, they fail to interrogate the material realities that actually produce what we might call terrorism. This is what I attempt to do in this article.
Many have suggested that some form of political transformation occurred after the Second World War. Before World War II it could be said that Western States were disciplinary. Discipline is a concept that is developed by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punishment and other texts. Disciplinary society is best shown in the prison. Prison architecture is set up so that the prisoner always feels like they are being watched, even if no one is actually watching. Because of this, the prisoners must act as if they are being watched at all times. In this way, the material or physical architecture of the prison disciplines the way that the prisoner will act.
Foucault extends this disciplinary model to a number of other cultural spheres. These include the church, the school, the military and the factory. Like the prison, each of these institutions work to discipline people’s actions by making them feel like their are always being watched. In the church they are watched by the priest; in the school it is the teacher; in the military a commanding officer; and in the factory one’s supervisor. One can already see that this model of discipline functions through hierarchy: The priest is watched by the bishop; the teacher by the principle; the commanding officer by her superior; the supervisor by the boss. The prison structure that the disciplinary society is based off of is called the Panopticon. It was developed by the utilitarian Philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Prior to WWII it could be theorized that society was panoptic or disciplinary. In all areas of life, one was subjected to the disciplinary mechanisms which disciplined one’s actions.
After World War Two a transformation took place. With the invention of the computer and expansion of other communication technologies, the hierarchical structure of command became less necessary. As communication sped up, it was no longer necessary to create a panopticon where the prisoner felt like they were always being watched. With the advent of video surveillance, the prisoner was always being watched. Today, we live in a world of constant surveillance. From CCTV to our mobile phones, each of us is constantly being watched. This results not in a form of discipline, but of control. I don’t want to focus too much on the sociological implications of this surveillance, but rather a particular result of it: How does surveillance impact war?
When I think about war as an abstract category, I tend to think about it as a struggle between two States. Growing up in Canada, the British French Rivalry over North America was a common conflict of study. Simplifying the reality of the conflict: It is easy to think about two opposing sides roughly equal in strength attacking one another. The only real distinction between these two sides was that one wore red and the other blue. This type of war doesn’t exist anymore. WWII was the last time that major military powers went into combat against one another. Now, while there are many interesting things to unpack about communication and military speeds in relation to the Cold War, what is of more importance to this exploration is what war looks like after the Cold War (though much of this is true of the proxy wars that the United States engaged in during the Cold War). Following the Cold War, the world shifted from having two military powers to one. This meant that any conflict the United States would engage in would be asymmetrical—meaning a war between two States of unequal power.
The combination of asymmetrical warfare and constant surveillance results in a world where Terrorists are no longer able to identify themselves. The United States is capable of constantly watching its enemies. Through a combination of CCTV, drones and satellite technology, the US military is able to be watching its enemies at all times and in all places. As a result, it would be foolish to identify oneself as an enemy of the United States. If someone were to do so, they were be instantly under constant surveillance, not being able to act without the enemy knowing what they were doing. As a result, the weaker actor is forced to work in the shadows, blending into the population, and not distinguishing themselves until the moment before they attack. In the words of the French autonomist group Tiqqun, the enemy of the United States must make themselves invisible.
Invisibility is a refusal to identify. A soldier who wears civilian clothes in a city square is invisible. The People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam or the Viet Cong used tactics of invisibility to surprise and terrorize American troops during the War in Vietnam. By becoming invisible, the insurrectionary force can attack from the shadows using guerilla methods. They can attack the imperialist force in the ways that the force least expects it.
Invisibility is also a tactic seen in Star Wars: Rogue One. Rogue One shows a rebellion operating in the shadows of the Empire. The Rebels must use tactics of invisibility or be wiped out automatically by technology (the Death Star) that they are not able to compete with. Thus, the Rebels must hide their faces; they must operate in the shadows; and they must use means that might be considered nefarious in a traditional war setting. The Rebels in Rogue One operate using tactics of invisibility because if they did choose to identify themselves, they would be instantaneously obliterated. The conditions of asymmetrical warfare and surveillance lead to the adoption of invisible warfare. These tactics are shown in the original Star Wars trilogy as well, though they are not as explicitly represented. The Rebel Alliance is constantly hiding in the shadows of Empire, never attacking head on, but always using insurrectionary tactics. They travel across the Galaxy, constantly hiding until they attack at random.
The reality is that the imperial state is an integral part of the production of terrorism. It is the strength and surveillance of the State that necessitates the tactics of invisibility in the dissident. What is equally interesting is how the State uses the actions of the insurgent force in order to justify the surveillance apparatus that has been created in the first place. Legislation such as the Patriot Act in the United States led to an increase in surveillance in order to protect citizens from terrorist activities. One can already see a vicious circle taking place where surveillance breeds invisibility which breeds in turn more surveillance. While the audience is not privy to the everyday political actions of the Galactic Empire, it isn’t hard to imagine an increase in surveillance in order to keep an eye on potential rebels. It is also not too difficult to imagine that the Empire would use language of terrorism to describe these rebels.
Furthermore, the State is able to completely demonize the tactics of its opposition. Those who use tactics of invisibility are seen as cowardly and evil, while the State apparatus which functions to control the population is seen as benevolent and good. One common rhetorical strategy used by the United States and other Western powers is that they want to bring peace to whatever region they are entering into. Those who attack the United States are shown as barbaric and evil. This is perhaps why Rogue One’s use of these tactics was so jarring. I’ve been told that some people didn’t like Rogue One because it blurred the line between who was good and who was evil. Yet the film itself never really questions the moral justifications of the rebel alliance. The only blurring which occurs is that Western audiences find themselves cheering on the use of tactics that are usually only used by terrorists. Again, it isn’t hard to imagine the Empire condemning the rebellion on the basis of its tactics alone, and justifying its imperialism on the basis of peacekeeping.
This isn’t to say that groups like ISIS are justified in their actions. It is only to say that a wholesale condemnation of invisibility perpetuates the current global relations of power. By equating invisibility with terrorism, and suggesting that these tactics are always wrong, we fall into an assumption that the empire they are fighting against is always right. If that is the case, it means that we side with the Empire against the Rebel Alliance.