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Viral terrorism and terrifying viruses: the homological construction of the war on terror and the avian flu pandemic

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In the climate of panic following the September 11 attacks, previously little-discussed threats were publicized as potential instruments for terrorist attacks. Anxious discourses in the media surrounding anthrax, smallpox, dirty bombs and suitcase nukes blurred distinctions between viruses, bacteria and radiation, creating a generalized environment of fear which facilitated and legitimized controversial government initiatives. This essay argues that this environment of fear was advanced and maintained not only through explicit discursive invocations of terrorism, but also through seemingly unrelated issues, such as a possible bird flu pandemic. By rhetorically constructing bird flu as a threat that is ontologically homologous to that of terrorism, the nature of pandemic disease and the policies and programs designed to counter it have been fundamentally misconstructed, leaving us in some ways more vulnerable to pandemic disease than before. With the recent international swine flu pandemic revealing just how underprepared we are to deal with serious pandemic threats, it is clear that our social and political conceptual frameworks for conceiving of pandemic disease must be rethought. We must sunder the present reality of pandemic threats from the beclouding epistemological influence of the 9/11 attacks, and re-learn the differences between terrifying viruses and viral terrorism.

Keywords: Avian flu; Media panic; Pandemic; Terrorism; Viral terrorism; War on terrorism

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Texas at Austin.

Publication date: 2009-10-01

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  • The International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics is committed to analyzing the politics of communication(s) and cultural processes. It addresses cultural politics in their local, international and global dimensions, recognizing equally the importance of issues defined by their specific cultural geography and those that traverse cultures and nations.
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