In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Fox News issued an apology and retraction that gained some attention the following week. Terrorism experts had made several outlandish claims about the prevalence of Islam in Europe, including the idea that there are “no go zones” ruled by radical Islamists and Sharia law. Le Petit Journal had an amusing send up:
The Daily Show had a reliably funny take as well.
Bearing the brunt of most of the criticism was terrorism expert Steve Emerson, who made the claim that the city of Birmingham is now almost entirely Muslim. The claim was then repeated several times by the network before being fact checked. Here’s Emerson on Fox:
Emerson gained notoriety for his 1994 PBS documentary “Jihad in America.” Critics of Emerson like to point out that he was one of the first terrorism experts to allege a Middle Eastern connection to the Oklahoma City bombing. His proof? Only Islamic terrorism was capable of such wanton destruction and reckless disregard for life.
In its retractions, Fox News essentially threw Emerson under the bus. But this did not stop others from calling into question the very notion of terrorism expertise.
For example, Glen Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Lisa Stampnitzky discussed the controversy and the broader problem of terrorism expertise on Democracy Now! Here, the main allegation against terrorism expertise is its lack of academic rigor, proper institutional accreditation, and political manipulation. Significant attention is also given to the subjective concept of terrorism. The charlatan profile of the terrorism expert reflects the dubious standing of terrorism as a coherent, uncorrputed idea.
Scahill took things further in a subsequent CNN appearance. There he excoriated all of the major TV news networks — his CNN hosts included — for using terrorism, security, and military experts with questionable credentials and financial incentives.
Implicit in such criticisms of the “terrorism industrial complex” are distinctions between real forms of expertise and false ones; good experts and bad experts; real forms of political violence and ideologically fabricated ones.
Indeed, the alleged crisis of terrorism expertise is not simply the corrupt motives of some experts but also the bankrupt nature of the concept of terrorism. How can one have a reliable field of expertise when the object at the heart of the field is so intensely contested? If one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, perhaps the concept should be abandoned. But the fact that we don’t abandon it must be suggestive of the fact that terrorism — and so terrorism expertise — serves a political function, not a scientific one. Hence the theory that terrorism is simply a discourse that legitimates US management of the Middle East.
Amid this crisis in terrorism expertise, a much more profound failure of expert knowledge is taking place, one that will likely have massive and far-reaching effects. This is the failure of oil expertise, and it calls into question some of the assumptions driving criticism of terrorism expertise.
The recent decline in oil prices has been largely seen as a boon to US consumers and the bane of Putin’s ambitions. The current glut of oil on the market is often interpreted as a Saudi led effort to undermine the new energy confidence of the United States, green alternatives, Iran, or all of the above. The effects of price crash have yet to be fully understood; the geopolitical ramifications could be enormous. One effect of the 1985-85 oil price collapse — to which the current crisis is drawing comparisons — was the economic undermining of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War soon thereafter.
What is surprising about this new reality of $2 a gallon gas is that we are surprised. The main allegation against terrorism expertise was the subjective idea of terrorism. Oil, on the other hand, is objective.
But for all the purported objectivity of oil — its finiteness, its quantifiability — no one seems to have any idea how much is out there. We will never see $100 oil again or we will soon see $200 oil. Just as the shale oil boom in North America seems to have taken the global oil industry and US politics by surprise, so too has the recent collapse in oil prices — and with it the temporary mothballing of the US gas industry in some areas.
How can these surprises keep happening when the resource is supposedly fixed and — unlike terrorism expertise — the experts are incredibly well trained, objectively credentialed, and housed in the world’s most prestigious universities, corporations, and government bureaucracies?
Next to defense, communications, and space research, it is difficult to think of a modern industrial sector that has more techno-scientific expertise and state power behind it than the oil industry. By oil expertise, one should not think of the handful of neomalthusian or cornucopian writers and academics who extol the virtues and vices of our modern global civilization being premised upon oil. When we think about oil expertise we should be thinking about a class of expertise that includes thousands of geologists, engineers, cartographers, highly skilled laborers, and government officials. Collectively these represent the highest capacities of modern science, technology, and management. And they consistently fail us.
In the case of terrorism and oil expertise, it might be suggested that the common variable that corrupts both fields is state power and geopolitics. That is, whatever objectivity terrorism expertise seems to have and whatever objectivity oil expertise seems to lack is a reflection of the corrupting influence of politics.
The film Syriana is perhaps the ultimate synthesis of these two corruptions.
Robert Baer (played by George Clooney) is a top Middle East terrorism expert with the CIA who is driven to an insignificant desk job because he sees things as they are, not as politics would want him to. Bryan Woodman (played by Matt Damon) is a private sector expert, an energy markets analyst who watches his dreams of helping a Gulf prince liberalize his country go up in smoke — literally. A CIA drone shoots a hellfire missile into the prince’s motorcade just as Baer is attempting to warn the prince. Baer’s bosses in Langley are out to assassinate the prince for being a free market pragmatist who will sell our precious oil to the Chinese.
The corruption of terrorism and oil expertise by state — and corporate — power is a seductive thesis but ultimately unsatisfactory. Both are premised on the notion that uncorrupted expertise is not only possible but desirable. That is, there seems to be a collective expectation that scientific, technical, and managerial expertise — terrorism, oil, and otherwise — should work, and can work under the right circumstances. That expertise doesn’t work is chalked up to distorting outside influences.
To invent nostalgia for the untainted expert reveals the antipolitics of our age. Often the heroes of our culture transcend politics through their expertise in science, technology, and management. Through and with them, we are tempted to imagine and create a world in which government is left behind. Power naturally devolves to the empowered and emancipated individual as we all become global citizen-experts thanks to Google. Lurking behind most criticisms of expertise is an implicit vision of the world that was perhaps first and best articulated by Ayn Rand.
But imagining and making such a world would mean there is nothing to fight over, a world in which there are no secrets and, more importantly, a world in which nature is infinite. As Timothy Mitchell argues, it was oil that allowed us to first create a world in which nature was counted on not to count. Modern economic science then emerged to exclusively render and manage this strange new world. This impoverished, anatural, and yet highly productive understanding of political economy that we call Neoclassical Economics would soon insinuate itself into the very heart of modern governance as Neoliberalism.
The true crisis of contemporary terrorism and oil expertise is the untenable world hiding behind our criticisms of them. It is also the experts’ inability to account for their mutual imbrication. That is, these failures of expertise are the result of oil and terrorism experts’ embeddedness within the imperfect politics of necessity that emerged at the end of WWII when the previous system — direct European control of territory justified and maintained by overt racism — could no longer underwrite the emerging international energy system. To preserve the productive contradictions at the heart of the oil age (its unimpeded flow and the illusion of its scarcity), US power has had to be asserted in the Middle East on an increasing and increasingly haphazard basis. These US assertions of power, to maintain the particular set of relations dictated by oil’s nature, has of course involved violence, of which terrorism is part of the story.
Experts are not above politics nor can they save us from it. But at least they shed light on how power operates.