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<nettime> The President's DNA
Rana Dasgupta on Wed, 25 Jun 2003 21:51:51 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The President's DNA

You will have seen the story of how the US bombarded with "Hellfire"
missiles a convoy of SUVs heading to the Syrian border in the belief that
it carried Saddam's sons, and perhaps Saddam himself.  They are now taking
bits of flesh from the wreckage to test it for presidential DNA.

Given the fact that the US is supposedly occupying Iraq, this strikes one
as a particularly messy and - is the word appropriate? - distasteful way
of going about a political assassination.  Can't the "overwhelming force"
of the US army be used to stop a few Mercedes and their desperate inmates
- even if they are heavily armed?

There was something very intimate about 20th century assassinations, from
Franz Ferdinand onwards.  You got close, you suddenly brandished your gun
in the crowd, people screamed...  Even the assassination attempts launched
by the US government on leaders they didn't like were conducted by proxies
operating in this way.

Of course this is a war situation where killing is legitimised and where
it is therefore better to unleash greater force at less risk.  But it is
also a quintessentially 21st century assassination, whose form is
determined from beginning to end by technology.

-- It begins with the tapping of a satellite phone conversation "involving
either Saddam or his sons" - the US is currently flying U-2 spy planes and
RC-135 electronic eavesdropping aircraft over Iraq on a regular basis in
order to, as the lingo has it, "scoop up" electronic emissions and define

-- On this basis the army launches a Predator "drone" aircraft, an
unmanned aeroplane (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV) operated remotely.  
The remote operators fire from the Predator "an undisclosed number" of
Hellfire missiles, laser-guided missiles designed for air-to-surface
"anti-armour" use (there's an interesting article about it in Armor
magazine, entitled, along the lines of "Get the most from your washing
powder/life insurance etc", "Getting the most from a lethal weapon
system").  Presumably these ordinary street cars were completely destroyed
by the missiles.

-- Then comes the verification stage.  Of course there are no actual
people at the scene - except the dead ones in the burning yuppy cars.
reconnaissance satellites deliver clear photographs to the military which
cannot, however, show who has been killed.  then DNA experts are
dispatched to collect the fragments of charred flesh and bone that have
been dispersed all around the site, bag them and take them to a lab for
DNA testing. Obviously at some point the US military has gathered DNA from
close relatives of Saddam.

a man is a fragile thing.  why does it require such a gargantuan operation
to kill one?  it is all about that faceless "resistance" that the US is
facing, the bunch of fanatics who "resist" - not only the US, but history.
"Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on
the committee, said on the same program that any confirmation of the death
of Mr. Hussein would serve to undercut the morale of fighters who are
staging hit-and-run attacks on American soldiers and at the same time
instill confidence among the broader Iraqi public."  Since everyone, from
the military itself to the aid workers trying to fix water pipes, is
waiting for this "resistance" to come to its (inevitable) end, the death
of Saddam - if you believe that he is in some way behind all of it - is a
crucial military objective.

But there is something deeply disgusting about this whole operation.  I'm
not talking about the "shoot first identify later" ethos where terrifying
force is used on the basis of a mere suspicion (although this of course
sufficient cause for outrage).  I'm talking about the depersonalisation of
everything which finds its culmination in the gloved and masked collection
of DNA.  DNA identification means that you can destroy a body entirely and
still know who it was.  people are not confronted with a human form when
they go to identify, just with matter.

As the NYT delicately puts it:

"The official said a team was moving in to try to recover the DNA of those
in the convoy, but it was unclear if they had yet arrived at the scene."

"Recover the DNA"!  Do they leave the body parts and take *only* the DNA?
No: what it means by "DNA" is not beautiful double helices but bits of leg
and face and intestine.  "DNA" is an almost comic abstraction.

But somewhere there is a similarity in structure between the reduction of
individuals - enemies, human beings, political leaders - to genetic
material, and the entire "viral" model according to which the US
represents its enemy.  The US imagines an enemy that can have no true
picture of the world, that does not act according to "analysis" or
"opinion", but who is "infected" with fanatical anti-American feeling by
other "carriers" - a chain of contagion that leads back, ultimately, to
the superhuman originators of evil such as Saddam or Osama bin Laden.  
This is exactly the context of the US' self-serving arguments that Iraqi
resistance *can only* be kept alive by a weakened but still living Saddam,
who must therefore, in a Lord of the Rings-style scenario, be finally
destroyed in order for his evil influence to end.

In destroying Saddam's person, then, it is not that the US military is
deprived of a final image of the person who designed an evil regime,
because this is a struggle not against people but against Evil.  The
laboratories who process his DNA, then, are looking not at fragments of
the enemy but at *precisely* the enemy itself.


Rana Dasgupta

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