The Spirit of Terrorism

"When the world has been so thoroughly monopolized, when power has been so formidably consolidated by the technocratic machine and the dogma of globalization, what means of turning the tables remains besides terrorism? In dealing all the cards to itself, the system forced the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the game is ferocious."

-- Jean Baudrillard

Baudrillard's essay on the 9/11 attacks, L'Esprit Du Terrorisme, first appeared in the 11/2/01 edition of Le Monde. It was later translated by Donovan Hohn and printed in the February 02 edition of Harper's. Below are excerpts from the Harper's installment.

"We have had plenty of global events in recent years, from the death of Diana to the World Cup, as well as plenty of violent and real events, from wars to genocides. But a symbolic event global in reach -- an event that is not only broadcast worldwide but that threatens globalization itself -- had not yet occurred. For the length of the stagnant nineties, in the words of Argentine writer Macedonio Fernandez, 'events were on strike.' Well, the strike is over. Events are back at work. With the attack on the World Trade Center, we have now witnessed the ultimate event, the mother of all events, an event so pure it contains within it all the events that never took place.

"The speeches and commentaries made since September 11 betray a gigantic post-traumatic abreaction both to the event itself and to the fascination that it exerts. The moral condemnation and the sacred union against terrorism are directly proportional to the prodigious jubilation felt at having seen this global superpower destroyed, because it was this insufferable superpower that gave rise both to the violence now spreading throughout the world and to the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us all.

"That the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event, that nobody could help but dream the destruction of so powerful a hegemon -- this fact is unacceptable to the moral conscience of the West, and yet it is a fact nonetheless, a fact that resists the emotional violence of all the rhetoric conspiring to erase it.

"In the end, it was they who did it but we who wished it. If we do not take this fact into account, the event loses all symbolic dimension; it becomes a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics that we need only repress. But we know well that such is not the case. Without our profound complicity the event would not have reverberated so forcefully, and in their strategic symbolism the terrorists knew they could count on this unconfessable complicity.

"It goes well beyond the hatred that the desolate and the exploited -- those who ended up on the wrong side of the new world order -- feel toward the dominant global power. This malicious desire resides in the hearts of even those who have shared in the spoils. The allergy to absolute order, to absolute power, is universal, and the two towers of the World Trade Center were, precisely because of their identicality, the perfect incarnation of this absolute order.

"Countless disaster films have borne witness to these fantasies, and the universal appeal of the images shows just how close the fantasies always are to being acted out: the closer the entire system gets to perfection or to omnipotence, the stronger the urge to destroy it grows.

"When the world has been so thoroughly monopolized, when power has been so formidably consolidated by the technocratic machine and the dogma of globalization, what means of turning the tables remains besides terrorism? In dealing all the cards to itself, the system forced the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the game is ferocious. Terrorism is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a generalized system of exchange. All those singularities (species, individuals, cultures) that have been sacrificed to the interests of a global system of commerce avenge themselves by turning the tables with terrorism.

"Terror against terror -- this is no longer an ideological notion. We have gone well beyond ideology and politics. The energy that nourishes terror, no ideology, no cause, not even an Islamic one, can explain. The terrorists are not aiming simply to transform the world. Like the heretics of previous times, they aim to radicalize the world through sacrifice, whereas the system aims to convert it into money through force.

"Terrorists, like viruses, are everywhere. There is no longer a boundary that can hem terrorism in; it is at the heart of the very culture it's fighting with, and the visible fracture (and the hatred) that pits the exploited and underdeveloped nations of the world against the West masks the dominant system's internal fractures. It is as if every means of domination secreted its own antidote. Against this almost automatic form of resistance to its power, the system can do nothing. Terrorism is the shock wave of this silent resistance.

"It is a mistake, then, to characterize this as a clash of civilizations or of religions. It goes well beyond Islam and America, on which one might be tempted to concentrate in order to create the illusion of a confrontation resolvable by force...This is the clash of triumphant globalization at war with itself...if Islam were dominating the world, terrorism would rise up against Islam. The globe itself is resistant to globalization.

"Terrorism is immoral. The occurrence at the World Trade Center, this symbolic act of defiance, is immoral, but it was in response to globalization, which is itself immoral. We are therefore immoral ourselves, so if we hope to understand anything we will need to get beyond Good and Evil...

"It is...a mistake to see the terrorists' actions as merely destructive; this is hardly an impersonal elimination of the Other. This is about having a personal relationship, the relationship of duelists, with the enemy power. It was the enemy power that humiliated you, so it's the enemy power that must be humiliated. And not simply exterminated. You have to make the enemy lose face. And you'll never achieve that through brute force, by merely eliminating the Other. The Other must be targeted and murdered under extremely dangerous circumstances. Accusations to the contrary notwithstanding, the terrorists' act is, therefore, the exact opposite of cowardice, as well as the exact opposite of what the Americans did in the Gulf War (and of what they are doing all over again in Afghanistan): invisible target, operational liquidation.

"Everything changes as soon as the terrorists begin to combine every modern means available with the highly symbolic weapon of their own deaths. This combination infinitely multiplies their destructive capability, and it is this multiplication of factors (which seem to us so irreconcilable) that gives the terrorists such superiority. The strategy of zero losses, on the other hand, of the clean, high-tech war, entirely misses this transfiguration of real power by symbolic power.

"We no longer have a clue what a symbolic calculation is, the sort of calculation common in poker or potlatch: minimum stakes, maximum results. This is exactly what the terrorists achieved in the attack on Manhattan, which provides a good illustration of chaos theory: an initial shock provoking unforeseeable consequences. Gigantic deployments of Americans, on the other hand, achieve nothing but derisory effects -- a hurricane, as it were, resulting in the flapping of a butterfly's wings...

"There is no solution to this extreme situation -- certainly not war, which offers nothing but deja vu, the same deluge of military force, the same absence of reliable information, the same pointless bludgeoning, the same stirring but deceitful speeches, the same poisoning. In short, it is the Gulf War [i.e., of 1991 -- ed.] all over again, a non-event, an event that does not truly take place.

"It is not intended to take place. It has an altogether different purpose: to replace a truly formidable event, unique and unforeseen, with a pseudo-event that is as repetitive as it is familiar. In the terrorist attack the event eclipsed all of our interpretive models, whereas in this mindlessly military and technological war we see the opposite: the interpretive model eclipsing the event. Witness, thus, the artificial stakes, the non-place. War as a continuation of the absence of politics by other means."

Further Reading:

Der Spiegel's interview with Baudrillard, January 2004. The 9/11 attacks, terrorism and globalization are all discussed.