9/11 and the War on Terrorism: A Critique of Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida

Elizabeth Rard

(Writing in the voice of Jean Baudrillard)

painting of little girl wearing a gas mask holding a teddy bear

“Gas Mask” by Nicole Ferrara

The recent events of 9/11 and the Suicide of the Twin Towers have been discussed by myself and several of my fellow students in Professor Blamey's Contemporary Philosophy Seminar in recent months. The event itself, a return to a history that had been considered finished and done with, has re-illuminated the role of the philosopher in this modern global world. A discussion of some main points of Habermas and Derrida will help to explain my own views on the matter and show that mine is the only realistic position. The West is at this point presented with an enemy that we cannot converse with, strike at, or even truly face in the traditional sense. The naive optimism of my contemporariesaside, it is my belief that we do not have the language nor the will to battle such a foe.

The situation proposed by Habermas is both naively optimistic and unfortunately unrealistic. Habermas gives the simple explanation of failed communicative situations and an imbalance of national wealth as the roots of terrorist violence. He describes an ideal speech situation in which all participants play equal parts as listener and speaker. More importantly all come to the table with equal footing on the global playing field. This footing consists of sufficient economic means and educational backgrounds. It is our duty, and it is necessary if we hope to effectively address terror, that we as a community of superior rational nations form an organization with the goal of eliminating global inequality brought on by the imbalance of the superpowers in order to facilitate rational equitable discussion among equals. Habermas hopes that by clearing these roadblocks we can begin to have a series of rational dialogues, the immediate goal being an agreement on standard that can determine answers to difficult questions of international relations. The possibility of attaining ideal circumstances of equality and reciprocity in order to achieve a balanced system of interaction requires that all participants stand on the same playing field, however uneven it may be. Even more fundamental to these goals is the requirement of focal points of speech or, "speakers", be it international organizations, heads of state, or even military dictators.

It has become clear, as I discuss in my recent work "The Spirit of Terrorism", that we have no enemy capable of communicating with us on our own terms. The only global power remaining has planted the flag of globalization on every inch of the chess board and has positioned itself to have all the advantages given the traditional rules of war. It is for this reason that terrorism necessarily rises from within our own systems and boundaries to strike at our own internal fragility, not according to the old rules which we have so well prepared ourselves for, but in accordance with a new set of rules that are fierce and possibly beyond definition.

Through WWI, WWII, and even the Cold War (which was without a doubt the third world war), we have choked out and destroyed evil and opposition in all its recognizable forms. The Western power has already decapitated every head that could serve as a representative of evil. The only enemy left to face "head on", so to speak, is the one the world power can confront by looking in the mirror, hence the West's secret desire to declare war on itself and commit suicide. There are no "speakers" in the sense that Habermas is searching for. This ghost enemy that both is and is yet un-definable cannot be reasoned with or communicated with in the traditional sense. The language of terrorism is the language of the symbolic and it is language that we are unable, or unprepared, to respond in. The terrorist non-entity has called us out to fight on its terms in this symbolic battlefield where we are wholly unfamiliar with the terrain. Our own airplanes and media provide the tools of this communication and the message is necessarily punctuated with the deaths of their suicide soldiers. They are unwilling to communicate on our terms, where we so obviously have all the advantage and we are helpless to respond to their message except in the modes of traditional violence and war. Our response will be drowned out, however, by the echoing images of the collapsing Twin Towers. This image is both their message and our reply as the West collapses in under the weight of the reality of the event. Communication in the ideal sense that Habermas puts forth is not only impossible at this point but it is irrelevant. 9/11 changed the playing field and all the rules.

In the interpretation of the events of 9/11 proposed by Derrida, he arrives at an interesting analogy between terrorism and an autoimmune dysfunction. Derrida assigns responsibility for the creation of this terrorist entity to the West, his justification tracing back to events during the Cold War when the Western powers, in an attempt to defeat a rival world power, trained and armed soldiers in Afghanistan that would later become the very terrorists that attacked us. This image of our own defenses swinging round on us when their original target is removed is compelling, but I have offered a slightly different interpretation. It is not that a resource of good has been lost to evil, but that in the quest of the West to obliterate evil in all its recognizable forms we have created a new and more subtle form of the evil. I have at times referred to this process in similar terms, closer to a virus that lies dormant in our society. This evil that seeks to obliterate evil is powered by all the singularities, be they individuals or cultures, that have been exterminated in the name of the good for these singularities have been left with no choice but to embrace this new virus that lies in us all. It is apparent in our disaster movies that we all have a secret wish for the destruction of any total global power. When the West conquered all other evils and spread its own brand of global goodness to every corner, it created a much more powerful, self-sustaining form of evil. Evil is a necessary component and by-product of the good. Good cannot defeat evil without destroying itself. When the West vanquished its enemies and became the one superpower of the world, it created a form of ultimate good, which necessitated the creation of an ultimate autonomous evil. This evil, though not exactly a conversion of our own defenses as Derrida suggests, has nevertheless arisen from within the world the West has sought to dominate with the activation of the dormant virus.

Derrida sees the clash as having arisen between two fundamental theologies with the Christian U.S. heading the West and the Islamic East representing a focal point for terrorism. If this were the case then it would theoretically be possible for Europe to serve as mediator in the way that Derrida proposes. He says we must develop in such a way as to advance toward a kind of democracy, which is yet to come. However, such a democracy requires the universalization of the principles of equality and rationality as the West sees them. But it is this very attempt at universalization that has led to the globalization, which is the root of the problem, with one view destroying the voice of other cultures and religions.

The enemy we face does not as Habermas puts it, share our life world or as Derrida expresses it, our "mondialisation" or realm of human activity. Again, the problem arises in the new rules the terrorists have written. In order to take full advantage of the internal fragility of the West, the terrorists have acquired the wealth that is ours without embracing it. They have used our technology and lived in our suburbs without lessening their wish to radically restructure the world order. They are not playing by the same point system as we are and will never add up the costs and benefits of this game as we will. The terrorists' act of self-sacrifice added to the deal is at once symbolic and unanswerable. When they are ready to give their lives no taking of life can counter. They are also operating under the assumption that in exchange for their sacrifice a place in heaven will be assured. Their actions are not pure in this sense but also these actions are not transferable to our life world. There is no equivalent symbolic exchange that the West can give to balance out this gift.

Despite our attempts to define and respond to these events it is clear that all of the rules we still cling to will give us no advantage in this battle. The West is faced with an enemy that lies inside the imagination of every person and yet we cannot confront it. One symbolic act has cut us deeper than was thought possible, but no amount of traditional retaliation can even the score. The West cannot respond in kind for it has not the words, and so it is the sad fate of the superpower that no amount of equal communication or democratic process will save us from our plight.

Works Cited

  • Baudrillard, Jean. "The Spirit of Terror" in The Spirit of Terror and Other Essays (Chris Turner , trans.). New York: Verso, 2003. 1-34.
  • Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.