9/11 and Global Terrorism – A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida

Giovanna Borradori: September 11 [le 11 septembre] gave us the impression of being a major event, one of the most important historical events we will witness in our lifetime, especially for those of us who never lived through a world war. Do you agree?

Jacques Derrida: Le 11 septembre, as you say, or, since we have agreed to speak two languages, “September 11.” We will have to return later to this question of language. As well as to this act of naming: a date and nothing more. When you say “September 11” you are already citing, are you not? You are inviting me to speak here by recalling, as if in quotation marks, a date or a dating that has taken over our public space and our private lives for five weeks now. Something fait date, I would say in a French idiom, something marks a date, a date in history; that is always what’s most striking, the very impact of what is at least felt, in an apparently immediate way, to be an event that truly marks, that truly makes its mark, a singular and, as they say here, “unprecedented” event. I say “apparently immediate” because this “feeling” is actually less spontaneous than it appears: it is to a large extent conditioned, constituted, if not actually constructed, circulated at any rate through the media by means of a prodigious techno-socio-political machine. “To mark a date in history” presupposes, in any case, that “something” comes or happens for the first and last time, “something” that we do not yet really know how to identify, determine, recognize, or analyze but that should remain from here on in unforgettable: an ineffaceable event in the shared archive of a universal calendar, that is, a supposedly universal calendar, for these are—and I want to insist on this at the outset—only suppositions and presuppositions. Unrefined and dogmatic, or else carefully considered, organized, calculated, strategic—or all of these at once. For the index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this “thing” that has just happened, this supposed “event.” An act of “international terrorism,” for example, and we will return to this, is anything but a rigorous concept that would help us grasp the singularity of what we will be trying to discuss. “Something” took place, we have the feeling of not having seen it coming, and certain consequences undeniably follow upon the “thing.” But this very thing, the place and meaning of this “event,” remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy—a name, a number—points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.

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Borradori: Where were you on September 11?

Derrida: I was in Shanghai, at the end of a long trip to China. It was nighttime there, and the owner of the cafe I was in with a couple of friends came to tell us that an airplane had “crashed” into the Twin Towers. I hurried back to my hotel, and from the very first televised images, those of CNN, I note, it was easy to foresee that this was going to become, in the eyes of the world, what you called a “major event.” Even if what was to follow remained, to a certain extent, invisible and unforeseeable. But to feel the gravity of the event and its “worldwide” implications it was enough simply to mobilize a few already tested political hypotheses. As far as I could tell, China tried during the first few days to circumscribe the importance of the event, as if it were a more or less local incident. But this organized interpretation, informed by the current state of U.S.-China relations (diplomatic tensions and incidents of various sorts), ended up having to yield to other exigencies: CNN and other international media outlets have penetrated Chinese space, and China too, after all, has its own “Muslim” problem. It thus became necessary to join in some way the “antiterrorist” “coalition.” It would be necessary to analyze, in the same vein, the motivations and interests behind all the different geopolitical or strategico-diplomatic shifts that have “invested,” so to speak, “September 11.” (For example, the warming in relations between Bush and Putin, who has been given a freer hand in Chechnya, and the very useful but very hasty identification of Palestinian terrorism with international terrorism, which now calls for a universal response.) In both cases, certain parties have an interest in presenting their adversaries not only as terrorists—which they in fact are to a certain extent—but only as terrorists, indeed as “international terrorists” who share the same logic or are part of the same network and who must thus be opposed, it is claimed, not through counterterrorism but through a “war,” meaning, of course, a “nice clean” war. The “facts” clearly show that these distinctions are lacking in rigor, impossible to maintain, and easily manipulated for certain ends.

Borradori: A radical deconstruction of the distinction between war and terrorism, as well as between different types of terrorism (such as national and international), makes it very difficult to conceive of politics in a strategic sense. Who are the actors on the world stage? How many of them are there? Isn’t there here the risk of total anarchy?

Derrida: The word “anarchy” risks making us abandon too quickly the analysis and interpretation of what indeed looks like pure chaos. We must do all that we can to account for this appearance. We must do everything possible to make this new “disorder” as intelligible as possible. The analysis we sketched out earlier tried to move in that direction: an end of the “Cold War” that leaves just one camp, a coalition, actually, of states claiming sovereignty, faced with anonymous and nonstate organizations, armed and virtually nuclear powers. And these powers can also, without arms and without explosions, without any attacks in person, avail themselves of incredibly destructive computer technologies, technologies capable of operations that in fact have no name (neither war nor terrorism) and that are no longer carried out in the name of a nation-state, and whose “cause,” in all senses of this word, is difficult to define (there’s the theological cause, the ethnic cause, the socioeconomic cause, and so on). On no side is the logic of sovereignty ever put into question (political sovereignty or that of the nation-state—itself of ontotheological origin, though more or less secularized in one place and purely theological and nonsecularized in another): not on the side of the nation-states and the great powers that sit on the Security Council, and not on the other side, or other sides, since there is precisely an indeterminate number of them. Everyone will no doubt point to existing international law (the foundations of which remain, I believe, perfectible, revisable, in need of recasting, both conceptually and institutionally). But this international law is nowhere respected. And as soon as one party does not respect it the others no longer consider it respectable and begin to betray it in their turn. The United States and Israel are not the only ones who have become accustomed to taking all the liberties they deem necessary with UN resolutions.

To answer your question more specifically, I would say that the United States is perhaps not the sole target, perhaps not even the central or ultimate target, of the operation with which the name “bin Laden” is associated, at least by metonymy. The point may be to provoke a military and diplomatic situation that destabilizes certain Arab countries torn between a powerful public opinion (which is anti-American if not anti-Western, for countless reasons stemming from a complex, centuries old history, but then also, in the aftermath of an era of colonialism or imperialism, from poverty, oppression, and ideologico-religious indoctrination) and the necessity of basing their nondemocratic authority on diplomatic, economic, and military ties with the United States. First on the list here would be Saudi Arabia, which remains the privileged enemy of everything that might be represented by a “bin Laden” (a name I use always as a synecdoche) or a Saddam Hussein. Yet Saudi Arabia (an important family and an important oil-producing power), while maintaining its ties with its American “protector,” “client,” and “boss,” fuels all the hotbeds of Arab Islamic fanaticism if not “terrorism” in the world. This is one of the paradoxical situations, once again autoimmunitary, of what you called “total anarchy”: the movements and shifts in the strategic oil alliances between the United States (self-styled champion of the democratic ideal, of human rights, and so on) and regimes about which the least that can be said is that they do not correspond to this model. Such regimes (I used the example of Saudi Arabia, though it would be necessary to speak of the equally serious case of Pakistan) are also the enemies or targets of those who organize so-called “international terrorism” against the U.S. and, at least virtually, their allies. That makes for more than one triangle. And with all the angling going on between these triangles, it is difficult to disentangle the real from the alleged motivation, oil from religion, politics from economics or military strategy. The “bin Laden” type of diatribe against the American devil thus combines such themes as the perversion of faith and nonbelief, the violation of the sacred places of Islam, the military presence near Mecca, the support of Israel, and the oppression of Arab Muslim populations. But if this rhetoric clearly resonates with the populations and even the media of the Arab and Muslim world, the governments of Arab Muslim states (the majority of which care about as much for human rights and democracy as bin Laden does) are almost all hostile in principle, as “governments,” to the “bin Laden” network and its discourse. One thus has to conclude that “bin Laden” is also working to destabilize them…

Borradori: Which would be the standard objective of terrorists, to overturn but not take over, to destabilize the current situation.

Derrida: The most common strategy consists always in destabilizing not only the principal, declared enemy but also, at the same time, in a kind of quasi-domestic confrontation, those much closer. Sometimes even one’s own allies. This is another necessary consequence of the same autoimmunitary process. In all wars, all civil wars, all partisan wars or wars for liberation, the inevitable escalation leads one to go after one’s rival partners no less than one’s so-called principal adversary. During the Algerian War, between 1954 and 1962, what sometimes looked like “fratricidal” acts of violence between different insurrectional forces proved sometimes just as extreme as those between these groups and the French colonial forces.

This is yet one more reason not to consider everything that has to do with Islam or with the Arab Muslim “world” as a “world,” or at least as one homogeneous whole. And wanting to take all these divisions, differences, and differends into account does not necessarily constitute an act of war; nor does trying to do everything possible to ensure that in this Arab Muslim “world,” which is not a world and not a world that is one, certain currents do not take over, namely, those that lead to fanaticism, to an obscurantism armed to the teeth with modern technoscience, to the violation of every juridico-political principle, to the cruel disregard for human rights and democracy, to a nonrespect for life. We must help what is called Islam and what is called “Arab” to free themselves from such violent dogmatism. We must help those who are fighting heroically in this direction on the inside, whether we are talking about politics in the narrow sense of the term or else about an interpretation of the Koran. When I say that we must do this for what is called Islam and what is called “Arab,” I obviously mean that we must not do any less when it comes to Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia!

Borradori: Earlier you emphasized the essential role of international organizations and the need to cultivate a respect for international law. Do you think that the kind of terrorism linked to the al- Qaeda organization and to bin Laden harbors international political ambitions?

Derrida: What appears to me unacceptable in the “strategy” (in terms of weapons, practices, ideology, rhetoric, discourse, and so on) of the “bin Laden effect” is not only the cruelty, the disregard for human life, the disrespect for law, for women, the use of what is worst in technocapitalist modernity for the purposes of religious fanaticism. No, it is, above all, the fact that such actions and such discourse open onto no future and, in my view, have no future. If we are to put any faith in the perfectibility of public space and of the world juridico-political scene, of the “world” itself, then there is, it seems to me, nothing good to be hoped for from that quarter. What is being proposed, at least implicitly, is that all capitalist and modern technoscientific forces be put in the service of an interpretation, itself dogmatic, of the Islamic revelation of the One. Nothing of what has been so laboriously secularized in the forms of the “political,” of “democracy,” of “international law,” and even in the nontheological form of sovereignty (assuming, again, that the value of sovereignty can be completely secularized or detheologized, a hypothesis about which I have my doubts), none of this seems to have any place whatsoever in the discourse “bin Laden.” That is why, in this unleashing of violence without name, if I had to take one of the two sides and choose in a binary situation, well, I would. Despite my very strong reservations about the American, indeed European, political posture, about the “international antiterrorist” coalition, despite all the de facto betrayals, all the failures to live up to democracy, international law, and the very international institutions that the states of this “coalition” themselves founded and supported up to a certain point, I would take the side of the camp that, in principle, by right of law, leaves a perspective open to perfectibility in the name of the “political,” democracy, international law, international institutions, and so on. Even if this “in the name of” is still merely an assertion and a purely verbal commitment. Even in its most cynical mode, such an assertion still lets resonate within it an invincible promise. I don’t hear any such promise coming from “bin Laden,” at least not one for this world.

Borradori: It seems that you place your hopes in the authority of international law.

Derrida: Yes. In the first place, as imperfect as they may be, these international institutions should be respected in their deliberations and their resolutions by the sovereign states who are members of them and who have thus subscribed to their charters. I mentioned just a moment ago the serious failings of certain “Western” states with regard to these commitments. Such failings would stem from at least two series of causes.

First, they would have to do with the very structure of the axioms and principles of these systems of law and thus of the charters and conventions that institutionalize them. Reflection (of what I would call a “deconstructive” type) should thus, it seems to me, without diminishing or destroying these axioms and principles, question and refound them, endlessly refine and universalize them, without becoming discouraged by the aporias such work must necessarily encounter.

But second, such failings, in the case of states as powerful as the United States and Israel (which is supported by the U.S.), are not subject to any dissuasive sanctions. The United Nations has neither the force nor the means for such sanctions. It is thus necessary to do everything possible (a formidable and imposing task for the very long term) to ensure that these current failings in the present state of these institutions are effectively sanctioned and, in truth, discouraged in advance by a new organization. This would mean that an institution such as the UN (once modified in its structure and charter—and I’m thinking here particularly of the Security Council) would have to have at its disposal an effective intervening force and thus no longer have to depend in order to carry out its decisions on rich and powerful, actually or virtually hegemonic, nation-states, which bend the law in accordance with their force and according to their interests. Sometimes quite cynically.

I’m not unaware of the apparently utopic character of the horizon I’m sketching out here, that of an international institution of law and an international court of justice with their own autonomous force. Though I do not hold law to be the last word in ethics, politics, or anything else, though this unity of force and law (which is required by the very concept of law, as Kant explains so well) is not only utopic but aporetic (since it implies that beyond the sovereignty of the nation-state, indeed beyond democratic sovereignty—whose ontotheological foundations must be deconstructed—we would nonetheless be reconstituting a new figure, though not necessarily state-related, of universal sovereignty, of absolute law with an effective autonomous force at its disposal), I continue to believe that it is faith in the possibility of this impossible and, in truth, undecidable thing from the point of view of knowledge, science, and conscience that must govern all our decisions.

Borradori: It might be said that this terrorist attack was, in one sense, an attack against the principle of sovereignty that the United States has over its own land, yet also an attack on the sovereign role the United States plays vis-à-vis the Western world, at once politically, economically, and culturally. Have these two attacks destabilized the concept of sovereignty as it has been developed by Western modernity?

Derrida: Those called “terrorists” are not, in this context, “others,” absolute others whom we, as “Westerners,” can no longer understand. We must not forget that they were often recruited, trained, and even armed, and for a long time, in various Western ways by a Western world that itself, in the course of its ancient as well as very recent history, invented the word, the techniques, and the “politics” of “terrorism.” Next, one has to divide, or at least differentiate, all the “wholes” or “groups” to which we might be tempted to attribute responsibility for this terrorism. It’s not “the Arabs” in general, nor Islam, nor the Arab Islamic Middle East. Each of these groups is heterogeneous, filled with tensions, conflicts, and essential contradictions, with, in truth, what we have been calling self-destructive, quasi-suicidal, autoimmunitary processes. The same goes for the “West.” What is, to my eyes, very important for the future, and I will return to this later, is also a difference, indeed up to a certain point and within certain limits, an opposition, between the United States (or let’s say, more honestly, so as not to be too unfair to American society, what dominates and even governs in the United States) and a certain Europe. And precisely in relationship to the problems we are discussing. For the “coalition” that has just formed around the United States remains fragile and heterogeneous. It is not only Western, and the “front” without front of this “war” without war does not pit the West against the East or against the Far East (indeed China ended up joining, in its own way, the coalition), or the Middle East, where every country condemned, more or less sincerely, the terrorism and agreed to fight it. Some are doing so with rhetoric alone, others by providing military and logistical support. As for the European nations and NATO, their commitment to the so-called “coalition” remains very complex; it varies from one country to the next and public opinion is far from being won over to the American initiatives. The shifts in these alliances, the warming in relations between Putin’s Russia and Bush’s United States, the at least partial solidarity of China in the same struggle, are changing the geopolitical landscape and strengthening, though also complicating, the American position, which needs all these agreements in order to act.

What would give me the most hope in the wake of all these upheavals is a potential difference between a new figure of Europe and the United States. I say this without any Eurocentrism. Which is why I am speaking of a new figure of Europe. Without forsaking its own memory, by drawing upon it, in fact, as an indispensable resource, Europe could make an essential contribution to the future of the international law we have been discussing. I hope that there will be, “in Europe,” “philosophers” able to measure up to the task (I use quotation marks here because these “philosophers” of European tradition will not necessarily be professional philosophers but jurists, politicians, citizens, even European noncitizens; and I use them because they might be “European,” “in Europe,” without living in the territory of a nationstate in Europe, finding themselves in fact very far away, distance and territory no longer having the significance they once did). But I persist in using this name “Europe,” even if in quotation marks, because, in the long and patient deconstruction required for the transformation to come, the experience Europe inaugurated at the time of the Enlightenment ( Lumières, Aufklärung, Illuminismo) in the relationship between the political and the theological or, rather, the religious, though still uneven, unfulfilled, relative, and complex, will have left in European political space absolutely original marks with regard to religious doctrine (notice I’m not saying with regard to religion or faith but with regard to the authority of religious doctrine over the political). Such marks can be found neither in the Arab world nor in the Muslim world, nor in the Far East, nor even, and here’s the most sensitive point, in American democracy, in what in fact governs not the principles but the predominant reality of American political culture. This final point is complex and tricky. For such a philosophical “deconstruction” would have to operate not against something we would call the “United States” but against what today constitutes a certain American hegemony, one that actually dominates or marginalizes something in the U.S.’s own history, something that is also related to that strange “Europe” of the more or less incomplete Enlightenment I was talking about.


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