November 11, 2001
L'esprit du terrorisme [The Spirit of Terrorism]
by Dr Rachel Bloul, School of Social Sciences,
In italics: details about not-quite-direct translations.
We have had many global events from Diana's death to the World Cup, or
even violent and real events from wars to genocides. But not one global
symbolic event, that is an event not only with global repercussions, but
one that questions the very process of globalization. All through the
stagnant 90s, there has been "la greve des evenements" (literally
events strike", translated from a phrase of the Argentino writer
Fernandez). Well, the strike is off. We are even facing, with the
Trade Center & New York hits, the absolute event, the "mother"
the pure event which is the essence of all the events that never happened.
Not only are all history and power plays disrupted, but so are the
conditions of analysis. One must take one's time. For as long as events
were at a standstill, one had to anticipate and overcome them. But when
they speed up, one must slow down; without getting lost under a mass of
discourses and the shadow of war ("nuage de la guerre": literally
announcing war), and while keeping undiminished the unforgettable
All the speeches and commentaries betray a gigantic abreaction to the
event itself and to the fascination that it exerts. Moral condemnation
the sacred union against terrorism are equal to the prodigious jubilation
engendered by witnessing this global superpower being destroyed; better,
by seeing it more or less self-destroying, even suiciding spectacularly.
Though it is (this superpower) that has, through its unbearable
engendered all that violence brewing around the world, and therefore this
terrorist imagination which -unknowingly- inhabits us all.
That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception
dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power
hegemonic to that degree, - this is unacceptable for Western moral
conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by
the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.
It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it. If one does not take
that into account, the event lost all symbolic dimension to become a pure
accident, an act purely arbitrary, the murderous fantasy of a few
fanatics, who would need only to be suppressed. But we know very well
this is not so. Thus all those delirious, counter-phobic exorcisms:
because evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire. Without
this deep complicity, the event would not have had such repercussions,
without doubt, terrorists know that in their symbolic strategy they can
count on this unavowable complicity.
This goes much further than hatred for the dominant global power from
disinherited and the exploited, those who fell on the wrong side of global
order. That malignant desire is in the very heart of those who share (this
order's) benefits. An allergy to all definitive order, to all definitive
power is happily universal, and the two towers of the World Trade Center
embodied perfectly, in their very double-ness (literally twin-ness),
No need for a death wish or desire for self-destruction, not even for
perverse effects. It is very logically, and inexorably, that the
(literally: "rise to power of power") exacerbates a will
to destroy it.
And power is complicit with its own destruction. When the two towers
collapsed, one could feel that they answered the suicide of the kamikazes
by their own suicide. It has been said: "God cannot declare war on
Itself". Well, It can. The West, in its God-like position (of divine
power, and absolute moral legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war
Numerous disaster movies are witness to this phantasm, which they
obviously exorcise through images and submerge under special effects.
the universal attraction these movies exert, as pornography does, shows
how (this phantasm's) realization is always close at hand - the
deny any system being all the stronger if such system is close to
perfection or absolute supremacy.
It is even probable that the terrorists (like the experts!) did not
anticipate the collapse of the Twin Towers, which was, far more than (the
attack of) the Pentagon, the deepest symbolic shock. The symbolic
of a whole system is due to an unforeseen complicity, as if, by collapsing
(themselves), by suiciding, the towers had entered the game to
In a way, it is the entire system that, by its internal fragility, helps
the initial action. The more the system is globally concentrated to
constitute ultimately only one network, the more it becomes vulnerable
a single point (already one little Filipino hacker has succeeded, with
laptop, to launch the I love you virus that wrecked entire networks).
Here, eighteen (dix-huit in the text) kamikazes, through the absolute
that is death multiplied by technological efficiency, start a global
When the situation is thus monopolized by global power, when one deals
with this formidable condensation of all functions through technocratic
machinery and absolute ideological hegemony (pensee unique), what
way is there, than a terrorist reversal of the situation (literally
'transfer of situation': am I too influenced by early translation as
'reversal'?)? It is the system itself that has created the objective
conditions for this brutal distortion. By taking all the cards to itself,
it forces the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules
ferocious, because the stakes are ferocious. To a system whose excess
power creates an unsolvable challenge, terrorists respond by a definitive
act that is also unanswerable (in the text: which cannot be part of
exchange circuit). Terrorism is an act that reintroduces an irreducible
singularity in a generalized exchange system. Any singularity (whether
species, individual or culture), which has paid with its death for the
setting up of a global circuit dominated by a single power, is avenged
today by this terrorist situational transfer.
Terror against terror - there is no more ideology behind all that. We
now far from ideology and politics. No ideology, no cause, not even an
Islamic cause, can account for the energy which feeds terror. It (energy)
does not aim anymore to change the world, it aims (as any heresy in its
time) to radicalize it through sacrifice, while the system aims to realize
(the world) through force.
Terrorism, like virus, is everywhere. Immersed globally, terrorism, like
the shadow of any system of domination, is ready everywhere to emerge
double agent. There is no boundary to define it; it is in the very core
this culture that fights it - and the visible schism (and hatred) that
opposes, on a global level, the exploited and the underdeveloped against
the Western world, is secretly linked to the internal fracture of the
dominant system. The latter can face any visible antagonism. But with
terrorism - and its viral structure -, as if every domination apparatus
were creating its own antibody, the chemistry of its own disappearance;
against this almost automatic reversal of its own puissance, the system
powerless. And terrorism is the shockwave of this silent reversal.
Thus, it is no shock of civilizations, of religions, and it goes much
beyond Islam and America, on which one attempts to focus the conflict
give the illusion of a visible conflict and of an attainable solution
(through force). It certainly is a fundamental antagonism, but one which
shows, through the spectrum of America (which maybe by itself the
epicentre but not the embodiment of globalization) and through the
spectrum of Islam (which is conversely not the embodiment of terrorism),
triumphant globalization fighting with itself. In this way it is indeed
World War, not the third one, but the fourth and only truly World War,
it has as stakes globalization itself. The first two World Wars were
classic wars. The first ended European supremacy and the colonial era.
second ended Nazism. The third, which did happen, as a dissuasive Cold
War, ended communism. From one war to the other, one went further each
time toward a unique world order. Today the latter, virtually
accomplished, is confronted by antagonistic forces, diffused in the very
heart of the global, in all its actual convulsions. Fractal war in which
all cells, all singularities revolt as antibodies do. It is a conflict
unfathomable that, from time to time, one must preserve the idea of war
through spectacular productions such as the Gulf (production) and
Afghanistan's. But the fourth World War is elsewhere. It is that which
haunts every global order, every hegemonic domination; -if Islam dominated
the world, terrorism would fight against it.
For it is the world itself which resists domination.
Terrorism is immoral. The event of the World Trade Center, this symbolic
challenge is immoral, and it answers a globalization that is immoral.
let us be immoral ourselves and, if we want to understand something, let
us go somewhat beyond Good and Evil. As we have, for once, an event that
challenges not only morals, but every interpretation, let us try to have
the intelligence of Evil. The crucial point is precisely there: in this
total counter-meaning to Good and Evil in Western philosophy, the
philosophy of Enlightenment. We naively believe that the progress of the
Good, its rise in all domains (sciences, techniques, democracy, human
rights) correspond to a defeat of Evil. Nobody seems to understand that
Good and Evil rise simultaneously, and in the same movement. The triumph
of the One does not produce the erasure of the Other. Metaphysically,
considers Evil as an accident, but this axiom, embedded in all manichean
fights of Good against Evil, is illusory. Good does not reduce Evil, nor
vice-versa: there are both irreducible, and inextricable from each other.
In fact, Good could defeat Evil only by renouncing itself, as by
appropriating a global power monopoly, it creates a response of
In the traditional universe, there was still a balance of Good and Evil,
according to a dialectical relation that more or less insured tension
equilibrium in the moral universe; - a little as in the Cold War, the
face-to-face of the two powers insured an equilibrium of terror. Thus,
there was no supremacy of one on the other. This symmetry is broken as
soon as there is a total extrapolation of the Good (an hegemony of the
positive over any form of negativity, an exclusion of death, of any
potential adversarial force: the absolute triumph of the Good). From
there, the equilibrium is broken, and it is as if Evil regained an
invisible autonomy, developing then in exponential fashion.
Keeping everything in proportion, it is more or less what happened in
political order with the erasure of communism and the global triumph of
liberal power: a fantastical enemy appeared, diffused over the whole
planet, infiltrating everywhere as a virus, surging from every interstice
of power. Islam. But Islam is only the moving front of the
crystallization of this antagonism. This antagonism is everywhere and
is in each of us. Thus, terror against terror... But asymmetrical
terror... And this asymmetry leaves the global superpower totally
disarmed. Fighting itself, it can only founder in its own logic of power
relations, without being able to play in the field of symbolic challenge
and death, as it has eliminated the latter from its own culture.
Until now this integrating power had mostly succeeded to absorb every
crisis, every negativity, creating therefore a deeply hopeless situation
(not only for the damned of the earth, but for the rich and the privileged
too, in their radical comfort). The fundamental event is that terrorists
have finished with empty suicides; they now organize their own death in
offensive and efficient ways, according to a strategic intuition, that
the intuition of the immense fragility of their adversary, this system
reaching its quasi perfection and thus vulnerable to the least spark.
succeeded in making their own death the absolute arm against a system
feeds off the exclusion of death, whose ideal is that of zero death. Any
system of zero death is a zero sum system. And all the means of dissuasion
and destruction are powerless against an enemy who has already made his
death a counter-offensive. "What of American bombings! Our men want
as much as Americans want to live!" This explains the asymmetry of
deaths in one blow against a system of zero death.
Therefore, here, death is the key (to the game)-- not only the
irruption of death in direct, in real time, but also the irruption of
more-than-real death: symbolic and sacrificial death - the absolute, no
This is the spirit of terrorism.
Never is it to attack the system through power relations. This belongs
the revolutionary imaginary imposed by the system itself, which survives
by ceaselessly bringing those who oppose it to fight in the domain of
real, which is always its own. But (it) moves the fight into the
domain, where the rule is the rule of challenge, of reversal, of
escalation. Thus, death can be answered only though an equal or superior
death. (Terrorism) challenges the system by a gift that the latter
reciprocate only through its own death and its own collapse.
The terrorist hypothesis is that the system itself suicides in response
the multiple challenges of death and suicide. Neither the system, nor
power, themselves escape symbolic obligation -and in this trap resides
only chance of their demise (catastrophe). In this vertiginous
the impossible exchange of death, the terrorist death is an infinitesimal
point that provokes a gigantic aspiration, void and convection. Around
this minute point, the whole system of the real and power gains in
density, freezes, compresses, and sinks in its own super-efficacy. The
tactics of terrorism are to provoke an excess of reality and to make the
system collapse under the weight of this excess. The very derision of
situation, as well as all the piled up violence of power, flips against
it, for terrorist actions are both the magnifying mirror of the system's
violence, and the model of a symbolic violence that it cannot access,
only violence it cannot exert: that of its own death.
This is why all this visible power cannot react against the minute, but
symbolic death of a few individuals.
One must recognize the birth of a new terrorism, a new form of action
enters the game and appropriate its rules, the better to confuse it. Not
only do these people not fight with equal arms, as they produce their
deaths, to which there is no possible response ("they are cowards"),
they appropriate all the arms of dominant power. Money and financial
speculation, information technologies and aeronautics, the production
spectacle and media networks: they have assimilated all of modernity and
globalization, while maintaining their aim to destroy it.
Most cunningly, they have even used the banality of American everyday
as a mask and double game. Sleeping in their suburbs, reading and studying
within families, before waking up suddenly like delayed explosive devices.
The perfect mastery of this secretiveness is almost as terrorist as the
spectacular action of the 11 September. For it makes one suspect: any
inoffensive individual can be a potential terrorist! If those terrorists
could pass unnoticed, then anyone of us is an unnoticed criminal (each
plane is suspect too), and ultimately, it might even be true. This might
well correspond to an unconscious form of potential criminality, masked,
carefully repressed, but always liable, if not to surge, at least to
secretly vibrate with the spectacle of Evil. Thus, the event spreads out
in its minutiae, the source of an even more subtle psychological (mental)
The radical difference is that terrorists, while having at their disposal
all the arms of the system, have also another fatal weapon: their own
If they limited themselves to fighting the system with its own weapons,
they would be immediately eliminated. If they did not oppose the system
with their own death, they would disappear as quickly as a useless
sacrifice; this has almost always been the fate of terrorism until now
(thus the Palestinian suicidal attacks) and the reason why it could not
Everything changed as soon as they allied all available modern means
this highly symbolic weapon. The latter infinitely multiplies their
destructive potential. It is the multiplication of these two factors
(which seem to us so irreconcilable) that gives them such superiority.
Conversely, the strategy of zero death, of a technological, 'clean' war,
precisely misses this transfiguration of 'real' power by symbolic power.
The prodigious success of such an attack poses a problem, and to
understand it, one must tear oneself away from our Western perspective,
apprehend what happens in terrorists' minds and organization. Such
efficacy, for us, would mean maximal calculation and rationality,
something we have difficulties imagining in others. And even then, with
us, there would always be, as in any rational organization or secret
service, leaks and errors.
Thus, the secret of such success is elsewhere. The difference, with them,
is that there is no work contract, but a pact and an obligation of
sacrifice. Such obligation is secure from defection and corruption. The
miracle is the adaptation to a global network, to technical protocols
without any loss of this complicity for life and to the death. Contrary
the contract, the pact does not link individuals, -even their 'suicide'
not individual heroism, it is a collective, sacrificial act, sealed by
demanding ideals (I'm a bit free here but I feel it corresponds better
what is meant by 'exigence ideale'). And it is the conjunction of
two mechanisms, born of an operational structure and of a symbolic pact,
which makes possible such an excessive action.
We have no idea anymore of what is such a symbolic calculation, as in
poker or potlatch, with minimal stakes and maximal result. That is,
exactly what terrorists obtained in the attack on Manhattan, and which
would be a good metaphor for chaos theory: an initial shock, provoking
incalculable consequences, while American gigantic deployment ("Desert
Storm") obtained only derisory effects; - the storm ending so to
the flutter of butterfly wings.
Suicidal terrorism was the terrorism of the poor; this is the terrorism
the rich. And that is what specially frighten us: they have become rich
(they have every means) without ceasing to want to eradicate us.
Certainly, according to our value system, they cheat: staking (gambling?)
one's own death is cheating. But they could not care less, and the new
rules of the game are not ours.
We try everything to discredit their actions. Thus, we call them
"suicidal" and "martyrs". To add immediately that
such martyrdom does not
prove anything, that it has nothing to do with truth and even (quoting
Nietzsche) that it is the enemy of truth. Certainly, their death does
prove anything, but there is nothing to prove in a system where truth
itself is elusive --or are we pretending to own it? Besides, such a moral
argument can be reversed. If the voluntary martyrdom of the kamikazes
proves nothing, then the involuntary martyrdom of the victims cannot prove
anything either, and there is something obscene in making it a moral
argument (the above is not to negate their suffering and their death).
Another bad faith argument: these terrorists exchange their death for
place in Paradise. Their act is not gratuitous, thus it is not authentic.
It would be gratuitous only if they did not believe in God, if their death
was without hope, as is ours (yet Christian martyrs assumed just such
sublime exchange). Thus, again, they do not fight with equal weapons if
they have the right to a salvation we can no longer hope for. We have
lose everything by our death while they can pledge it for the highest
Ultimately, all that - causes, proofs, truth, rewards, means and ends-
belongs to typically Western calculation. We even put a value to death
terms of interest rates, and quality/price ratio. Such economic
calculations are the calculation of those poor who no longer have even
courage to pay (the price of death?).
What can happen, - apart from war, which is no more than a conventional
protection screen? We talk of bio-terrorism, bacteriological war or
nuclear terrorism. But none of that belongs to the domain of symbolic
challenge, rather it belongs to an annihilation without speech, without
glory, without risk - that is, to the domain of the final solution.
And to see in terrorist action a purely destructive logic is nonsense.
seems to me that their own death is inseparable from their action ( it
precisely what makes it a symbolic action), and not at all the impersonal
elimination of the Other. Everything resides in the challenge and the
duel, that is still in a personal, dual relation with the adversary. It
the power of the adversary that has humbled you, it is this power which
must be humbled. And not simply exterminated... One must make (the
adversary) lose face. And this cannot be obtained by pure force and
suppression of the other. The latter must be aimed at, and hurt, as a
personal adversary. Apart from the pact that links terrorists to each
other, there is something like a dual pact with the adversary. It is then,
exactly the opposite to the cowardice of which they are accused, and it
exactly the opposite of what Americans do, for example in the Gulf War
(and which they are doing again in Afghanistan): invisible target,
Of all these vicissitudes, we particularly remember seeing images. And
must keep this proliferation of images, and their fascination, for they
constitute, willy nilly, our primitive scene. And the New York events
radicalized the relation of images to reality, in the same way as they
have radicalized the global situation. While before we dealt with an
unbroken abundance of banal images and an uninterrupted flow of spurious
events, the terrorist attack in New York has resurrected both the image
and the event.
Among the other weapons of the system which they have co-opted against
terrorists have exploited the real time of images (not clear here if
real duration, real time or images in real time), their instantaneous
global diffusion. They have appropriated it in the same way as they have
appropriated financial speculation, electronic information or air traffic.
The role of images is highly ambiguous. For they capture the event (take
it as hostage) at the same time as they glorify it. They can be infinitely
multiplied, and at the same time act as a diversion and a neutralization
(as happened for the events of May 68). One always forgets that when one
speaks of the "danger" of the media. The image consumes the
is, it absorbs the latter and gives it back as consumer goods. Certainly
the image gives to the event an unprecedented impact, but as an
What happens then to the real event, if everywhere the image, the fiction,
the virtual, infuses reality? In this present case, one might perceive
(maybe with a certain relief) a resurgence of the real, and of the
violence of the real, in a supposedly virtual universe. "This is
of all your virtual stories, - that is real!" Similarly, one could
perceive a resurrection of history after its proclaimed death. But does
reality really prevail over fiction? If it seems so, it is because reality
has absorbed the energy of fiction, and become fiction itself. One could
almost say that reality is jealous of fiction, that the real is jealous
the image... It is as if they duel, to find which is the most
The collapse of the towers of the World Trade Center is unimaginable,
that is not enough to make it a real event. A surplus of violence is not
enough to open up reality. For reality is a principle, and this principle
is lost. Real and fiction are inextricable, and the fascination of the
attack is foremost the fascination by the image (the consequences, whether
catastrophic or leading to jubilation are themselves mostly imaginary).
It is therefore a case where the real is added to the image as a terror
bonus, as yet another thrill. It is not only terrifying, it is even real.
It is not the violence of the real that is first there, with the added
thrill of the image; rather the image is there first, with the added
thrill of the real. It is something like a prize fiction, a fiction beyond
fiction. Ballard (after Borges) was thus speaking of reinventing the real
as the ultimate, and most redoubtable, fiction.
This terrorist violence is not then reality backfiring, no more than
history backfiring. This terrorist violence is not "real". It
is worse in
a way: it is symbolic. Violence in itself can be perfectly banal and
innocuous. Only symbolic violence generates singularity. And in this
singular event, in this disaster movie of Manhattan, the two elements
fascinate 20th century masses are joined: the white magic of movies and
the black magic of terrorism.
One tries after the event to assign to the latter any meaning, to find
possible interpretation. But there is none possible, and it is only the
radicality of the spectacle, the brutality of the spectacle that is
original and irreducible. The spectacle of terrorism imposes the terrorism
of the spectacle. And against this immoral fascination (even if it
engenders a universal moral reaction) the political order can do nothing.
This is our theatre of cruelty, the only one left to us, -extraordinary
because it unites the most spectacular to the most provocative. It is
the sublime micro-model of a nucleus of real violence with maximal
resonance - thus the purest form of the spectacular, and the sacrificial
model that opposes to historical and political order the purest symbolic
form of challenge.
Any slaughter would be forgiven them if it had a meaning, if it could
interpreted as historical violence - this is the moral axiom of
permissible violence. Any violence would be forgiven them if it were not
broadcast by media ("Terrorism would be nothing without the media").
all that is illusory. There is no good usage of the media, the media are
part of the event, they are part of the terror and they are part of the
game in one way or another.
Repressive actions travel the same unpredictable spiral as terrorist
actions - none can know where it may stop, and what reversals may follow.
At the level of the image and information, there are no possible
distinctions between the spectacular and the symbolic, between "crime"
repression. And this uncontrollable unraveling of reversibility is the
true victory of terrorism. It is a victory visible in the underground
extensive ramifications of the event - not only in direct, economic,
political, market and financial recessions for the whole system, and in
the moral and psychological regression that follows; but also in the
regression of the value system, of all the ideology of freedom and free
movement etc... that the Western world is so proud of, and that
legitimates in its eyes its power over the rest of the world.
Already, the idea of freedom, a new and recent (sic) idea, is
from everyday lives and consciousness, and liberal globalization is being
realized as its exact reverse: a 'Law and Order' globalization, a total
control, a policing terror. Deregulation ends in maximal constraints and
restrictions, equal to those in a fundamentalist society.
Production, consumption, speculation and growth slowdowns (but not of
course corruption!): everything indicates a strategic retreat of the
global system, a heart-rending revision of its values, a regulation forced
by absolute disorder, but one the system imposes on itself, internalizing
its own defeat. It seems a defensive reaction to terrorism impact, but
might in fact respond to secret injunctions.
Another side to terrorist victory is that all other forms of violence
destabilization of order favor it: Internet terrorism, biological
terrorism, anthrax terrorism and the terrorism of the rumor, all are
assigned to Ben Laden. He could even claim natural disasters. Every form
of disorganization and perverse exchange benefits him. The structure of
generalized global exchange itself favors impossible exchange. It is a
form of terrorist automatic writing, constantly fed by the involuntary
terrorism of the news. With all its consequent panics: if, in that
anthrax story, intoxication happens by itself, by instantaneous
crystallization, like a chemical solution reacting to the contact of a
molecule, it is because the system has reached the critical mass that
makes it vulnerable to any aggression.
There is no solution to this extreme situation, especially not war that
offers only an experience of deja-vu, with the same flooding of military
forces, fantastic news, useless propaganda, deceitful and pathetic
discourses and technological deployment. In other words, as in the Gulf
War, a non-event, an event that did not happen...
There is its raison d'etre: to substitute to a real and formidable, unique
and unforeseeable event, a repetitive and deja-vu pseudo-event. The
terrorist attack corresponded to a primacy of the event over every model
of interpretation. Conversely, this stupidly military and technological
war corresponds to a primacy of the model over the event, that is to
fictitious stakes and to a non-sequitur. War extends/continues the absence
at the heart of politics through other means.
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