Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida
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by: Giovanna Borradori
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Not the ideal resource if you want to understand terrorism: Although deconstructionist thought has been one of the most powerful modalitites of reading modernist literary texts -- this doesn't mean that it can be translated into an analytical method of understanding global geo-political problems. Deconstruction can help us read the literary writings of Maurice Blanchot and Samuel Beckett surely, but this doesn't make it applicable to the political issue of deterring terrorism.
Politicized Islamic fundamentalism is an ideology as uncompromising in its absolutism as was fascism/nazism, and marxism-leninism. In all three cases, these ideologies inspire in their adherents a totalizing world view that a utopia can be instituted on earth if only that which the ideology construes as standing in the way of the promised utopia is violently eliminated. In the case of fascism/nazism, that which had to be violently eliminated was the "racially impure"; in marxism-leninism, it was the "class enemy". Islamic fundamentalism, like its two absolutist predecessors, also has an "enemy" which it believes must be violently eliminated so as to institute a new utopia. This "enemy" is us -- the "decadent infidels" who inhabit the liberal, multi-cultural democracies.
In response to this, Derrida suggests that we offer an "unconditional hospitality to the Other". (the "Other" in tis instance being fundamentalist Islam). The thinking here is that if only we in the West accepted the "otherness" of the repressive political practices of the Taliban ayatollahes, then Islamic fundamentalists would in turn be inspired to respect the pluralist freedoms of the Western liberal democracies. But this convienently vague "analysis" fails to take into account the specifics of what motivates politicized Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism seeks to impose an absolutist theocratic state in which pluralist differences are eliminated. This of course places its political objectives in a state of fundamental incompatibility to those of the Western democracies which are based on the very pluralist differences which politiczed Islam seeks to eliminate. This fundamental incompatiblity of political systems cannot be accomodated within fundamentalist Islam, as it is an ideology which seeks an absolutist elimination of the pluralist differences which such an accomodation would require. I'm afraid that the fuzzy-headed and ill-defined deconstructionist prescriptions of "offering hospitality to the 'Other'", and of "welcoming the 'Other' in his 'Otherness'" will no more disarm and assuage the Islamic fundamentalist ideologues' conditioned response to violently eliminate "the infidel" than the European Jewish community's offering of "hospitality" to "the Otherness" of Nazism would have halted the Holocaust. Leave deconstruction to the project of modernist literary critism, the task it was originally formulated for.
Lacks Critical Distinction: "And does terrorism have to work only through death? Can't one terrorize without killing? And does killing necessarily mean putting to death? Isn't it also "letting die"? Can't "letting die," "not wanting to know that one is letting others die"-hundreds of millions of human beings, from hunger, AIDS, lack of medical treatment, and so on-also be part of a "more or less" conscious and deliberate terrorist strategy? We are perhaps wrong to assume so quickly that all terrorism is voluntary, conscious, organized, deliberate, intentionally calculated: there are historical and political "situation" where terror operates, so to speak, as if by itself, as the simple result of some apparatus, because of the relations of force in place, without anyone, any conscious subject, any person, any "I," being really conscious of it or feeling itself responsible for it."
If we took this statement seriously (and I understand that he edited his own comments after the interview so this is not accidental) this would make everyone on earth either a terrorist or a victim - or both. And thus renders the notion meaningless, as it allows no distinction between those few who deliberately take innocent human life and the vast majority that do not. The fact is, terrorism is exactly "voluntary, conscious, organized, deliberate, intentionally calculated". That's what makes it terrorism, and not something else.
Aside from the political rant that rumbles beneath the surface of this statement, saying such a thing completely discredits the author as a thinker, let alone a philosopher, by comparing in the same breath the completely innocent activity (or lack of activity) with the purposeful and senseless destruction of innocent life and property in a manner that supports the evil by saying in a sense "it's okay - nothing really different from what these vile Western Christians do day in and day out in their blissfully unaware state that deliberately (although they don't know it) causes such pain and suffering throughout the rest of the world."
Now, if the Vietnamese had succeeded in destroying the World Trade Center in 1969 -- had it existed then -- through the use of commercial aircraft, we would be hard pressed to characterize such an act as "terrorism" given the state of war that existed between Vietnam and the US at the time, and given the arguably criminal bombing of Hanoi, and the general conduct of the war by the US.
Now we have made a distinction, one that we would assert is meaningful in the context of this discussion. On the one hand, the terrorist act that targets innocent victims and can do nothing but lead to further destruction, and on the other, an act of war, of national self-defense, one that could conceivably be justified within those boundaries. (Now whether it would have suited the North Vietnamese to perform such an act is anyone's guess -- it may have simply led to their extermination - or perhaps liberation, depending on how the US responded.)
The confusion continues in the following statement by Derrida:
"...by democratic citizenship in providing protection against certain kinds of international violence (market, the concentration of world capital, as well as "terrorist" violence and the proliferation of weapons)..."
Again, failing to make critical distinctions results in critical failure to communicate anything meaningful, let alone significant. In point of fact, "market" and "the concentration of world capital" is something, but under no circumstances can it be considered "violence" without again rendering the word "violence" meaningless.
Habermas contributes to the dialogue with the following:
"Without the political taming of an unbounded capitalism, the devastating stratification of world society will remain intractable. The disparities in the dynamic of world economic development would have to at least be balanced out regarding their most destructive consequences-the deprivation and misery of complete regions and continents comes to mind."
What is so sad is that the "destructive consequences" he speaks of are directly related to the lack of rule of law, the lack of societal and/or political respect for individuals (particularly women), and the devastation wrought by political regimes that have violently (yes, violently, that is, with the destructive use of force against largely helpless humans) ruled these lands and decimated the peoples and the economies without limit. The Saddams and Somozas and Amin's are just examples from representative corners of the globe from recent decades, and if governments without principle have supported these regimes than they are rightly criticized for doing so, regardless of the particular expediency that seduced those statesmen into such support. Corporations, capital and markets have no intrinsic way to wield the necessary force or threat of force to prop these guys up - only the likes of the US, France and Britain are capable of it. To the extent that governments with armies, navies and air forces allow themselves to be influenced by such commercial interests, they are doing so only by casting aside their principle responsibility, and that is the immediate physical defense of their citizens.
And lastly, this from Habermas:
"...attempts at understanding have a chance only under symmetrical conditions of mutual perspective-taking. Good intentions and the absence of manifest violence are of course helpful, but not sufficient."
We would half agree: we could do without the good intentions as long as we eliminated "manifest violence". And we would add, the threat of manifest violence. On this foundation we could build something worthwhile.
Topics include: first historic world event, autoimmune crisis, new cosmopolitan order, conditional hospitality, unauthorized force, classical international law, world citizenry, unconditional forgiveness
An excerpt from Philosophy in a Time of Terror Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida