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S11 Essay by Jean Baudrillard

by lulu Wednesday, Dec. 05, 2001 at 1:39 AM

Here is a translation of a piece by French intellectual, postmodern critic and most extreme (some would say most far out) proponent of postmodernity Jean Baudrillard

Translated: Dr Rachel Bloul, School of Social sciences, Australian National


(note: some of this translation is "rough" as some of Baudrillard's language

is hard to translate succinctly)

The spirit of terrorism

By Jean Baudrillard

Le Monde 2/11/01

We have had many global events from Diana1s 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 3la greve des evenements2 (literally 3an events strike2,

translated from a phrase of the Argentino writer Macedonio Fernandez). Well,

the strike is off. We are even facing, with the World Trade Center & New

York hits, the absolute event, the 3mother2 of events, 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 one1s 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 (3nuage de la guerre2: literally clouds

announcing war), and while keeping undiminished the unforgettable flash of


All the speeches and commentaries betray a gigantic abreaction to the event

itself and to the fascination that it exerts. Moral condemnation and 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 power, 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 has

dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power

hegemonic to that degree, - this is unacceptable for Western moral

conscience. And yet, it is 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 dimensions to become a pure

accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous fantasy of a few fanatics,

who need then to just be suppressed. But we know very well that this is not

the way it is. 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, and 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 the

disinherited and the exploited, those who fell on the wrong side of the

world order. That malignant desire is in the very heart of those who share

(this order1s) benefits. An allergy to all definitive order, to all

definitive power is fortunately universal, and the two towers of the World

Trade Center embodied perfectly, in their very double-ness (literally

twin-ness), this definitive order.

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:

3rise to power of power2) 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: 3God cannot declare war on Itself2. Well, It can. The

West, in its God-like position (of divine power, and absolute moral

legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself.

Numerous disaster movies are witness to this phantasm, which they obviously

exorcise through images, and submerge under special effects. But the

universal attraction these movies exert, as pornography does, shows how

(this phantasm1s) realization is always close at hand ­ the impulse to


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 collapse

of a whole system is due to an unforeseen complicity, as if, by collapsing

(themselves), by suiciding, the towers had entered the game to complete the


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 at a single

point (already one little Filipino hacker has succeeded, with his laptop, to

launch the I love you virus that wrecked entire networks). Here, eighteen

(dix-huit in the text) kamikazes, through the absolute weapon that is death

multiplied by technological efficiency, start a global catastrophic process.

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 other way is there,

than a terrorist reversal of the situation (literally OEtransfer of

situation1: am I too influenced by early translation as OEreversal1?)? 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 are ferocious, because the stakes

are ferocious. To a system whose excess of power creates an unsolvable

challenge, terrorists respond by a definitive act that is also unanswerable

(in the text: which cannot be part of the 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 are

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 as a

double agent. There is no boundary to define it; it is in the very core of

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 ­


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 is 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 to 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 a World War, not the third

one, but the fourth and only truly World War, as it has as stakes

globalization itself. The first two World Wars were classic wars. The first

ended European supremacy and the colonial era. The 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 so unfathomable that, from time to time, one

must preserve the idea of war through spectacular productions such as the

Gulf (production) and today Afghanistan1s. 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. Then

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, in the philosophy of

the 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, one 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 proportional violence.

In the traditional universe, there was still a balance of Good and Evil,

according to a dialectical relation that more or less insured tension and

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 the

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.

IslamS But Islam is only the moving front of the crystallization of this

antagonism. This antagonism is everywhere, and it 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 is

the intuition of the immense fragility of their adversary, this system

reaching its quasi perfection and thus vulnerable to the least spark. They

succeeded in making their own death the absolute arm against a system that

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 weapon. 3What of American bombings! Our men want

to die as much as Americans want to live!2 This explains the asymmetry of 7,

000 deaths in a single blow against a system of zero death.

Therefore, here, death is the key (to the game) not only the brutal

irruption of death in direct, in real time, but also the irruption of a

more-than-real death: symbolic and sacrificial death ­ the absolute, no

appeal event.

This is the spirit of terrorism.

Never is it to attack the system through power relations. This belongs to

the revolutionary imaginary imposed by the system itself, which survives by

ceaselessly bringing those who oppose it to fight in the domain of the real,

which is always its own. But (it) moves the fight onto the symbolic 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 can reciprocate only through

its own death and its own collapse.

The terrorist hypothesis is that the system itself suicides in response to

the multiple challenges of death and suicide. Neither the system, nor power,

themselves escape symbolic obligation ­and in this trap resides the only

chance of their demise (catastrophe). In this vertiginous cycle of 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. A situation so derisory, and with all that heaped

up violence of power, that it turns against itself. This is because

terrorist actions are both the magnifying mirror of the system1s violence,

and the model of a symbolic violence that it cannot access, the 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 that

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 own

deaths, to which there is no possible response (3they are cowards2), but

they appropriate all the arms of dominant power. Money and financial

speculation, information technologies and aeronautics, the production of

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 life

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 death.

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 but fail.

Everything changed as soon as they allied all available modern means to 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, OEclean1 war, precisely misses

this transfiguration of OEreal1 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, to apprehend

what happens in terrorists1 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 to the contract, the

pact does not link individuals, -even their OEsuicide1 is not individual

heroism, it is a collective, sacrificial act, sealed by demanding ideals

(I1m a bit free here but I feel it corresponds better to what is meant by

OEexigence ideale1). And it is the conjunction of these 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 (3Desert Storm2) obtained

only derisory effects; - the storm ending so to speak in the flutter of

butterfly wings.

Suicidal terrorism was the terrorism of the poor; this is the terrorism of

the rich. And that is what especially frightens 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?) one1s own

death is cheating. But they could not care less, and the new rules of the

game are no longer ours.

We are trying everything to discredit their actions. Thus, we call them

3suicidal2 and 3martyrs2. 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 not

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


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 a

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 to lose

everything by our death while they can pledge it for the highest stakes.

Ultimately, all that - causes, proofs, truth, rewards, means and ends-

belongs to typically Western calculation. We even put a value to death in

terms of interest rates, and quality/price ratio. Such economic calculations

are the calculation of those poor who no longer have even the 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. It

seems to me that their own death is inseparable from their action (it is

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 is the

power of the adversary that has humbled you, it is this power which must be

humbled. And not simply exterminatedS One must make (the adversary) lose

face. And this cannot be obtained by pure force and by the 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 is exactly the opposite of what

Americans do, for example in the Gulf War (and which they are doing again in

Afghanistan): invisible target, operational elimination.

Of all these vicissitudes, we particularly remember seeing images. And we

must keep this proliferation of images, and their fascination, for they

constitute, willy nilly, our primal scene. And the New York events have

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 it,

terrorists have exploited the real time of images (not clear here if it is

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 3danger2 of the media. The image consumes the event, that 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 image-event.

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. 3This is the end of all your

virtual stories, - that is real!2 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 of the imageS It is

as if they duel, to find which is the most unimaginable.

The collapse of the towers of the World Trade Center is unimaginable, but

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 catastrophic consequences,

even when they lead to jubilation, are themselves mostly imaginary).

It is therefore a case where the real is added to the image as a surplus of

terror, as yet another thrill. Not only is it 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 it is

history backfiring. This terrorist violence is not 3real2. 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 starring Manhattan, the two elements

that 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 any

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 both the sublime

micro-model of a nucleus of real violence with maximal resonance ­ thus


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 be

interpreted as historical violence ­ this is the moral axiom of


violence. Any violence would be forgiven them if it were not broadcast by

the media (3Terrorism would be nothing without the media2). But 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 3crime2 and repression.

And this uncontrollable unraveling of reversibility is the true victory of

terrorism. It is a victory visible in the underground and extensive

ramifications of the event ­ not only in direct, economic, political,


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 etcS 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 novel and recent idea, is being erased from

everyday lives and consciousness, and liberal globalization is being

realized as its exact reverse: a OELaw and Order1 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 it might in

fact respond to secret injunctions.

Another side to terrorist victory is that all other forms of violence and

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 pummeling, deceitful and pathetic

discourses, technological deployment and propaganda. In other words, as in

the Gulf War, a non-event, an event that is not really happeningS

There is its raison d1etre: 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.

Editions Galilee/2Le Monde2

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