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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
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
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
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
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
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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