In significant ways, the post-9/11 world is unlike
any before it. In previous epochs, when empires that made all the rules and
made all others play by them were defeated, their powers of domination were
merely transferred to a successor. Today, however, there exists no potential
usurper that could possibly replace America's hold on empire. This reality has
instead led to a sidelong reshaping of the very structure of the rules of international,
and indeed, intranational relations. Thus the age of asymmetric threats, suitcase
bombs, computer hacking, bacterial warfare, and terrorism in general. These
are not the kind of threats that America has prepared for militarily. And, since
the US economy since Eisenhower has been enhanced by a military-industrial complex
geared to producing goods for massive conventional warfare, these are not the
kind of threats that the economy has prepared for, either.
Purposefully Stalled Reform
Indeed, the military is in need of reform, and
the top brass know it. 9/11 was a boon for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:
in the days leading up to it, he had been prepared to announce a humiliating
failure in his attempts to reform the military. The reason? He had come up against
strong institutionalized pressure to retain bases, troop sizes, and contracts,
even when they were clearly counterproductive and indulgent, because congressmen
are by the nature of their business forced to lobby for their districts' corporations.
When it comes down to it, the entrenched mid-level legislators have as formidable
a hold on power as do a Bush or a Rumsfeld.
Despite the current plague of knee-jerk patriotism, the kind that precludes
any decrease in defense spending as being anti-American, radical changes in the
defense structure – much more radical than Rumsfeld's boldest initiatives – are
imperative for dealing with the new and reshaped structure of the rules. Yet
threats that require finesse, diplomacy, human intelligence, and subtlety in
dealing with them are not part of the American way. Whoever would have once
advocated speaking softly has long been bludgeoned by the wielder of the big
A Fundamental Disconnect
The disastrous invasion of Iraq is just further
proof of Washington's willful ignorance in this regard. For no matter how "smart"
the bombs, or how flawless the technology used, this war was still the territorial
invasion and conquest of a country – publicly justified by recourse to the traditional
rhetoric of Modernity – of the political structure of states, the rights of their
citizens, and all the other values of the Enlightenment.
The American and British governments' case for war in Iraq disingenuously
linked Saddam Hussein to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the al Qaeda network
in general. As everyone knew even before the war, there never were any such
links. The motivating factors behind Saddam's belligerence and that of the
terrorists were fundamentally different. Ironically, Saddam was always much
closer to the Western mindset – he wanted to protect his state from internal
fragmentation and outside attack, as does the West, and he repeatedly took
recourse to nationalism in exhorting his citizens to defend the motherland, just
as we do. It's not difficult, therefore, to see how Saddam was once our friend;
his rhetoric was basically Western, as was Iraq's participation in the global
economy before 1980. Saddam Hussein reflected, in the form of the traditional
enemy, just the distorted figure of the West, the realized failure of its stated
As for the terrorists, they aimed at something completely different – to
strike a symbolic blow at the heart of the Western-shaped global world order.
Yet if Saddam represented the style, they, ironically, represent the substance
of the West, using the tools of globalization against the system itself, in
support of a completely different rhetoric. It is a bizarre reversal of reality
that has ominous implications for the future.
What is the real relation between 9/11 and Iraq,
then? The former was a shock, a moral defeat, a symbolic challenge. The latter
was the misguided and anachronistic response to it, from an America that has
clearly failed to adapt to the new reality. Of course, the base and banal material
interests alluded to above have a lot to do with explaining why the war occurred.
However, on another level, the war itself could not have gone forward in the
absence of a tragic misunderstanding: a sufficient number of people needed to
be deceived into believing that the old rules (territorial war between states,
the ascendancy of a specific political system, etc.) still held sway rather
than the actual, new rules (the rules of terrorism, as seen in 9/11).
Up until now, the Western world has seen a reshaping of the structure of the
rules in various cases, but never through human agency. All the major
catastrophes that brought earlier civilizations to their knees – earthquakes,
volcanoes, plagues, and the like – had their causes in mysterious natural forces.
While these events still take place, there is no longer attached to them this
ineffable causal factor, one that early cultures often used to justify religion.
In the age of positivism and Modernity, we have lost this response to mysterious
phenomena of this sort, and indeed that relation to the natural world.
Maybe terrorism is restoring this ancient relation. After all, we are
mystified in the same way; we are baffled by "irrational" terrorist violence
(but not at the clean, "smart," modern way that America bombs foreign
countries). But terrorism doesn't have to make sense, just exist.
9/11 Reassessed: Derrida on the Historical Applications of Terrorism
Perhaps the most valuable contribution that French
philosopher Jacques Derrida has made to our understanding of the post-9/11 world
bears relation to this. Derrida poses an interesting question: do the seminal
events of 9/11 mark the beginning of the war on terror – as is so often asserted – or
rather, the end of something else?
Vassar College philosophy professor Giovanna Borradori interviewed Derrida
after the attacks. She
transmits his views on the historical application of 9/11 as such:
"…if we look at 9/11 from the standpoint of its continuity with the Cold War,
it is easy to see that the hijackers who turned against the United States had
been trained by the United States during the era of the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan… possibly, said Derrida, 9/11 could be interpreted as the implosive
finale of the Cold War, killed by its own convolutions and
Unsurprisingly, the US government is not eager to explore this lineage, as to
do so would necessitate a richly deserved criminal investigation into the
historical interventionist policies that brought about such a disaster, and
which brought Third World hatred of America to a breaking point. Of course, a
great many writers have explored this topic already, refusing to bow to
governmental pressure and denial of the facts. But this will never deliver the
justice it should, because events are moving too fast – and especially because
the US government is pushing them so hard. One clear motive for the Iraq
invasion becomes, in this sense, attempting to cover up embarrassing
investigations by the disastrous creation of new interventions. These in turn
yield their own embarrassing investigations, destined however to remain
unfinished by the perpetual creation of new interventions. The process could go
on to infinity, were American power infinite. Yet it is not. Eventually, the
reckoning will come.
The Real Threat: Derrida on Terrorism's Territorial and Non-Territorial
Derrida's second point refers obliquely to the
change to the structure of the rules we noted above. Again perceiving 9/11 in
its historical relation to the Cold War, he posits that as a spectacular, specifically
territorial event, it marks the finale of the territory-based wars of the past.
This is not to say, of course, that similar attacks will not still occur; we
have recently seen symbolic attacks on Jewish and British physical objects in
Istanbul, for example. Yet this is not the worst danger of terrorism for Derrida – rather,
it is the non-territorial variety, that which makes it truly global and truly
sinister. He states:
"…September 11 is still part of the archaic theater of violence aimed at
striking the imagination. One day it might be said: 'September 11' – those were
the ('good') old days of the last war. Things were still of the order of the
gigantic: visible and enormous!
…(however) nanotechnologies of all sorts are so much more powerful and
invisible, uncontrollable, capable of creeping in everywhere. They are the
micrological rivals of microbes and bacteria. Yet our unconscious is already
aware of this; it knows it, and that's what's scary."
The US government knows it too, but admitting as much would not reassure the
people. Therefore it must substitute the old enemy, and the old war – a specific
villain (Saddam) in a fixed place (Iraq) – for the inescapable reality that the
rules have been changed. Without an Iraq War thrown into the mix, and without
the media whipped up into a subsequent frenzy, the government would have had to
publicly confront the unpleasant reality of the new world disorder on two
fronts: first, an historical one (the disastrous results of a policy of massive
global intervention); and second, the philosophical one (the reality that the
"war on terror" is a farce due to terrorism's very non-territorial and
Of course, neither would have reassured the public. Yet the people have a
right to know – now more than ever. It is the US government's fundamental
dishonesty and willful ignorance of the facts that are harmful to the world's