Friday, August 28, 2009

Tongues of Fire: Articulations of and against Terror (Part II of IV)

Question 1

Is terror-power the same in all cases, or is there a qualitative difference between terror-power employed by a state and that employed by a non-state actor? Are there different terror-powers?

On Monday, April 17, 2006, twenty-one-year-old Palestinian suicide-bomber Sami Salim killed himself and nine others outside a falafel stand in Tel Aviv, Israel. Most democratically-elected governments quickly responded with condemnations. The most unique aspect of this event, however, was the official response from Hamas, who called it an “act of self-defense.” This, of course, would not be quite as shocking if Hamas were still merely a terrorist organization and its political wing had not recently won a majority share (with 76 out of 132 seats) in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas, too, was democratically elected. This fact problematizes quite a large measure of Western/American political rhetoric that claims that democracies and acts of terrorism are mutually exclusive. We like to believe that we are not like them, that democratic processes like free elections negate such violence (or the need for such violence) by offering both a voice as well as political efficacy to “the people.” But when a majority of the people elects those who we see as terrorists, it is time for a reassessment of our own convictions regarding terror, power, and the deployment of both.

In her conversations with Habermas and Derrida shortly after September 11, 2001, Giovanna Borradori tries to sort through a related issue regarding legality and tyranny. She reminds us that the two great tyrannies of the twentieth century—Stalinism and Nazism—were not lawless regimes. In fact, both were based on inexorable laws that dictated a specific response from their respective populations (7). Moreover, each was informed by what it saw as a higher legal or moral system—the Nazis had their laws of nature and racial superiority, and the Soviets had their socio-economic laws. Despite terrorists’ claims for a higher moral order (by way of a radical, ideologically driven fundamentalism, for example) or for specific political concessions (such as the call for US troops to leave Saudi Arabia or for an independent Palestine), Borradori, however, argues that terrorism is not like a chess game in which distinctions between legal and illegal moves exist (2). Because we still maintain these distinctions, though, a sharp division, as far as Borradori is concerned, remains between them and us.

Chomsky, on the other hand, does not differentiate between terror and power per se. His conflation of what we do in the name of freedom and what they do in the name of terror (according to us) is radical to say the least. For him, 9/11 is informed by a somewhat traditional view of history. By that, I mean the terrorist attacks in the United States are “simply” retaliation for past military actions (or inaction): “That’s the way the imperial powers have treated the rest of the world for hundreds of years” (13). The only thing new about this event was that the casualties were predominately American. He maintains, “This is a historic event, but unfortunately not because of the scale or the nature of the atrocity but because of who the victims were” (ibid). Whereas contemporary (read: postmodern or post-structuralist) philosophers and thinkers are often criticized for their perceived nihilism and calls for relativism, Chomsky’s standpoint remains unequivocal and adamant:

When you try to get someone to talk about this question, they can’t comprehend what your question is. They can’t comprehend that we should apply to ourselves the standards you apply to others. That is incomprehensible. There couldn’t be a moral principle more elementary. All you have to do is read George Bush’s favorite philosopher [Jesus]. There’s a famous definition in the Gospels of the hypocrite, and the hypocrite is the person who refuses to apply to himself the standards he applies to others. (29)

I do not see how anyone can call this perspective “relativist” when he cites a fundamental, universal moral standard as well as legitimizes it with the New Testament. Because of this strategy as well as because of his almost ultra-pragmatic approach to politics, Chomsky remains in a class by himself among the other thinkers dealt with here.

Chomsky continues by describing “the entire commentary and discussion of the so-called War on Terror” as “pure hypocrisy” (ibid). At the risk of being labeled an apologist for terrorism, he contends that every crime contains “elements of legitimacy” that should be considered before retaliating:

It’s just a matter of sanity. If you don’t care if there are further terrorist attacks, then fine, say let’s not pay any attention to the reasons. If you’re interested in preventing them, of course you’ll pay attention to the reasons. It has nothing to do with apologetics.” (15)

The US government and mainstream society, however, see the threat more as disobedience or a failure to conform (16); therefore, Chomsky’s criticisms are often misread (if read at all). It is easier to lump him in with the terrorists than to appreciate the intellectual work he offers in attempting to solve America’s problems with terrorism. His accusation that the US carries out as well as helps other nations carry out “massive state terror” (19) is perceptive if only for its logical solution: “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: Stop participating in it. That alone will reduce the amount of terrorism in the world by an enormous quantity” (19-20). Such a simple solution is much more appealing, I think, than trying to find a logic behind the several arguments by Bush administration officials that international human rights laws somehow constrain our efforts at fighting terrorism. What Chomsky refers to as US-sponsored terrorism (for example, certain military actions in Vietnam) is, as far as the American media and public are concerned, not important. It is as if the “atrocities you commit somewhere else don’t exist. . . . [If terrorists] do something to us, the world is coming to an end. But if we do it to them, it’s so normal, why should we even talk about it” (17-20)? For Chomsky, the height of American hypocrisy was the arbitrariness of the term “war crime” during the Nuremberg trials: “there was a very explicit definition, and it was conscious. It was not hidden. A crime is a war crime if the Germans committed it and we didn’t” (21). In fact, if it could be proven that Allied troops performed the same action (bombing densely populated urban centers, for example), Nazi war criminals were freed. The only distinction, therefore, between them and us is the ethical standard we apply because, after all, our actions are indistinguishable.

In his short essay “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” which was widely distributed immediately after 9/11, Žižek takes a similar view. He proposes, “Whenever we encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to endorse the Hegelian lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence” (np). In effect, he is arguing that the terrorists are much more closely related to our true selves than we would like to admit. But while Chomsky would most likely argue that the US has, if not a greater power, than at least an equal amount of power and force to respond to 9/11, Žižek classifies the US as impotent if we retaliate against Afghanistan:

Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world…. However, WHOM to strike? Whatever the response, it will never hit the RIGHT target, bringing us full satisfaction. The ridicule of America attacking Afghanistan cannot but strike the eye: if the greatest power in the world will destroy one of the poorest countries in which peasant [sic] barely survive on barren hills, will this not be the ultimate case of the impotent acting out? (np)

By deploying our power, we end up negating it because of the overwhelming asymmetry of our power versus theirs. (In his conversation with Borradori, Habermas refers to such asymmetry as “morally obscene” (28).) Perhaps Žižek is arguing that by engaging in such an unfair and imbalanced act, the US will then become the terrorist, merely reflecting the essence of the terrorism against which we allegedly are waging war.

Although there does seem to be a large number of people, especially within the US, who believe that an ontological (if not downright metaphysical) wall separates state-power from terror-power, we can see from the above example with Hamas that those categories are not so easy to delineate. State-power can indeed be terror-power when a state (democratically elected or not) exerts overwhelming force upon others, including its own citizens, as in the Benjamin case. I certainly do not mean to imply here that this first constellation of questions has been sufficiently answered; instead, more complex philosophical as well as political questions arise, such as, how should the US handle the moral dimension of its foreign policy after 9/11, and is there a pragmatic response to the attacks that would not utilize any form of terror-power? Perhaps the only conclusion we can reach at this point, however, is that state-power and terror-power, though not always necessarily the same, are related enough to engage the other; that is, terror-power will always react to state-power and vice versa. These two powers seem to be like binary stars caught in the gravitational pull of its twin.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

CFP: Levinas and Asian Thought

I am thrilled and proud to be a part of this edited volume. Here are some links to our call for papers for Levinas and Asian Thought:
If you have any questions or concerns about submitting a paper, please feel free to contact me.