ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 1, Number 1 (January 2004)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
Review of:
Jean Baudrillard.  The Spirit Of Terrorism and Requiem For The Twin Towers, New York: Verso, 2002. Translated by Chris Turner.

Paul Virilio. Ground Zero, New York: Verso, 2002. Translated by Chris Turner.

Slavoj Zizek. Welcome To The Desert Of  The Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Similar Dates, New York: Verso, 2002.

In November 2002,  a missile launched from a remote controlled CIA “drone” (whose operators were acting under a “presidential finding”) targeted and destroyed a car hundreds of miles away in Yemen. One of the car’s six occupants, Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, was suspected by the CIA of participating in the attack on the USS Cole.  Another man in the car, Kamal Derwish a United States citizen, was suspected of aiding Al-Qaida operatives in the United States. Commenting on this escalation of international high-technology terror by an agency of the US Government, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of Harithi: “He is an individual who has been sought after … It would be a very good thing if he were out of business.”1 This incident and Rumsfeld’s view of it demonstrate that the incredible tragedy of September 11, 2001 may prove less significant than the reactions it continues to generate. Could the proponents of astronomical budgets for the military and surveillance in America have written a better justification for their beliefs than that handed them by the terrorists on September 11th? Baudrillard, Virilio, and Zizek each refuse to take sides among the fundamentalisms shaping and defining the second epoch of the new world order (the first having crumbled with the twin towers). Together they provide a necessary antidote to: frequent sermons on good and evil, threats of further terror, proliferation of repressive state apparatuses, and the fundamentalisms that now surround intellectuals in all corners of the globe.

For days after they struck, our gaze was fixed on images of the planes providing us with what the Lacanian  Zizek calls an “uncanny satisfaction”. We willingly participated the nauseating repetition of the event by a media which Virilio says today’s terrorists rely upon to multiply the force of their actions. Each of the planes hit the buildings only once, but the information bombs sent out by the media kept exploding inside our heads. Zizek believes that on September 11 we should have asked ourselves where have we seen this before? In his assessment, what we saw on our television sets that day was a real life, made for television, “disaster movie”, a disaster for which Hollywood had long prepared us. Fiction and the real meshed seamlessly in the event.

Is the subsequent war on terrorism then about the real or is it yet another stratagem for avoiding the real?   Zizek, argues that since Bin-Laden and his network are the product of the CIA supported anti-Soviet guerilla movement in Afghanistan, the USA is now fighting its own excesses of the past. He draws an analogy to the plot of Apocalypse Now in which the US Army has to eliminate Colonel Kurtz who, through his over identification with military power, has become an excess. The Cold War may be long over but its excesses are the spectre haunting the post-Marxist West. Our former “real” of mutually assured destruction has come to be replaced by the reality of continually assured terrorism. These three books provide many insights into the excesses being created today leaving us to ponder how they will mutate over the next two decades.

Baudrillard understands the attacks of 2001 as evidence that a new kind terrorism has come into being. It is a “form of action which plays the game, and lays hold of the rules of the game, solely with the aim of disrupting it. … they have taken over all the weapons of the dominant power”. What most frightens the West according to this understanding is that the terrorists used everything the West takes for granted: money, stock speculation, computer technology, air planes, the media, and assimilated and incorporated these aspects of modernity and globalization, without losing the will to destroy the West. In Baudrillard’s penetrating assessment we had before us “the absolute event, the mother of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place”. Baudrillard understands the terrorists as hoping that the system will commit suicide in response to the multiple challenges of terrorism: “It is the terrorist model to bring about an excess of reality, and have the system collapse beneath that excess”. With intellectuals on both sides of this war of terrorism against terrorism signing on to patriotic manifestos, one wonders how long that collapse will take, at least in academe.

For Virilio, it was not only the lessons of Hollywood the terrorists had learned so well, but also those of other high-technology operations originating in Washington. The attack on the trade centre, so perfectly planned and executed, reminds him of the “image strategy” of the multimedia presentation of the Gulf War and Kosovo conflicts. “Welcome to the desert of the real” says the resistance leader Morpheus in the Wachowski brother’s movie, Matrix. September 11 was an equally frightening welcome to the desert of the real for New York, America, and the West. Here were examples of what “precision attacks on selected targets” and “collateral damage” look and feel like from the vantage point of “ground zero”. For Virilio, the barbaric actions of the terrorists on September 11 follow a chain of barbarous events and a way of seeing the world that is quite western. As such, he finds the attacks an unsurprising ending to the century of barbed wire and camps, eugenics, Hiroshima, Stalin, Hitler and the scientific theories behind the Nazis. In Virilio’s deeply historical writing, one which intelligently refutes terrorist actions of all kinds, the September 11 attacks were an act of total war that used the traditions of the terrorist West against itself. Virilio’s writing possesses an artistic and cinematic quality resistant to the sheer speed of the media imagery and hastily drawn conclusions that shape our public discourse. He arrests us with a series of images which stand in stark contrast to the white- washed historical narrative of the mainstream media. By the end of the book his bricolage of stories has a profound effect.

Less than two years after September 11, CIA drones act as police, judge, and executioner of “suspected” terrorists. Other kinds of terrorists suggest that university professors should take oaths of patriotic loyalty as a condition of employment. Web-sites have been established to monitor and encourage harassment of anyone who falls out of line with the official version of events. Academics in both the Islamic and Western worlds are subjected to increasing pressures of conformity. The authors of all three books abstain from the current intellectual folly of assuming patriotic postures, as some intellectuals have done in well publicized events.  To do so is to sacrifice one’s radicality and to commit suicide as an intellectual.

As the originating gesture of the second epoch of the New World Order, the war on terrorism is certain to bring more terrorism. With the CIA and its drones involved, we are now witnessing the surreal spectacle of the use of terror to fight terrorism. People in the West look at low flying commercial airliners with a suspicious eye since September 11. Since October 2001, people in Afghanistan wonder if the planes they hear overhead will drop food or bombs. This is a war in which we are all now victims says Zizek. These authors share an understanding that the attacks of September 11th ripped through the thin veneer of liberal democracy under which the West does its business. Among the interesting questions that emerges is: what will happen to America’s mythic use of “democracy” as something it promotes for the whole world, when it is now openly abandoning it at home? Liberal democracy may be an old deception but what has changed in America is the widening of a popular embrace of its demise in the red, white, and blue wrapped fundamentalism which has grown since September 11. An interesting aspect of this trend according to Zizek is the open discussion in American media of the use of torture in the war against terrorism. Given the responses we have witnessed to September 11, Baudrillard asks: how did an entire western value system, so real and deeply entrenched, collapse with the towers?

As we search for answers, Americans find themselves the next people to enter the desert of the post democratic real. In these barely habitable wastelands fundamentalists thrive in America as they have in Europe, Israel, and the Arab and Islamic world. The main question now is where a war of terrorism versus terrorism can end?  The use of torture, chemical and nuclear weapons, always veiled in past wars, are now openly displayed as a possible part of this battle. As Zizek points out, soon we will not be able to rule out the possible use of genetic terrorism, targeting specific gene pools. The world and the America we knew before September 11th has not ended, but it has disappeared. In the ironic spaces of the desert of the real, the ability of CIA drones to deliver death to suspected terrorists provides America with one way out of its embarrassing discussion of torture. Could the terrorists who masterminded the attacks on the trade centre and the pentagon have written a better response to their actions of September 11 than the one Western leaders have since handed them? To we “non-combatants” in this war a former United States Ambassador to France once cautioned: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”2 Today, Zizek in a similar gesture asks: “Is the war on terror not the strongest assertion yet of state authority? Are we not witnessing now the mobilization of all repressive and ideological state apparatuses?” For Baudrillard, “a spasmodic eruption of violence is preferable to its rational exercise within the framework of the State, or to total prevention at the price of a total programmatic domination.”3

The strongest of the three books is Baudrillard’s whose writing is reminiscent of that of Walter Benjamin. In an earlier era Benjamin told us that the Angel of History faces the past which provides a different view from our own. Where we see our history as a chain of events, the Angel sees only one long single catastrophe, an increasing pile of wreckage. Benjamin tells us that the Angel would like to help repair what has been broken, but a storm propels him into a future towards which his back remains turned. For Benjamin, this storm is what we call progress.4  Baudrillard poignantly updates this view seeing our societies today as no longer bound together by an imaginary of progress, but by an imaginary of catastrophe.5 Zizek’s argument is that the real goal of the war on terror may be a complete shattering of the West’s liberal-democratic consensus. Such an outcome would signal the victory of fundamentalist and terrorist logic. Baudrillard and Virilio believe that it was the system itself which created the conditions for the brutality of the attacks on September 11. As Baudrillard puts it succinctly: “By seizing all the cards for itself, it forced the Other to change the rules. And the new rules are fierce ones, because the stakes are fierce”.

These books each contribute not only to a clearer understanding of the deeper context and meaning of September 11th, but also of the incredible missed opportunity by America and the West, to realize what kind of world we are a part of. As the storm continues to rage and the wreckage piles ever skyward, intellectuals today have a very difficult struggle to negotiate the competing fundamentalisms that leave little space for non-believers.  We are justified in our loathing of  bands of terrorists. They have nothing to offer but fanaticism committed to death and destruction. But how we deal with their presence raises a series of problematic questions given the path that has been chosen since September 11th: Is there anything the twentieth century taught us to fear more than the mobilization of repressive state apparatuses? Their proliferation today demonstrates the wisdom of Baudrillard’s claim that “terrorism is still a lesser evil than a police state capable of ending it.”6

About the Author:

Dr Gerry Coulter is the founder of IJBS


1Guardian Weekly. November 13, 2002.

2 – Benjamin Franklin. Cited by Lewis Lapham in Harper’s, February 2003:7.

3 – Baudrillard, Jean. Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge. Paris: Editions Grasset, 1983.

4 -Benjamin, Walter.  Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

5 – Baudrillard, Jean.  Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:137.

6 – Baudrillard, 1983 Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge. Paris: Editions Grasset, 1983.