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Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida

Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida

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by Giovanna Borradori, Jacques Derrida

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The idea for Philosophy in a Time of Terror was born hours after the attacks on 9/11 and was realized just weeks later when Giovanna Borradori sat down with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in New York City, in separate interviews, to evaluate the significance of the most destructive terrorist act ever perpetrated. This book marks an unprecedented


The idea for Philosophy in a Time of Terror was born hours after the attacks on 9/11 and was realized just weeks later when Giovanna Borradori sat down with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in New York City, in separate interviews, to evaluate the significance of the most destructive terrorist act ever perpetrated. This book marks an unprecedented encounter between two of the most influential thinkers of our age as here, for the first time, Habermas and Derrida overcome their mutual antagonism and agree to appear side by side. As the two philosophers disassemble and reassemble what we think we know about terrorism, they break from the familiar social and political rhetoric increasingly polarized between good and evil. In this process, we watch two of the greatest intellects of the century at work.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Many assumptions about politics were destroyed along with the World Trade Center, and Borradori (philosophy, Vassar) seized the opportunity to ask Habermas and Derrida how their theories fared. These men represent two central strands of European philosophy-the one building on Enlightenment notions of universal rationality, the other suspicious of the commitments often hidden in its language. Borradori thinks their past writings show that both philosophers regard freedom as dependent on a caring society that provides the necessary conditions for action and oppose the tradition that sees freedom as dependent only on philosophical clarity and the absence of restraint. In these interviews, Habermas and Derrida do mention the underlying economic issues-globalization and the search for mastery over the world's oil supplies. But Habermas sees the outbreak of terror mainly as a failure of communications, and Derrida sees it above all as a failure to develop a concept of world hospitality to replace what he thinks is the outmoded Christian notion of a toleration that is really only charity. Despite their theoretical convictions, they seem here to see the problems more as philosophical than as a failure to integrate economics and the social sciences or develop a strategy against misery and poverty. This is a book without jargon or technicalities that should have a place in all large collections.-Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Philosophy in a Time of Terror

Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida

By Giovanna Borradori

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-06664-9

Chapter One

A Dialogue with Jurgen Habermas

Borradori: Do you consider what we now tend to call "September 11" an
unprecedented event, one that radically alters the way we see ourselves?

Habermas: Allow me to say in advance that I shall be answering your
questions at a distance of three months. Therefore, it might be useful to
mention my personal experience in relation to the event. At the start of
October I was beginning a two-month stay in Manhattan. I must confess I
somehow felt more of a stranger this time than I did on previous visits to
the "capital of the twentieth century," a city that has fascinated me for
more than three decades. It was not only the flag-waving and rather
defiant "United We Stand" patriotism that had changed the climate, nor was
it the peculiar demand for solidarity and the accompanying susceptibility
to any presumed "anti-Americanism." The impressive American liberality
toward foreigners, the charm of the eager, sometimes also self-consciously
accepting embrace-thisnoble openhearted mentality seemed to have given
way to a slight mistrust. Would we, the ones who had not been present, now
also stand by them unconditionally? Even those who hold an unquestionable
record, as I do among my American friends, needed to be cautious with
regard to criticism. Since the intervention in Afghanistan, we suddenly
began to notice when, in political discussions, we found ourselves only
among Europeans (or among Israelis).

On the other hand, only there did I first feel the full magnitude of the
event. The terror of this disaster, which literally came bursting out of
the blue, the horrible convictions behind this treacherous assault, as
well as the stifling depression that set over the city, were a completely
different experience there than at home. Every friend and colleague could
remember exactly what they were doing that day shortly after 9:00 A.M. In
short, only there did I begin to better comprehend the foreboding
atmosphere that already echoes in your question. Also among the left there
is a widespread awareness of living at a turning point in history. I do
not know whether the U.S. government itself was slightly paranoid or
merely shunning responsibility. At any rate, the repeated and utterly
nonspecific announcements of possible new terror attacks and the senseless
calls to "be alert" further stirred a vague feeling of angst along with an
uncertain readiness-precisely the intention of the terrorists. In New York
people seemed ready for the worst. As a matter of course, the anthrax
scares (even the plane crash in Queens)2 were attributed to Osama bin
Laden's diabolical machinations.

Given this background, you can understand a certain tendency toward
skepticism. But is what we contemporaries think at the moment that
important for a long-term diagnosis? If the September 11 terror attack is
supposed to constitute a caesura in world history, as many think, then it
must be able to stand comparison to other events of world historical
impact. For that matter, the comparison is not to be drawn with Pearl
Harbor but rather with the aftermath of August 1914. The outbreak of World
War I signaled the end of a peaceful and, in retrospect, somewhat
unsuspecting era, unleashing an age of warfare, totalitarian oppression,
mechanistic barbarism and bureaucratic mass murder. At the time, there was
something like a widespread foreboding. Only in retrospect will we be able
to understand if the symbolically suffused collapse of the capitalistic
citadels in lower Manhattan implies a break of that type or if this
catastrophe merely confirms, in an inhuman and dramatic way, a long known
vulnerability of our complex civilization. If an event is not as
unambiguously important as the French Revolution once was-not long after
that event Kant had spoken about a "historical sign" that pointed toward a
"moral tendency of humankind"-only "effective history" can adjudicate its
magnitude in retrospect.

Perhaps at a later point important developments will be traced back to
September 11. But for now we do not know which of the many scenarios
depicted today will actually hold in the future. The clever, albeit
fragile, coalition against terrorism brought together by the U.S.
government might, in the most favorable case, be able to advance the
transition from classical international law to a cosmopolitan order. At
all events, a hopeful signal was the Afghanistan conference in Bonn,
which, under the auspices of the UN, set the agenda in the right
direction. However, after September 11 the European governments have
completely failed. They are obviously incapable of seeing beyond their own
national scope of interests and lending at least their support to the U.S.
Secretary of State Colin Powell against the hard-liners. The Bush
administration seems to be continuing, more or less undisturbed, the
self-centered course of a callous superpower. It is fighting now as it has
in the past against the appointment of an international criminal court,
relying instead on military tribunals of its own. These constitute, from
the viewpoint of international law, a dubious innovation. It refuses to
sign the Biological Weapons Convention. It one-sidedly terminated the ABM
Treaty and absurdly sees its plan to deploy a missile defense system
validated by the events of September 11. The world has grown too complex
for this barely concealed unilateralism. Even if Europe does not rouse
itself to play the civilizing role, as it should, the emerging power of
China and the waning power of Russia do not fit into the pax Americana
model so simply. Instead of the kind of international police action that
we had hoped for during the war in Kosovo, there are wars again-conducted
with state-of-the-art technology but still in the old style.

The misery in war-torn Afghanistan is reminiscent of images from the
Thirty Years' War. Naturally there were good reasons, even normative ones,
to forcibly remove the Taliban regime, which brutally oppressed not only
women but the entire population. They also refused the legitimate demand
to hand over bin Laden. However, the asymmetry between the concentrated
destructive power of the electronically controlled clusters of elegant and
versatile missiles in the air and the archaic ferocity of the swarms of
bearded warriors outfitted with Kalashnikovs on the ground remains a
morally obscene sight. This feeling is more properly understood when one
recalls the bloodthirsty colonial history that Afghanistan suffered, its
arbitrary geographic cutting up, and its continued instrumentalization at
the hands of the European power play. In any case, the Taliban regime
already belongs to history.

Borradori: True, but our topic is terrorism, which seems to have taken up
new meaning and definition after September 11th.

Habermas: The monstrous act itself was new. And I do not just mean the
action of the suicide hijackers who transformed the fully fueled airplanes
together with their hostages into living weapons, or even the unbearable
number of victims and the dramatic extent of the devastation. What was new
was the symbolic force of the targets struck. The attackers did not just
physically cause the highest buildings in Manhattan to collapse; they also
destroyed an icon in the household imagery of the American nation. Only in
the surge of patriotism that followed did one begin to recognize the
central importance the towers held in everyone's imagination, with their
irreplaceable imprint on the Manhattan skyline and their powerful
embodiment of economic strength and projection toward the future. The
presence of cameras and of the media was also new, transforming the local
event simultaneously into a global one and the whole world population into
a benumbed witness. Perhaps September 11 could be called the first
historic world event in the strictest sense: the impact, the explosion,
the slow collapse-everything that was not Hollywood anymore but, rather, a
gruesome reality, literally took place in front of the "universal
eyewitness" of a global public. God only knows what my friend and
colleague experienced, watching the second airplane explode into the top
floors of the World Trade Center only a few blocks away from the roof of
his house on Duane Street. No doubt it was something completely different
from what I experienced in Germany in front of the television, though we
saw the same thing.

Certainly, no observation of a unique event can provide an explanation per
se for why terrorism itself should have assumed a new characteristic. In
this respect one factor above all seems to me to be relevant: one never
really knows who one's enemy is. Osama bin Laden, the person, more likely
serves the function of a stand-in. Compare the new terrorists with
partisans or conventional terrorists, for example, in Israel. These people
often fight in a decentralized manner in small, autonomous units, too.
Also, in these cases there is no concentration of forces or central
organization, a feature that makes them difficult targets. But partisans
fight on familiar territory with professed political objectives in order
to conquer power. This is what distinguishes them from terrorists who are
scattered around the globe and networked in the fashion of secret
services. They allow their religious motives of a fundamentalist kind to
be known, though they do not pursue a program that goes beyond the
engineering of destruction and insecurity. The terrorism we associate for
the time being with the name "al-Qaeda" makes the identification of the
opponent and any realistic assessment of the danger impossible. This
intangibility is what lends terrorism a new quality.

Surely the uncertainty of the danger belongs to the essence of terrorism.
But the scenarios of biological or chemical warfare painted in detail by
the American media during the months after September 11, the speculations
over the various kinds of nuclear terrorism, only betray the inability of
the government to at least determine the magnitude of the danger. One
never knows if there's anything to it. In Israel people at least know what
can happen to them if they take a bus, go into a department store,
discotheque, or any open area-and how frequently it happens. In the U.S.A.
or Europe one cannot circumscribe the risk; there is no realistic way to
estimate the type, magnitude, or probability of the risk, nor any way to
narrow down the potentially affected regions.

This brings a threatened nation, which can react to such uncertain dangers
solely through administrative channels, to the truly embarrassing
situation of perhaps overreacting and, yet, because of the inadequate
level of secret intelligence, remaining unable to know whether or not it
is in fact overreacting. Because of this, the state is in danger of
falling into disrepute due to the evidence of its inadequate resources:
both domestically, through a militarizing of the security measures, which
endanger the constitutional state, and internationally, through the
mobilization of a simultaneously disproportionate and ineffective military
and technological superiority. With transparent motives, U.S. Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned again of unspecified terror threats at
the NATO conference in Brussels in mid-December: "When we look at the
destruction they caused in the U.S.A., imagine what they could do in New
York, or London, or Paris, or Berlin with nuclear, chemical or biological
weapons." Of a wholly different kind were the measures-necessary and
prudent, but only effective in the long term-the U.S. government took
after the attack: the creation of a worldwide coalition of countries
against terrorism, the effective control over suspicious financial flows
and international bank associations, the networking of relevant
information flows among national intelligence agencies, as well as the
worldwide coordination of corresponding police investigations.

* * *

Borradori: Philosophically speaking, do you consider terrorism to be a
wholly political act?

Habermas: Not in the subjective sense in which Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian
citizen who came from Hamburg and piloted the first of the two
catastrophic airplanes, would offer you a political answer. No doubt
today's Islamic fundamentalism is also a cover for political motifs.
Indeed, we should not overlook the political motifs we encounter in forms
of religious fanaticism. This explains the fact that some of those drawn
into the "holy war" had been secular nationalists only a few years before.
If one looks at the biographies of these people, remarkable continuities
are revealed. Disappointment over nationalistic authoritarian regimes may
have contributed to the fact that today religion offers a new and
subjectively more convincing language for old political orientations.

Borradori: How would you actually define terrorism? Can a meaningful
distinction be drawn between national and international or even global

Habermas: In one respect, Palestinian terrorism still possesses a certain
outmoded characteristic in that it revolves around murder, around the
indiscriminate annihilation of enemies, women, and children-life against
life. This is what distinguishes it from the terror that appears in the
paramilitary form of guerilla warfare. This form of warfare has
characterized many national liberation movements in the second half of the
twentieth century-and has left its mark today on the Chechnyan struggle
for independence, for example. In contrast to this, the global terror that
culminated in the September 11 attack bears the anarchistic traits of an
impotent revolt directed against an enemy that cannot be defeated in any
pragmatic sense. The only possible effect it can have is to shock and
alarm the government and population. Technically speaking, since our
complex societies are highly susceptible to interferences and accidents,
they certainly offer ideal opportunities for a prompt disruption of normal
activities. These disruptions can, at a minimum expense, have considerably
destructive consequences. Global terrorism is extreme both in its lack of
realistic goals and in its cynical exploitation of the vulnerability of
complex systems.

Borradori: Should terrorism be distinguished from ordinary crimes and
other types of violence?

Habermas: Yes and no. From a moral point of view, there is no excuse for
terrorist acts, regardless of the motive or the situation under which they
are carried out. Nothing justifies our "making allowance for" the murder
or suffering of others for one's own purposes. Each murder is one too
many. Historically, however, terrorism falls in a category different from
crimes that concern a criminal court judge.


Excerpted from Philosophy in a Time of Terror
by Giovanna Borradori
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Giovanna Borradori is an associate professor of philosophy at Vassar College. She is the author of The American Philosopher: Conversations with Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, MacIntyre, Kuhn, published by the University of Chicago Press, and the editor of Recoding Metaphysics: The New Italian Philosophy.

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