Anatomy of 9/11: Evil, Rationalism, and the Sacred
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Anatomy of 9/11:
Evil, Rationalism, and the Sacred1

1. The Expulsion of Evil in the Rationalist Model and in Critical Sociology

Though the terrorists of September 11th, 2001 succeeded in bringing down the towers that symbolized the power of world capitalism, they did not succeed in undermining the way we interpret human acts, including those that appear the most nonsensical.

The individualistic and rationalistic model that currently dominates the field of the social sciences—and even the common sense attitude—urges us to account or give reasons for the actions of the other, but also for our own actions, by looking for their causes and by considering these causes as reasons.2 If John did x, it is because he desired to obtain y, and because he believed he would obtain y by doing x. Every action, even the most seemingly nonsensical, appears to be endowed with a minimal rationality, as long as one conceives it as being motivated by desires and beliefs. All that is required is to find the appropriate desires and beliefs, those that will enable us to reconstruct the puzzle. And we have certainly seen reasonable people attribute the most fantastic beliefs to others (beliefs they themselves would be incapable of forming), pretending to believe in their reality by calling them "religious beliefs"! In order to preserve the explanatory schema that assimilates reasons and causes for action, the rationalists will hold, in the case of a nonsensical action, that the actors believe nonsensically. This view is clearly the result of inadequate analysis and a lack of imagination—as if religious beliefs were powerful enough to be the cause of such acts!

Thinkers have sought to give meaning to nonsensical acts through the alterity of "absurd" religious beliefs. This paradox deserves some reflection. In order to preserve the rationality of an act of incredible violence or madness, we must lend beliefs (or sometimes desires) to their authors—beliefs that any sensible person would reject with horror, ridicule or commiseration.3 In fact, such a model for interpreting human actions has nothing to say about the rationality of beliefs and desires, for they are considered as given facts. According to the famous dictum of David Hume, "Reason is, and must be, the slave of the passions." If there [End Page 33] is horror or madness in an act, all of the condemnation it inspires is put onto the beliefs and desires imputed as causes, but the act itself will be justified by these same causes considered as reasons. The universality of practical judgment ends up by attributing attitudes or mental states to the other that belong only to him, and whose singularity and private character will in some cases make his otherness absolute.

This model for reading human actions is so engrained in our collective consciousness that today there are many who believe that it derives from human nature, or even from nature itself. When the champions of the cognitive sciences, allied with the analytical philosophers of mind and language, adhere to a program of "naturalizing the mind," this is the model of interpretation they relentlessly seek to reduce to the laws of physics. But what confirms the hegemonic nature of this model is the fact that even its enemies continue to think within its framework. The case of Pierre Bourdieu's sociology is a clear example. Its ideology is often too quickly placed at the antipodes of the individualistic, rationalistic model, of which homo oeconomicus is the ultimate expression. And yet, Bourdieu was far more convinced than any other economist that it is "the law of interest" that governs the world. The major difference is that the individualistic, rationalistic model publicly cleaves to a norm that Bourdieu's sociology considers to be the embarrassing and hidden truth of human societies. The rationalistic model is guilty above all of naïveté in the eyes of critical sociology.

Sociological demystification believes it has revealed the hidden face of human societies by smoking out the "logic of interest" in what appear to be the most disinterested behaviors. The masterstroke of this type of thinking is...