- Apocalyptic Thinking after 9/11:An Interview with René Girard1
Robert Doran: Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001 you participated in an interview with the French news daily Le Monde, in which you stated that "what is occurring today is a mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale."2 This observation now appears truer than ever. All evidence points to a continuation and intensification of mimetic conflict: wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; transit bombings in Madrid and London; even the car burnings in the Paris suburbs are not unrelated. How do you see the events of 9/11 in retrospect?
René Girard: I think that your statement is right. And I would like to begin by making a few comments on that very point. It seemed impossible at the time, but I think that many people have forgotten 9/11—not completely forgotten, but they have reduced it to some kind of unspoken norm. When I did that interview with Le Monde, everyone agreed that it was a most unusual, new, and incomparable event. And now I think that many people wouldn't agree with that statement. Unfortunately, in the United States, because of the war in Iraq, the attitude towards 9/11 has been affected by ideology. It has become "conservative" and "alarmist" to emphasize 9/11. Those who want to put an immediate end to the war in Iraq tend to minimize it. Now, I don't want to say that they are wrong in wanting to end the war in Iraq, but they should be very careful and consider the situation in its entirety before they deemphasize 9/11. Today this tendency is very general, because the events that you are talking about—which have taken place after 9/11 and which are in some way vaguely reminiscent of this event—have been incomparably less powerful, striking, and so forth. And therefore there is a whole problem of interpretation: what is 9/11?
RD: You yourself see 9/11 as a kind of rupture, a seminal event?
RG: Yes, I see it as a seminal event, and it is fundamentally wrong to minimize it today. The normal desire to be optimistic, to not see the uniqueness of our time from the point of view of violence, is the desire to grab any straw to make our time appear as the mere continuation of the [End Page 20] violence of the twentieth century. I personally think that it represents a new dimension, a new world dimension. What communism was trying to do, to have a truly global war, has happened, and it is real now. To minimize 9/11 is to try to avoid thinking the way I do about the importance of this new dimension.
RD: You just made reference to the Cold War. How would you compare the two threats to the West?
RG: The two are similar in that they represent a revolutionary threat, a global threat. But the current threat goes beyond even politics, since there is a religious aspect. Therefore the idea that there could be a more total conflict than the one conceived by the totalitarian peoples, like Nazi Germany, that it would become in some way the property of Islam, is just such an amazing thing, so contrary to what everybody believed about politics. This demands an immense amount of thought, for there is no corresponding reflection about the coexistence of other religions with Islam and in particular Christianity. The religious problem is the most radical one in that it goes beyond the ideological divides—which of course most intellectuals today are not willing to let go of. And if this is the case, then our reflections will remain superficial with respect to 9/11. We must be willing to think in a wider context, and in my view this wider context is the apocalyptic dimension of Christianity. The apocalyptic dimension of Christianity is a threat because the very survival of the planet is at stake. Our planet is threatened by three things, all of which are the creation of man: the nuclear threat, the ecological threat, and the biological manipulation of...