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  • Global Terror, Global Vengeance?
  • Marcel Hénaff (bio)
    Translated by Roxanne Lapidus and Robert Doran (bio)

It seems generally accepted that the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington mark the beginning of an era of a new kind of violence. We are supposedly dealing with a form of terrorism so exceptional that it makes traditional concepts of war obsolete. Classical warfare between nations or alliances always involved States, and remained within the armature of recognized international law. It is said that the current struggle against terrorism no longer fits into this conceptual and juridical framework. Thus September 11, 2001 presumably made us cross a new threshold in that it manifested a type of violence that radically changed the nature of modern conflict.

Such a conclusion is seductive and can seem well-founded. Nevertheless, it is insufficient, if not erroneous, in that it presents the terrorism of 9/11 as the ultimate stage in the process of techno-military modernization that emerged out of the Industrial Revolution. During the Cold War, this process culminated in the strategic mastery of thermonuclear arms. It must be acknowledged that this modernity is by no means outdated; the end of the Eastern and Western blocs makes possession of atomic weapons by the newly independent states of these former blocs an even greater risk. Thus the attacks of September 11 do not allow us to consider this page as having been turned. Rather, the attacks open a parallel or divergent path of "terror" alongside the classical nuclear threat. They do not render it obsolete. For everything that seems "modern" about these attacks can be attributed to:

  1. 1. Practical means employed for an unintended purpose (commercial planes used to batter civil buildings). No actual weapons were involved save the paltry box cutters used to intimidate and control the planes' crews. In short, it was literally an act of bricolage.

  2. 2. The media's impact on the events. This act of bricolage was disseminated over the entire globe—disseminated in a way that had not been orchestrated but was spontaneously broadcast and amplified by the media because of its tragic magnitude and, more particularly, because of the spectacle-like and symbolic value of the event.

To this we should add another distinguishing feature: the fact that it was a matter of suicidal attackers, whose self-sacrifice was considered a [End Page 72] religious act of martyrdom (a questionable claim even from the point of view of Islam), thus removing any conventional possibility of justice, since the murderer automatically eludes any human tribunal where the rights of the victims could be asserted.

We are thus dealing with a hybrid event, which makes any analysis or evaluation difficult. The religious and cultural motivations behind these acts are so particular and decisive that any attempt to understand them in terms of simple military or political strategy is useless. Here we must have recourse to other areas of knowledge, such as history and anthro-pology. Thus if we want to know what motivated the attacks of 9/11 and continues to fuel Al Qaeda's terrorist acts, we should first consider the statements of its leaders. In the "Message to the American People," broadcast by Bin Laden on October 28, 2004, in which he discusses the two years that have passed since September 11, he is articulate in this regard. The speech begins: "Praise be to God, who created the universe for his creatures, and commanded them to be just and allowed the oppressed to take revenge on the oppressor...." (quoted in Kepel 2005, 101, my emphasis).1 Further along, evoking his anger at the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he expresses his "feeling to refuse and reject injustice," and his "determination to punish the transgressors" (ibid., 103, my emphasis). More precisely, he expresses outrage at the destruction of two skyscrapers in Beirut where Palestinian and Lebanese combatants were entrenched: "And as I was looking at those towers that were destroyed in Lebanon, it occurred to me that we have to punish the transgressor with the same—and that we had to destroy the towers in America so that they taste what we tasted, and that they...


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pp. 72-97
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