- De/Reconstructing Terrorism
Philosophy In a Time of Terror consists of two recent interviews with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida respectively covering issues related to 11 September 2001, the so-called ‘war on terror,’ and the situation in the United States since 9–11. In addition, the book has lengthy introductions by Giovanna Borradori to each interview and to the book as a whole. The introductions will be helpful for newcomers to Habermas and Derrida, but the interviews will also be of interest to students and scholars already familiar with Habermas’s and Derrida’s work, in particular those interested in the use of their philosophical works in concrete contexts.
For Borradori, Philosophy In a Time of Terror is a personal book. She ‘lived 9/11 first hand: I was separated from my children . . . from my perspective, the unthinkable broke out of a glorious late summer morning, which inexplicably turned into something close to apocalypse’ (p. ix). This description of her experience of 9–11 describes the experience of most Americans, including many on the Left. There is something deeply problematic about it, though, something addressed by both Habermas and Derrida in their interviews. First of all, the diagnosis is wrong. It rests on a dichotomy between a harmonious and peaceful before and a violent and exceptional after. Yet, the United States prior to 11 September 2001 was not a peaceful, harmonious or non-violent place, and 9–11 was not the end of the world or anything close to it. Secondly, and related to the first point, this conception of 9–11 as an absolute and singular event brings with it the danger that practically anything can be justified in response to this event. Indeed, just about anything has been justified in the name of ‘recent events.’
It is in this light that Habermas and Derrida’s interventions can be seen as attempts to present an alternative Leftist response to terrorism and the ‘war on terror.’ Despite their philosophical and political differences, Habermas and Derrida share an allegiance to a certain idea of Europe. Ironically, they both belong to ‘old Europe’ — Germany and France — although they are also both frequent visitors to the United States. And they both stress ‘Europe’ as a privileged point of enunciation for an internationalist conception of the rule of law, democracy and anti-terrorism.1
As Borradori rightly notes, Habermas and Derrida’s styles are very different, something also reflected in their interviews. Habermas’s style is dry and ‘elegantly traditional [allowing] his thinking to progress from concept to concept’ (p. xii). Habermas starts from the concepts handed down to us by the Enlightenment tradition: democracy, human rights, the rule of law, publicity, tolerance, and so on. However, he wants us to relate critically to these concepts in order to draw out their full potential. For instance, crimes may be committed in the name of the universal, but rational critique — or, in Habermasian terms, rational reconstruction — allows us to distinguish true from false universals. Enlightenment discourse has this ‘peculiar self-reference that makes it the vehicle for self-correcting learning processes’ (p. 42).
Derrida, on the other hand, proceeds along ‘a longer and winding road that opens unpredictably onto large vistas and narrow canyons.’ Thus, it is a characteristic of deconstruction that this ‘extreme sensitivity for subtle facts of language makes Derrida’s thought virtually inseparable from the words in which it is expressed’ (p. xii). Although it does in a sense continue the Enlightenment tradition, deconstruction aims to show how distinctions — like the one between terrorist and freedom fighter — are blurred and to show the inherent aporias of concepts like democracy and tolerance, aporias that cannot be overcome through rational critique.
The close affinity between Derrida’s style and his philosophical and political positions is evidenced in the way he approaches the interview itself. Derrida starts the interview by talking about how we talk about 9–11. The way we talk about things — the concepts and distinctions we use when talking about them...