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  • Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear
  • Judith Butler (bio)

The left response to the war currently waged in Afghanistan has run into serious problems in part because the explanations that the left has provided to the question, “why do they hate us so much?” have been dismissed as so many exonerations of the acts of terror themselves. This does not need to be the case. I think we can see, however, how moralistic anti-intellectual trends coupled with a distrust of the left as so many self-flagellating first world elites has produced a situation in which our very capacity to think about the grounds and causes of the current global conflict is considered impermissible. The cry that “there is no excuse for September 11th” has become a means by which to stifle any serious public discussion of how U.S. foreign policy has helped to create a world in which such acts of terror are possible. We see this most dramatically in the suspension of any attempt to offer balanced reporting on the international conflict, the refusal to include important critiques of the U.S. military effort by Arundhati Roy (The Guardian, 9/29/01) and others within the mainstream U.S. press, the unprecedented suspension of civil liberties for illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists, the use of the flag as an ambiguous sign of solidarity with those lost on September 11th and with the current war, as if the sympathy with the one translates, in a single symbolic stroke, into support for the latter. The raw public mockery of the peace movement, the characterization of anti-war demonstrations as anachronistic or nostalgic, work to produce a consensus of public opinion that profoundly marginalizes anti-war sentiment and analysis, putting into question in a very strong way the very value of dissent as part of contemporary U.S. democratic culture.

The articulation of this hegemony takes place in part through producing a consensus on what certain terms will mean, how they can be used, and what lines of solidarity are implicitly drawn through this use. We reserve “acts of terror” for events such as the September 11th attacks on the U.S., distinguishing these acts of violence from those that might be justified through foreign policy decisions or public declarations of war. On the other hand, these terrorist acts are construed as “declarations of war” by the Bush administration, which then positions the military response as a justified act of self-defense. In the meantime, there is ambiguity introduced by the very use of the term “terrorist” which is then exploited by various powers at war with independence movements of various kinds. The term “terrorist” is used, for instance, by the Israeli state to describe any and all Palestinian acts of violence, but none of its own. The term is also used by Putin to describe the Chechen struggle for independence, which then casts its own acts of violence against this province as justified acts of national self-defense. The U.S., by using the term, positions itself exclusively as the sudden and indisputable victim of violence, and there is no doubt that it has suffered violence, terrible violence.

The point I would like to underscore here is that a frame for understanding violence emerges in tandem with the experience, and that the frame works both to preclude certain kinds of questions, certain kinds of historical inquiries, and to function as a moral justification for retaliation. It seems crucial to attend to this frame, since it decides, in a forceful way, what we can hear, whether a view will be taken as explanation or as exoneration, whether we can hear the difference, and abide by it.

There is as well a narrative dimension to this explanatory framework. In the U.S., we start the story by invoking a first-person narrative point of view, and tell what happened on September 11th. And it is that date, and the unexpected and fully terrible experience of violence that propels the narrative. If someone tries to start the story earlier, there are only a few narrative options. We can narrate, for instance, what Mohammed Atta’s family life was like...