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OVER the past three days, we have been considering the relevance for the present time of Hannah Arendt’s monumental work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published 50 years ago, the first book of a then almost unknown 45-year-old émigré German Jewish woman who went on to become the major political thinker of her generation. But during this conference we have, of course, all been thinking about this book in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and now in the shadow of a military operation conducted by the American government against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the terrorist network headquartered there. For the last part of this conference, we want to turn our attention directly to these events, and I have agreed to launch our discussion by extracting three themes from her book that might be particularly useful to consider while we try to think our way through to some clarity about what has happened. The first theme concerns novelty in human affairs. As she wrote her book, Arendt disciplined herself to a habit of political analysis that she kept to throughout the rest of her life. She made distinctions and worked to conceptualize clearly, inquiring into the historical meaning and the present usefulness of each concept she explored, starting with “totalitarianism.” Considering any current political event or question, she thought it particularly important —as Thucydides had in writing his history while the Peloponnesian War was still unfolding—to distinguish what was familiar and already conceptualized from what was new and just SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) On the Origins of a New Totalitarianism BY ELISABETH YOUNG-BRUEHL becoming conceptualizable, and thus a discussable part of political conversation. So when she made the claim that totalitarianism was a novel form of government, distinct from such familiar forms as tyranny, oligarchy, democracy, Arendt took it as her responsibility to say, carefully and thoroughly, what was “unprecedented” (she used this word, now one of the most hackneyed words in our political vocabulary, with utmost rigor). To oppose a totalitarian regime effectively, Arendt understood, required isolating the features making this form of government novel, anatomizing it. Political analysis is a combination of culling lessons from the past—thinking in historical analogies—and being able to identify what is new, which will be the features that call for a new, creative response. Our American public response to the “Attack on America” got off to a reflexive—an understandably stunned—and unthinking start as President George W. Bush and an instantly united Congress called the attack an act of war and declared war. Pearl Harbor was evoked constantly. But it was also immediately clear that war was being declared by our state in the absence of an enemy state or even any nonstate group claiming responsibility. There was no Japan behind those lethal hijacked planes, and not even any certain criminal or terrorist. So we were called upon to ready for a “war on terrorism,” which is as meaningless a phrase as “war on drugs” and far more dangerous. Then the president felt compelled to say that any state harboring terrorists was our enemy, making a futile effort to find a state—chiefly Afghanistan—to be the missing Japan, an enemy state with an army. But in the days after the “Attack on America,” many Americans came to the realizations (long common in the intelligence communities) that every state in the world (including America) harbors terrorists, whether directly supporting them or not, and that many terrorists have affinities or are actively networked across state borders and even across the borders of the specific causes and beliefs they subscribe to. 568 SOCIAL RESEARCH That there are interconnected terrorist cells and training programs all over the world is not news, and even an attack on the World Trade Center is not, of course, unprecedented. The weapon—suicides bearing explosives—is not new, only horrifyingly expanded to involve planes full of others, not just single kamikazes. We have seen the proud achievements of our own technology turned with logistical mastery upon us. But it seems to me that the novelty in the event will...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 567-578
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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