My first reaction to the September 11 attacks was to call them “nihilistic,” since they sought destruction for its own sake. On reflection, however, I think we should see these attacks as motivated by a model, however crude and “medieval,” of an ideal social order, one roughly exemplified by the Taliban and other Islamist regimes. Some readers of the preceding Chronicle, in which I presented this model as a possible alternative to the global market system, accused me of alarmism. Surely there is no way that al Qaeda, or even the whole internationale terroriste, could reduce the industrialized world to the level at which Talibans would be the universal norm.
Perhaps this is true today. But even if anthrax scares and similar fears are nothing but symptoms of war hysteria, can we consider this truth eternal? How much would the course of current history have changed had Israel not destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981? Perhaps biological and chemical weapons are too sophisticated for terrorists to use effectively; perhaps nuclear weapons are inaccessible to them. Are these facts somehow permanently guaranteed by human ontology? Hobbes’ famous chapter (Leviathan I, 13) describing the “state of nature” begins with the observation that “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.” Can we say that this truth of human mimesis cannot possibly apply on the state level?
This is not to say that Islamist regimes offer a viable alternative in today’s world. They are creatures of third-world frustration whose vogue is unlikely to outlast the present generation. Even if we did nothing, eventually either the Afghans themselves would throw out the Taliban or the Taliban itself would liberalize, as is gradually happening in Iran. But that is not my point. In the one-world society of today, medievalism is reactive, dependent on the modernity it reacts against. But the terrorists’ ambition is, by destroying modernity with its own weapons, to re-medievalize whatever is left; societies like Afghanistan can be taken as preliminary models of what this re-medievalization would produce.
Let us suppose for the sake of argument that terrorists could wipe out whole cities, or spread disease over a whole country. Whatever damage they might do would be consistent with their aims in a way that communist or even Nazi violence was not. In order to reestablish a medieval social order, one must first destroy the conditions of modernity. Even if the current jihad is incapable of destroying modern civilization, we should take it as a very serious wake-up call. Nuclear weapons technology is becoming ever easier to duplicate, and there is no reason to assume that biological and chemical weaponry will not evolve in the same direction. This had better be the last time that we face a concerted terrorist threat backed by any kind of state apparatus; next time, there may be millions of deaths rather than thousands. We have a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity in which to begin recycling the resentments generated by the global market system.
Not long ago, I conceived the idea of a “post-millennial” era, defined by its abandonment of the victimary epistemology of the postmodern age. The defining issue seemed to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The breakdown of the “peace process” and the renewed Intifada made it clear that the continued focus on the Palestinians as victims had become counterproductive for both sides; no real negotiations could take place when beneath all Palestinian demands was a sense of legitimized resentment on the model of the South African Blacks under apartheid. (This parallel was in fact raised at the recent Durban conference on racism.) It seemed to me that a new age had begun in which the relatively easy answers of the previous era would have to give way to market-like processes of negotiation.
If it was not clear to everyone from the suicide bombings in Israel that resentment could no longer be legitimized within the political process, the September 11 events made this point much more decisively. Palestinian terrorism may be linked to legitimate–and, at least in principle, negotiable–grievances; bin Laden’s cannot. Just as the Holocaust inaugurated the postmodern era by making victimary resentment the preeminent criterion of political change, September 11 ended it by demonstrating the horrors such resentment can produce. These attacks impose on us the necessity of clearly distinguishing between the deferral of resentment and the legitimation of this resentment. This distinction has never been sharper–perhaps even to the point of impinging on the awareness of that most intellectually stagnant of classes, our “progressive” intelligentsia.
Does the end of victimary thinking mean that we should no longer seek justice? Of course not. But it does mean that justice cannot be sought simply by “taking the side of the victim.” It suggests that the redistributive model of justice, conceived as exercising absolute authority over all objects in contention between the parties, must be replaced by a less absolute, negotiational conception, where the judge is first and foremost an arbitrator. Victimary justice puts everything up for grabs; the persecutor has no rights of ownership, for all his possessions are tainted by victimization. More modestly, post-millennial justice respects the Lockean notion of property as a buffer between persons; it begins with the situation as it exists, and declares possession illegitimate only when it can be shown unambiguously to be so. Needless to say, no mere redefinition of terms will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; but only if both parties reject the victimary mindset, as seemed to be the case after Oslo, are win-win solutions conceivable.
Awareness of the rigor of the terrorists’ opposition to global civilization only makes clearer the impossibility of compromise or of competition in the “we will bury you” sense. It is not enough to explain the Islamists’ inflexibility by the fact that they are “religiously motivated.” As the answer to any anthropological question, religious motivation is like the turtle that holds the world on its back but needs another turtle to hold it up–“turtles all the way down.” What guarantees this “religious motivation” is a concept of human community, the Umma of all Moslems. The intense hostility that inspires many in the Moslem world to burn American flags in support of al Qaeda is fueled by the conviction that the Umma, unlike the Christian Kingdom of God, can and should be realized on this earth. There is the glorious past to recall, but there is also the less glorious but real present in which hands and heads can be chopped off and women whacked with sticks for violations of the Sharia. The law of the Prophet may be incompatible with the modern exchange system, but it is not incompatible with certain social forms that have survived under this system and can therefore be felt to offer a preferable alternative–even if, as I have noted, the universalization of the Islamist ideal would require a drastic reduction in the world’s population.
That we all bear within our minds an originary model of reciprocity is made clear enough by the resentment we experience when we feel this model is violated; resentment is only another word for the feeling of violation. Yet reciprocity is never perfect; in every exchange-system, if not in every individual exchange, some are closer to the center of significance than others. Every social order generates resentment; a global society generates resentment on a global scale. The present conflict is not a “clash of civilizations” but a battle within world civilization between those who lead it and those whose resentment wills its destruction. We must provide means to defer this resentment at the same time as we raise the cost of expressing it through terrorism to the point of unacceptability.
In the long term, we will be obliged to work out the political implications of the turn away from victimary thinking on a global scale. Liberal democracies provide mechanisms for mitigating economic power with political power, and, by every indication, these mechanisms, whatever their imperfections, are adaptable to the social problems of the foreseeable future. On the global level, however, differences of national wealth and productivity make direct political solutions impossible. Bringing the wealthy countries down to the level of the poor ones would be no more productive than bringing the WTC towers down to sea level. Not “world government” but a multilayered set of institutions is needed to facilitate the integration of the preindustrial world into the global economy.
Ethics is concerned with creating practical models of human exchange against the background of the originary moral model of perfect reciprocity. Beyond this minimal configuration, there is no “just” or “good” society to serve ethics as a utopian model. No demonstration of the fairness of a given social order will persuade those who feel disfavored within it. Just as Fukuyama’s idea of the “end of history” stands in contradiction with the democratic model of decision-making by which he defines this end (see Chronicle 247), so does any ultimate notion of the good society, even “in theory.” One can minimize resentment, one can recycle it into the system; one can never simply eliminate it.
Hence one can never wholly eliminate the source of terrorism, or, no doubt, terrorism itself. Any ethical model with a claim to practical application must allow for the existence of individuals and groups within the larger society who consider that society unjust and who ardently desire its destruction, even if they be destroyed along with it. This does not imply, however, that such individuals and groups cannot be denied the means to act on their desires. As these means become more powerful, stricter restrictions will have to be placed on them. This will inevitably lead to the diminution of what we call our “civil liberties.” I will postpone further reflection on this point to another Chronicle.