Our most difficult yet most necessary exercise is to put ourselves in the place of those who want to kill us, not to espouse their resentments, but to affirm through this encounter the unity of the human and the primacy of moral reciprocity. If there is a psychological guide that allows us to distinguish between the satisfactions of resentment and those of love, it is the awareness that love denies the immediate emotional satisfaction provided by the resentful imagination. What we seek is not to understand the phenomenology of vicarious killing but to locate the element of our common humanity that can be made to justify the terrorist’s ideology and actions. We can call this justification fallacious, but we cannot dismiss it as alien to us without denying the humanity of those whom we condemn for denying the humanity of others.

If the affirmation of life is a good, how is the negation of life possible? The human is founded on the deferral of satisfaction, that is, the suspension of life. Were we wholly immersed in the life-world, we would not be human. The various forms of sacrifice, including the jihadi’s self-sacrifice, pay homage to this originary configuration.

War, the conflict between two societies, is not a component of the originary scene–happily, because this means that war is not an essential feature of human existence. The originary function of sacrifice is to maintain order within the social unit. Indeed, in its most general meaning of conflict between communities, war is not specifically human; the “struggle for life” among different subgroups within a species is inevitable, and adaptations to intraspecific physical combat are found among insects. War as combat between communities does not depend on any specific constitution of these individual communities; what is different about humanity is not that it forms societies that tend to compete with each other, but that the mechanisms by which these societies are constituted and the events in which these mechanisms manifest themselves are derived from an originary scene. When two scenically constituted communities fight each other, they differ from animal communities more in their internal dynamic than in their mode of combat. Representational factors are relevant only at higher levels of organization; a man fighting a bear can profit from his humanity to improve his weaponry, but not to impose on the bear the human spirit of deferral–nor is this possible even among humans once they become engaged in violent combat.

In war, animals as well as humans sacrifice their lives for the cause; their “altruism” is predictable by the need to maximize inclusive fitness, the annihilation of one’s community being clearly the most damaging of all contingencies to one’s gene pool. In war, laying down one’s life for one’s comrades or one’s country is hardly abnormal behavior. But today’s suicide bomber is hardly performing the same function as the Kamikazes of WWII; the Japanese pilot who flew his plane into the side of an aircraft carrier has very little in common with the men who flew airliners into the sides of buildings on September 11. As compared to those motivated by the defense of the fatherland, the hijackers acted in the name of no established or emergent political unit. The power and significance of their act lies in the acknowledged asymmetry between the concrete reality–and lives–destroyed and the vague Islamic utopianism this act claimed to promote.

A terrorist International is in the process of forming, one that extends well beyond the Islamic limits of al Qaeda, drawn together by common resentment of the West and its market-driven prosperity. (In a recent book entitled L’Islam révolutionnaire [Monaco: Eds du Rocher, 2003], the infamous international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as “Carlos,” a recent convert to Islam, urges “all revolutionaries, including those of the left, even atheists,” to accept the “luminous” leadership of Osama bin Laden in the fight against the “incarnation of Satan” that is the United States.) The attitude of resentment is, as the evolutionists say, an adaptive behavior for reestablishing moral reciprocity within a given society. Sacrificial ritual and “scapegoating” in general focus the energy of this resentment on targets whose destruction does not endanger the social order as a whole. Between societies, war often serves the function of directing resentment away from the social order; if the ideal “scapegoat” is one whose destruction does not damage this order, then a fortiori the members of another political unit can serve the same function. Indeed, war makes more efficient use than sacrifice of the energy of resentment, since defeating an external enemy can bring economic benefits unavailable within the zero-sum terrain of one’s own society. Arguably the battlefield, the originary locus of valor/value (French valeur), is where resentment first gets productively recycled into the exchange system.


On the one hand, terrorism is the extreme degree of victimary politics–white guilt is expected to excuse even one’s own potential killers; on the other, it is a reminder of the sacrificial origins of the global exchange system. If scapegoating is an internal and war an external phenomenon, terror becomes a category in itself at the point where the distinction between internal and external breaks down–n a frontierless global economy that includes local cultures whose integration into this economy is, as might be expected, not always, or even usually, successful. Terrorism has been a technique of war, but contemporary terrorism is a war in itself–a new development that we should give George Bush and his government credit for recognizing, whatever one thinks of the specific policies by which they have been waging our side of the war.

The terrorist returns from exchange to sacrifice; from the marketplace, in which he is implicated insofar as he can act only from within the system he is attempting to destroy, to the originary deferral of desire that founds human culture. Death alone can guarantee the terrorist’s denial of exchange, and, as a result of this denial, makes his action more effective, severing the final ties of shared self-interest between the killer and his potential victims. (As the Israelis will tell you, there’s no foolproof way to stop a suicide bomber.) Suicidal martyrdom, a deterrent to those who love life, is a paradoxically effective recruitment device because it demonstrates to the terminally resentful the viability of the originary human alternative to the master-slave dialectic–as the market system is viewed by those unable or unwilling to conceive economic exchange as a rational process. It is not surprising that this position, characteristic of the Islamic “third world,” has absorbed the radical antisemitism of the internal Western “critique” of the market system as a centralized conspiracy (see Chronicle 292).

The originary scene is successful because it preserves human life from the dangers of mimetic conflict. The event of deferral is not a visceral reaction of fear; the deferral of appetitive satisfaction is a mode of communication, a communion that prefigures the feast that will follow. One renounces life as an animal in order to live it as a human being. This renunciation is the source of human life as such, and every subsequent human life is dependent on it. Suicide bombing is the ultimate means of calling in the chips of this debt. It reminds us that the opposition between culture and economy as modes of exchange may be reduced in its starkest terms to that between death and life–the former as death to animal instincts and the latter as providing for their continued satisfaction.


The participants in the originary scene acted to control resentment by redirecting it toward the all-powerful center. The global economy dominated by the United States is for the Islamic militant a Satanic inversion of this originary configuration that can be combated only by an inversion of the originary deferral of violence. Instead of disorder transformed into order by the deferring focus on the center, violence to the center produces a disorder so chaotic that it can be restrained only by the sacrificial order in which desires are renounced rather than merely deferred. The terrorist’s resentful fidelity to the originary constitution of the human emphasizes the renunciation without compensation of our most fundamental appetite–the “instinct of self-preservation”–in the service of transcendence: in a word, theism, in contrast with the deferral of appetite in the service of peaceful exchange: in a word, humanism.

There is no Archimedian equilibrium point from which to articulate and synthesize man’s creation of god with God’s creation of man, although Christianity articulates this paradox more sharply than any other religion, and generative anthropology offers a minimal model of it. But whereas religion is traditionally the domain where “the end justifies the means”–cf. Pascal’s wager or pari–our era is the historical moment in which the means must be judged in themselves because the means have become the theology. The destruction of the human world order in order that God may impose his own order is Satanic rather than authentically theistic; by claiming to carry out the will of a divinity situated beyond human order the terrorist makes himself the origin of the transcendence he supposedly obeys.

Theological niceties aside, we must rely on our intuition of the difference between love and resentment. In this regard, the age of communism and its dialectical opposite, Nazism, is a historical watershed. Nazi propaganda stressed love of fatherland over its hate-filled racial doctrines, although the latter were by no means hidden, and communism played this game still more successfully–to such an extent that whereas de-Nazification is still a reality in Europe, de-communization is not even a word. We realize now that a solidary post-market community cannot be created by focusing the resentment generated by the market on the real or symbolic agents of market circulation, but this realization was not automatic: it required the elaboration and ultimate failure of monstrous historical experiments. Contemporary terrorism too is engaged in a historical experiment, but it cannot be realized in a economically viable society; it is a contest between the human order with all its faults and the social equivalent of nothingness.

Anyone who expresses sympathy for the terrorists by denouncing the global order as “capitalist” or “imperialist” is, deliberately or not, missing the point. Islamic terrorism does not seek to liberate “indigenous forces” kept at bay by imperialist control in order to create a new society; its goal is to produce a chaos so violent that it can be tamed only by the imposition of the Sharia at the hands of Taliban-like gangs, not as a stricter way of regulating economic relations but as a substitute for them. The apparently abstract opposition between love and resentment, order and chaos, becomes an opposition between the world as it is today and one that would be a nightmare for all but a few of its few survivors. One shudders to think how many hundreds of millions of deaths would be required to bring about such an outcome; it is this number, not the day-to-day tallies of terrorist victims, that is the body count we should use to assess the morality of Islamic terrorism. No anthropology that values its subject-matter can conceive this to be required by humanity’s originary constitution; yet it is an option that has always been available to it in principle and that our global society has allowed to emerge as a real, and ominous, possibility.