Editor's Comments

Non-refereed Journal Article

Burgess, J. Peter (2001) Editor's Comments , Security Dialogue 32(4): .

Editor’s Comments

J. PETER BURGESS

THE DECEMBER ISSUE of Security Dialogue was prepared in the long shadow of 11 September. Nearly every article  carries traces of the attacks on New York and Washington, and of the subsequent developments in Afghanistan and the Middle East.  The habitual models for understanding the world and the relations among its peoples collapsed and disintegrated in the rubble of the World Trade Center. Henceforth, the classical conception of security is obsolete, and the late-modern model of threat perception and management no longer explains the calamity nor prognosticates any sensible response.

Terrorism is foreign to the Enlightenment constellation of political ideas on which the modern nation-state is built. The logic of terrorism cannot be understood in terms of the principles of person , state and society in which the individual is sovereign and morally responsible, as well as equipped with reason, the faculty of judgement, self-consciousness and the ability to act in conformity with reason.   The categories of individuality, rationality and social cohesion also form the foundation of the concept of security. Traditional Euro-American security understands the individual as an agent fighting in defence of the universally recognized virtues of some collective principle, be it equality, freedom or justice.

The victim of a terrorist attack is never identical with the victim of terrorism. The thousands of people killed in New York and Washington are the victims of indescribable violence, but paradoxically it is we survivors who feel the effects of terrorism. In contrast to the terror of conventional warfare, terrorism has no physical target. Its relation to particular things or particular individuals is only in terms of the value of the images produced in the moment of death and destruction. By the same token, it cannot be the simple object of a counter-attack. Terrorism is pure performativity, the public performance of the fragility of our world. It is a set of techniques, a methodology of effects. Many have commented that the World Trade Center was targeted because it was the nucleus of the global economy. Yet, despite the obvious fact that central representatives of US finance (among others) perished in the suicide attack, they were not as such the targets. Nor did the attack on the Pentagon aim to weaken in any real sense US military forces by killing members of the military administration. Terrorism is not the same as a terrorist attack. Terrorism is the enforcing of a virtual state of fear that frames the actual terrorist attack. It is both the anticipation of violence – the ever-looming next attack – and the shuddering recollection of death and destruction in the aftermath of the attack. Though terrorism strategically targets people and property, these are only cynical means to another end. Its true target is the imagination. It assaults symbolically, not because it has no concrete effects (for it obviously does), but because the terror it seeks to sow follows from the violence done to symbols of power, to the images of liberty that organize the collective unconscious, to the dream of justice, equality and righteousness on which the Western self-understanding is constructed.

Terrorism is indifferent to the individual; it knows no individuality. The contradiction we see unfolding in the standard Western mode of military response in the campaign in Afghanistan is that the West is forced to respond to the depersonalization of the victims of violent action in terrorism by personalizing not only the acts but also the spirit of evil itself. The US–British reaction seeks to connect individuals and acts, ascribing the terrorist attacks to individuals according to the liberal principle of individuality, under which individuals are responsible for the rationality of their acts and the consequences of those acts. This approach is inadequate for two reasons. First, the individuals with immediate responsibility for the 11 September attacks perished with their victims, in the firm conviction that the acts they carried out were not constrained by their individuality, but rather eternally transcended their own lives. Second, the fundamentalist Islamic conception of justice that is alleged to have motivated the attacks is incommensurate with the Western conception of justice defined in terms of individual responsibility and the rule of law. In contrast to the Euro-American model of procedural justice, fundamentalist Islamic justice is a higher – even transcendental – one, which understands itself in opposition to what fundamentalists see as ‘decadent’ Western individuality.

The potential for terror lies at the heart of Western society, in its belief in – but also need for – rights, freedom and individual responsibility. Western liberal society is extremely fragile. But this fragility is not accidental; it is necessary. The transparency and flexibility of US-style democracy is both the key to its dominance in the world system and its Achilles heel. Terror is not produced by introducing new danger from the outside, but by revealing how deeply the menace is already within the system, in an imaginary form, in a tacit understanding of the precariousness of domestic security. The authors of the attacks in New York and Washington organized and trained for their exploits within the US and European systems of freedom of movement and the presumption of innocence. For the time being, Americans seem to be responding favourably to suppression of these civil liberties in the name of security. Time will tell whether this situation will last.

In the extraordinary chaos of the first days after 11 September, President George W. Bush chose to revert to the logic of war in his characterization of the attacks. Among other things, this cleared the way for the NATO Council to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, thereby binding all NATO members to collaborate in any eventual ‘war’ actions. It also permitted the Bush administration to develop a rhetoric of ‘long-term conflict’, requiring the ‘resolve’ and ‘patience’ of all Americans. The prospect of an open-ended state of war, with its attendant emergency rights and powers, provides a political weapon for managing collateral political damage, economic recession and resentment over curtailed civil rights. Because of the benefits conferred by this, the campaign against terrorism is being executed as a classical state-to-state engagement of war. Though no one has claimed that the Taliban regime is directly responsible for the attacks, a genealogy of power and influence has been reconstructed to adequately justify the attack on Afghan institutions and facilities in the normal mode of interstate war.

Yet, as Reichberg & Syse suggest in a Viewpoint article in this issue, terrorism resists the conceptualization of war. It provides for no state-to-state action, no incursions in violation of national sovereignty in the ordinary sense, no diplomatic recognition, no officially designated soldiers or agents of war. There are no fronts, no borders. Neither the perpetrators nor the victims of a terrorist act are sovereign political subjects in the Hobbesian sense. No possible conditions for capitulation are declared or implied. There are no finite limits to such a war, and no objective criteria available for determining whether or when the war has been won or lost.

The complex ‘war on terrorism’ is a war without nations (in which the most-likely ‘enemies’ of the ‘Free World’ are in all probability already on US and European territory) being fought as the ‘war in Afghanistan’. The public relations risk is that people will lose sight of the connection between the spectacular collapse of the WTC towers and the bombed-out camps and villages or the potholed airstrips of scrappy Afghan airfields. Through the eyes of Western media, an Afghan village looks more or less the same before and after it is bombed.

By militarizing the language of terrorism instead of criminalizing it (the ultimate individualizing reaction), we risk dignifying both the methods of terrorism and its perpetrators, glorifying the latter as soldiers and martyrs in a global battle . As sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer recently noted, the greatest humiliation for Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants would be to find themselves arrested as simple crooks and thugs, and left to the procedures and protocols of the international legal system. Granting the fundamentalist Islamic struggle the status of war simultaneously exalts a kind of fundamentalist Islamic sovereignty , a notion with unacceptable connotations for the secularized political West.

While the fight against terrorism is prosecuted with the tools and presuppositions of an international war, the ‘justice’ being sought is of a different order. As Ulfstein points out in another Viewpoint in this issue, terrorism is a violation of international law. Institutional facilities are available to bring the perpetrators of terrorist acts to ’justice’, to try them according to the juridical norms and rules that have become universally valid on the international plane. And yet this is not the ‘justice’ the West seeks in executing its campaign against Afghanistan. Americans thirst for a higher-order ‘justice’, the re-establishment or reconstruction of a state of mind, a peace and tranquillity that mostly likely will never again be possible, and they feel that this ‘justice’ is attainable through the present military campaign. Still, no number of prisoners taken and no number of terrorists eliminated can bestow new innocence upon the imagination. Thus, while the battle is fought in terms of international war, the international principles of procedural justice and the rule of law will most likely never see the light of day. By the same token, even though Osama bin Laden is the clear target of a ‘war’, it is safe to say that he will never be tried for ‘war crimes’.

As Security Dialogue went to press, many of the articles were re-edited to reflect changes in the general security environment. In addition to repeated references to the ensuing crisis, this issue carries four Viewpoint articles dedicated to analysis of the parameters and consequences of terrorism.



Authors

J. Peter Burgess

J. Peter Burgess

Research Professor & Editor of Security Dialogue