Philosopher Giovanna Borradori’s most recent project is an endeavour to forge a new understanding, a philosophical reflection on "terrorism" in the post-9/11 context. Indeed, in the months following September 11th, 2001, G. Borradori conducted a series of interviews with two of Europe’s foremost philosophers, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in Manhattan, questioning them on the meaning and significance of September 11. The fruit of this exchange appear in her recent book Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (2003). The text marks the first occasion on which Habermas’ and Derrida’s writings appear side-by-side. In fact, what makes this work philosophically important and surprising at the same time is the way Borradori’s searching questions draw both Habermas and Derrida from their traditionally opposed understanding of philosophy - Habermasian philosophy building on Enlightenment notions of universal rationality and Derrida suspicious of language and the concepts used in philosophy and everyday life, hiding major problems - underlining their surprisingly similar stances on what they perceive to be the necessary philosophical approach to "terrorism". Both of the dialogues and Borradori’s following explanations rely upon a few key philosophical figures, i.e. Kant, Carl Schmitt, Arendt, suggesting that the philosophical traditions with which each figure identifies - Critical Theory for Habermas and Deconstruction for Derrida - are apparently not as mutually exclusive as we might have previously thought.
Philosophy in a time of terror is a testimony of two philosophers who, for the first time, have decided to put aside their considerable intellectual differences to call for a unified philosophical response to September 11: in a context where many assumptions about politics were destroyed along with the attacks of September 11, they reflect jointly on terrorism and show how political thinking, i.e. thinking about concepts, what they designate and exclude, is useful for understanding the origins of and reactions to concrete events such as terrorist violence. The title of the French version of Philosophy in a time of terror gives insight into the main focus of the two philosophers: "Le Concept 11 Septembre" or the "concept" of September 11, title chosen by Derrida, in order to underline the difficulty of "Thinking September 11th". The authors thus question the "idea" of September 11th and since it entails something new and shocking, it can not interact with classical knowledge; therefore, both thinkers’ aim is to overcome this difficulty and to appeal to a real political thought of what has occurred on September 11th. As Borradori states in her introduction, this book is a "story of a philosopher in a time of terror", it’s about submitting to philosophical analysis "the most urgent questions regarding terror and terrorism".
The most constructive and fruitful way to outline the main arguments of the authors is to expose them jointly, in order to permit a comparative approach of Habermas’s and Derrida’s respective methodology and philosophical understanding of the event of 9/11. A critical overview of Philosophy in a time of terror will follow, highlighting the ambiguity of certain arguments but also the relevancy of this common work in the present context.
If several arguments are prone to critique and controversy, especially regarding Derrida’s philosophical approach to "9/11", Philosophy in a Time of Terror is, in many ways, extremely relevant in today’s international context.
Derrida’s deconstruction and "contextualization" of terrorism are indispensable methods to understand the ambiguity of the concept of September 11
If Derrida has often been criticised for his "deconstructionist" methodology, judged as a-philosophical, I believe that the deconstruction of the concept of "terrorism" is very instructive and insightful here, and, in my opinion, indispensable for our understanding, our minimal "appropriation" of terrorism, and especially the "new" kind of terrorism that September 11 has actually crystallised. Indeed, in response to something "new", or perceived as new, one tends to label the "event " with diverse terms, without really knowing what they really mean, because you do not know yourself what really happened. Therefore, Derrida’s philosophical approach is very interesting in the way he contextualises the creation of a concept, i.e. he shows how concepts are very contextual, in the sense that each actor, be it security, media, public or political actors, create their own label of the event, "appropriating" 9/11 as either "war", "terrorism" or a political action, creating a "conceptual chaos". This latter expression is very enlightening and representative of the conceptual disorder that entails a new event, in the face of which an immediate understanding is difficult. We could, for example, mention the recent expressions of "hyperterrorism" or "global terrorism" often used to characterise the attacks of September 11. All of these new concepts are constructed by speech act and are to be considered with "prudence", as Derrida suggests, and always within their context.
The theory of a religious confrontation between the United States and the "Islamic world" is very controversial
Derrida makes a very controversial assumption, even if he admits "oversimplifying" the situation, when he asserts that there is a "strange war without a war", a religious confrontation between the United States and the "Islamic extremist or fundamentalist", since the religious identification is profoundly different for each group: indeed, religion, or rather the predominant authority of religious doctrine over the political is at the core of the Islamists’ beliefs and actions: as B. Badie shows in The Two States, the "Umma" is the only legitimate politico-religious community recognised in Muslim countries: religion is anchored in their interpretation of the world.
On the other side, the religious identification of the United States certainly relies on the influence of ultra-Christian conservatives, but it resides predominantly in the rhetoric, the discourse used by the current US officials and their Manichean vision of the world; the actions undertaken by the Americans are predominantly woven by much more "realist", pragmatic motivations and values. For example, the recent US military intervention in Iraq was certainly not decided according to a particular theology, but rather to more material and geopolitical motives, such as oil and power in the region of the Middle-East. In my opinion, it is therefore wrong and dangerous to "visualise" the current situation as a simple "confrontation between political theologies", resembling Huntington’s "clash of civilisation" and to compare it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Derrida presents as a "metonymy" of the "war" between the United States and Islam.
The theory of "autoimmunity" and "double suicide" is very topical but should be reconsidered
If this book is very contextual, in that it was conceptualised and realised in a "spontaneous" reaction to the attacks of September 11, and many events have taken place since, it remains an anticipatory work, in several ways; firstly, the unilateral US war against Iraq that both philosophers feared, took place, rejecting international deliberation and law; secondly, and this idea refers to Derrida’s idea of predictability, U.S. National Security Adviser C. Rice has been recently convicted by the Commission investigating the September 11 attacks to be questioned on the Intelligence documents that issued in the summer 2001, repeated warnings about potential terrorist plots against the United States masterminded by bin Laden, including a possible plan to hijack commercial aircraft. The following terrorism warnings were not taken into consideration seriously either. This seems to suit Derrida’s idea of "autoimmunity".
However, Derrida’s claim that the hijackers of September 11 have accomplished a "double suicide", their own and the suicide of "those who welcomed, armed and trained them", i.e. the United States, is less convincing. Indeed, as Professor of Philosophy N. Smith shows, Derrida omits to distinguish between suicide and "imprudent, short-sighted and counterproductive policy". Intentionality is at the core of this distinction and to ignore that important factor is to contend "suicidal deliberateness" which is actually the thesis of the conspiracy theorists. But, this is quite a unlikely version of the September 11 attacks.
A "responsible Europe" to be crystallised by a "powerful military Europe"
Concerning Habermas’s and Derrida’s hopes for a "responsible Europe", their project might appear as completely "utopic" unless, as Derrida mentions it correctly but briefly, Europe has a unified military force and forges a specific strategic culture, sufficient for autonomous "European interventions" that would be motivated and deliberated in Europe. Only then will Europe be able to oppose a credible alternative to the current American "hard power" (J. Nye), underscored by a religious discourse and allow a greater progress towards a new force in the service of new international institutions, thus a new international law. Stephen Walt’s "theory of the balance of threats" applied to international relations, is very instructive here: he believes in a greater role for Europe to play, as an ally of the Unites States and not as its counterbalance, in order to respond jointly to global threats, i.e. terrorism above all. This would contribute to crystallise Habermas’ and Derrida’s hopes of a respected and justly applied international law.
The Enlightenment ideals and philosophical critique, as crucial contributions to analysing the present challenges of the international context
The three contributors to this book remind us that the most constructive response to 9/11 may simply be to recognise the event as an opportunity to ask the decisive questions about ourselves and our place in the world, especially our relationship to the "other". Since religion and violence are today intertwined more than ever - there is indeed a noticeable "return of the religious" on the international scene, with a growing resurgence of religious fundamentalism and regional conflicts eminently motivated by religious differences (i.e. the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) - these issues seem more than ever important to question. And, in this context of growing religious fanaticism, thus intolerance regarding other religions, the ideas of tolerance, hospitality, cosmopolitanism have to be "reinvented", because they are indispensable for "appropriating" the alterity of the "other", for accepting the other’s difference, and in particular its religious difference, thus for promoting the living together.
Therefore, these dialogues and Borradori’s reflection on the "philosopher’s" role in international politics is a very original approach and far from being "utopic", as some may think. Indeed, philosophers as "social critics" of their time, could actively contribute to a critical analysis of the present international relations and institutions in the light of the philosophical heritage that produced them, and could help to evaluate the language used in international politics.
The success of the book relies firstly in Borradori’s ability to fuse topics of terror, the United States’s "war on terror" against a diffuse and intangible enemy with philosophical issues of hospitality, tolerance and cosmopolitanism, which makes possible a broader discussion than one might imagine. Undoubtedly, this book has opened up a space for evaluating the possible and necessary contributions that philosophy can make in critically analysing a specific historical "event". If Habermas sees the outbreak of terrorism mainly as a failure of communication and dialogue and Derrida sees it above all as a failure to develop a concept of world hospitality to replace what he believes is the outmoded Christian notion of tolerance that is really only charity, in the end, Derrida’s concerns have much in common with those of Habermas: how to realise a world society where primacy is given to international law and the religious undercurrents of political rhetoric are abandoned once and for all.
Just as philosophy was vital at the time of the Enlightenment, so to is it needed today in helping us come to terms with terrorism and in conceptualising a future which re-address the notion of citizenship, bestowing upon it a global and cosmopolitan character. The reader can only agree with the three contributors to this work, that the figure of the "philosopher" has a crucial role to play in "enlightening" "new" historical "events". In Borradori’s words, more than ever, today "Philosophy is called to arms".
Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago University Press, 2003.
Edition française: Jacques Derrida et Jürgen Habermas, Le "concept" du 11 septembre. Dialogues à New York, présentés et commentés par Giovanna Borradori, Paris, Galilée, 2004.