Is this the end of fantasy?
Christopher Isherwood, an Englishman who became an American, once
expression to the unreality of American daily life, exemplified in
the motel room: “American motels are unreal! … They are deliberately
designed to be unreal. … The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired
to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to
The Wachowski brothers’ 1999 hit film The Matrix brought this
logic to its extreme climax: The material reality we all experience
and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by
a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all attached. When the
hero, played by Keanu Reeves, awakens into the “real reality,” he
sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins—what remained
of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters
the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”
Was it not something of a similar order that took place in New
York on September 11? As we were introduced to the “desert of the
real,” the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers
could only remind us of the most breathtaking scenes from innumerable
Hollywood disaster movies. The unthinkable had been the object of
fantasy. In a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this
was the greatest surprise.
It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw reality
of a catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and
fantasmatic coordinates that determine its perception. If there
is any symbolism in the collapse of the World Trade Center, it is
not that the Twin Towers stood for capitalism per se, but of virtual
capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere
of material production. The towers symbolized, ultimately, the stark
separation between the digitized First World and the Third World’s
“desert of the real.”
The American sphere of safety is now experienced by its citizens
as being under threat from an Outside of terrorist attackers who
are ruthlessly self-sacrificing and cowards, cunningly intelligent
and primitive barbarians. Whenever we encounter such a purely evil
Outside, we should gather the courage to remember the Hegelian lesson:
In this evil Outside, we should recognize the distilled version
of our own essence. For the past five centuries, the (relative)
prosperity and peace of the “civilized” West was bought by the export
of ruthless violence and destruction to the “savage” Outside. It’s
a long story, from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo.
Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should also, now more
than ever, bear in mind that the actual effect of these attacks
is much more symbolic: In Africa, every single day more people die
of AIDS than all the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon, and their deaths can and could have been easily
minimized with relatively small financial means. The United States
got a taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from
Sarajevo to Grozny, from Rwanda and Congo to Sierra Leone. If one
adds to the situation in New York rape gangs and a dozen or so snipers
blindly targeting people who walk along the streets, one gets an
idea of what Sarajevo was like a decade ago.
Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in
the real world … but whom to strike? Whatever the response, it
will never hit the right target, bringing us full satisfaction.
The spectacle of America attacking Afghanistan would be just that:
If the greatest power in the world were to destroy one of the poorest
countries, where peasants barely survive on barren hills, would
this not be the ultimate case of the impotent acting out? Afghanistan
is already reduced to rubble, destroyed by continuous war during
the past two decades. The impending attack brings to mind the anecdote
about the madman who searches for his lost key beneath a street
light; asked why he searches there, when he actually lost the key
in a dark corner, he answers: “But it is easier to search under
strong light!” Is it not the ultimate irony that Kabul already looks
like downtown Manhattan?
To succumb to the urge to retaliate now means precisely to avoid
confronting the true dimensions of what occurred on September 11—it
means an act whose true aim is to lull us into the secure conviction
that nothing has really changed. The true long-term threats are
further acts of mass terror in comparison to which the memory of
the World Trade Center collapse will pale—acts less spectacular,
but much more horrifying. What about biological warfare, the use
of lethal gas or the prospect of DNA terrorism—the development
of poisons that will affect only people who share a determinate
genome? Instead of a quick acting out, one should confront these
difficult questions: What will “war” mean in the 21st century? Who
will be “them”?
There is a partial truth in the notion of a “clash of civilizations”
attested here. Witness the surprise of the average American: “How
is it possible that these people display and practice such a disregard
for their own lives?” Is the obverse of this surprise not the rather
sad fact that we, in the First World countries, find it more and
more difficult even to imagine a public or universal cause for which
one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life?
But a brief look at the comparative history of Islam and Christianity
tells us that the “human rights record” (to use an anachronistic
term) of Islam is much better than that of Christianity: In past
centuries, Islam was significantly more tolerant toward other religions
than Christianity. It was through the Arabs that, in the Middle
Ages, Western Europeans regained access to the ancient Greek legacy.
We are not dealing with a feature inscribed into Islam as such,
but with the outcome of modern socio-political conditions. This
notion of the “clash of civilizations” has to be thoroughly rejected:
What we are witnessing today are rather clashes within each civilization.
Indeed, every feature attributed to the Outside is already present
in the very heart of the United States. Murderous fanaticism? What
about the rightist, populist “fundamentalists” who also practice
a terror of their own, legitimized by (their understanding of) Christianity?
Since America is in a way “harboring” them, should the U.S. Army
have punished its own country after the Oklahoma City bombing? And
what about the way Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson reacted to the
attacks on September 11, perceiving them as a sign that God had
lifted his protection because of the sinful lives of Americans,
putting the blame on hedonist materialism, liberalism and rampant
sexuality, and claiming that America got what it deserved?
It is still too early to tell how the events of September 11 will
be symbolized or what acts they will be evoked to justify. Even
now, in these moments of utmost tension, this link is not automatic
but contingent. We already see the first bad omens, like the sudden
resurrection, in the public discourse, of the old Cold War term
“free world”: The struggle is now the one between the “free world”
and the forces of darkness and terror. The question to be asked
here is: Who then belongs to the unfree world? Are, say, China or
Egypt part of this free world?
The day after the attacks, I got a message from a journal that
was just about to publish a longer text of mine on Lenin, telling
me that they decided to postpone its publication—they considered
it inopportune to publish a text on Lenin immediately after the
terrorist attacks. Does this point toward ominous ideological rearticulations
to come, with a new Berufsverbot (prohibition to employ radicals)
much stronger and more widespread than the one in the Germany of
These days, one often hears the phrase that the struggle is now
the one for democracy—true, but not quite in the way this phrase
is usually meant. Already, some leftist friends of mine have written
me that, in these difficult moments, we had better keep our heads
down and not push forward with our agenda. Against this temptation
to duck out the crisis, one should insist that now the left should
provide a better analysis. To not do so is to concede in advance
the left’s political and ethical defeat in the face of acts of quite
genuine heroism on the part of ordinary people—like the passengers
who, in a model of rational ethical action, apparently overtook
the hijackers and provoked the early crash of the fourth plane over
So what about the phrase that reverberates everywhere, “Nothing
will be the same after September 11”? Significantly, this phrase
is never further elaborated—it’s just an empty gesture of saying
something “deep” without really knowing what we want to say. So
our reaction to this phrase should be: Really? Or is it rather that
the only thing effectively changed was that America was forced to
realize the kind of world it is part of?
Such changes in perception are never without consequences, since
the way we perceive our situation determines the way we act in it.
Recall the processes of collapse of a political regime—say,
the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. At a certain
moment, people all of a sudden became aware that the game was over,
that the Communists had lost. The break was purely symbolic, nothing
changed “in reality”—and, nonetheless, from that moment on,
the final collapse of the regime was just a question of days.
What if something of the same order did occur on September 11?
We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics
and war this event will have, but one thing is sure: The United
States, which, until now, perceived itself as an island exempted
from this kind of violence, witnessing these kind of things only
from the safe distance of a TV screen, is now directly involved.
So the question is: Will Americans decide to further fortify their
sphere, or risk stepping out of it? America has two choices. It
can persist in or even amplify its deeply immoral attitude of “Why
should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here,” leading
to even more aggression toward the Outside—just like a paranoiac
acting out. Or America can finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic
screen separating it from the Outside world, accepting its arrival
into the desert of the real—and thus make the long-overdue
move from “A thing like this should not happen here” to “A thing
like this should not happen anywhere!”
Therein resides the true lesson of the attacks: The only way to
ensure that it will not happen here again is to prevent it from
going on anywhere else. America should learn to humbly accept its
own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment
of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation.
Even though America’s peace was bought by the catastrophes going
on elsewhere, the predominant point of view remains that of an innocent
gaze confronting unspeakable evil that struck from the Outside.
One needs to gather the courage to recognize that the seed of evil
is within us too.
In his campaign for the presidency, George W. Bush named Jesus
Christ as the most important person in his life. Now he has a unique
chance to prove that he meant it seriously. For him, as for all
Americans today, “Love thy neighbor” means “Love the Muslims.” Or
it means nothing at all.