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Geopolitics

Reflections On 9/11: How The Intellectuals Got It Wrong

It is a philosopher's job to debunk prejudice and foregone conclusions. But isn't there also a duty to not ignore the facts? A look back 15 years later from a prominent Paris thinker.

A New York City fireman calls for 10 more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York city
A New York City fireman calls for 10 more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York city
Roger-Pol Droit

-Analysis-

PARIS — It's been 15 years since September 11, 2001. The media around the world offer a myriad of dossiers, documentaries and articles dedicated to this commemoration and analyzing what has changed since the attacks.

There's one thing that everybody, or almost everybody, agrees on: That day marked a turning point in world history, and we're still dealing with the repercussions of what happened then. But interpreting what we see in the rearview mirror isn't so simple. Analysts disagree on the underlying causes of the attacks, and even more on the interpretation of the political and military responses, especially the one led by U.S. President George W. Bush. In that torrent of discussion, there is, however, one aspect that is scarcely remembered: the blindness of the West's leading philosophers. It deserves careful thought, as well as some hard questions.

Rereading today the main essays written by world-renowned philosophers about the 9/11 attacks makes for a strange experience. Predictably, we find sophisticated formulations, spectacular and forceful assertions, astounding rhetorical performances. But despite it all, in hindsight, one can't help but be struck by the wide chasm between these displays of virtuosity and the creeping reality of the globalized terrorism we now must face every day. As the years went by, a gripping contrast grew between the subtle discourse and crude realities, between ethereal commentary and the sheer weight of the facts.

Suicidal dreams

The 9/11 attacks, of course, couldn't be viewed as anything but a mystery. French philosopher Jacques Derrida claimed that "we don't know, we don't think, we don't understand, we don't want to understand what happened in that moment." Therefore, we needed first of all to reject the obvious, seen as ideological clichés or media manipulations. Therefore, we couldn't talk of an act of war, of Western hatred, nor of the will to destroy fundamental freedoms.

"They did it, but we were asking for it," said sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who put the collapse of the World Trade Center and our fascination with the footage of the attacks down to the West's suicidal dreams. As the title of his 2002 essay purports, Baudrillard wanted to highlight the Spirit of Terrorism. He argued that the "real" responsible parties were to be found among the U.S., Western hegemony, and each and every one of us. Others instantly asked themselves "to whose benefit?" and gathered that it could only be the CIA, thus paving the way for the successful conspiracy theories that followed.

These are only a few examples. The history of philosophical readings around 9/11 could make for an entire book. It would show how anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism prevented so many sharp minds from seeing the religious nature of this new terrorism as the singularity of the new war. On top of it came the distrust towards propaganda and the will not to be fooled, which was transformed into systematic denial of basic information.

Of course, it actually is a philosopher's job to be critical, and therefore to debunk prejudice and false foregone conclusions. But isn't there also a duty not to ignore the facts?

Instead of accusing the American empire, the arrogance built into the Twin Towers, the reign of images, they should have scrutinized political Islamism, the hitherto unseen uses of violence, the terrorist's art of communication. Some have done just that, but they were routinely ignored.

It is of the utmost importance now that we analyze the implications of the changes that took place since 9/11. Because the targets are no longer just symbols like the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, but anybody who lives in the land of "non-believers," whether in the street, at an outdoor café, a concert, or a school. Terrorists are no longer organized commandos of engineers trained to turn Boeing aircrafts into bombs, but self-managed small-time delinquents armed with a truck or kitchen knife.

If we want to prevail, we'll have to make up fast for the time we've lost with our best thinkers getting it wrong.

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