The collapse of the towers was a fiery crush of stone and steel, a scene that Hollywood directors–and average Americans–had imagined for years. For a few weeks after the attacks, I wore a flag pin on my lapel, and could not fathom attempts to explain 9/11, nor even to place it into an historical context. Yet this is what Jean Baudrillard aims to do in his thought-provoking essay, The Spirit of Terrorism.
In the months following 9/11, witnesses often described the scene in terms of films they had seen, like Independence Day–in which the White House is destroyed by aliens. Baudrillard refers to these films in arguing that we had all already dreamt of 9/11, perhaps even subconsciously wished for it. Although we blame what happened on a few "cowardly" fanatics whom we can root out, Baudrillard reminds readers that America has long engaged in a cycle of terroristic violence. As America’s global dominance has increased, so, too, has the will to crush it.
"The West," Baudrillard writes, "in the position of God (divine omnipotence and absolute moral legitimacy), has become suicidal, and declared war on itself." It has done so by giving rise to the "virus" of terrorism.
For Baudrillard, this virus has infected the "system," by which he means a globalization represented by America’s technological, military and economic hegemony. This system "has reached a critical mass which makes it vulnerable to any aggression."
Putting a spin on his trademark idea, Baudrillard closes by arguing that the Bush administration’s war on terrorism is a nonevent. He writes, "[w]ar is certainly not a solution, since it merely offers a rehash of the past, with the same deluge of military forces, bogus information, senseless bombardment…
"And this indeed is its raison d’etre: to substitute, for a real and formidable, unique and unforeseeable event, a repetitive, rehashed pseudo-event… War as continuation of the absence of politics by other means."
Baudrillard attempts to unravel the connection between globalization and terrorism–both of which he views as immoral to the extent that he has use for morality at all. Terrorism, Baudrillard reminds us, is everywhere and therefore impossible to defeat. He argues further that the terrorists have already won. This victory resides less in the economic, physical and emotional damage inflicted upon New York than in America’s self-inflicted wounds to liberal society. In letting police-state measures encroach upon our civil liberties, the terrorists have set in motion an ongoing victory. In Baudrillard’s words, ours is now "a terror based on ‘law-and-order’ measures."
Nancy Chang’s well-researched account of this post-9/11 assault on civil liberties is sobering. The USA Patriot Act was signed into law on Oct. 26, 2001 with the overwhelming support of a Congress and country swept up in a patriotic fervor. This 342-page document contains the kind of infringements upon civil liberties that would make our country’s founders turn in their graves. Plans for its sequel are in the works.
Chang writes of the USA Patriot Act’s reach: "First, the act grants the executive branch unprecedented, and largely unchecked, surveillance powers, including the enhanced ability to track e-mail and Internet usage, conduct sneak-and-peek searches, obtain sensitive personal records from third parties, monitor financial transactions, and conduct nationwide roving wiretaps."
Libraries have led the charge against the act, which among other things allows the FBI access to patrons’ book records. Chang describes how Ashcroft’s FBI even paid a visit to the Art Car Museum in Houston on a tip that some artwork there was "of a threatening nature to the president." After spending an hour poring over the exhibit–which included a number of antiwar pieces–agents grilled the docent about the exhibit’s funding and its visitors. Anecdotes like this help lighten Chang’s occasionally dry book, which, overall, is a thoughtful and impassioned analysis of the ongoing assault on civil liberties.
The Spirit of Terrorism By Jean Baudrillard Verso, 96 pages, $13
Silencing Political Dissent: How Post-September 11 Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten Our Civil Liberties By Nancy Chang Seven Stories Press, 168 pages, $9.95