The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror

February 4, 2010

All terror is "rhetorical", for terror tries to be persuasive. It tries to convince a public to think and feel one thing rather than another. But surrounding the rhetoric of terror comes another rhetoric: a rhetoric of response, of process, elaboration and reaction.

According to Marc Redfield, in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, a rhetoric developed that was metaphysical in scope. Take the name "9/11". A name has come into being that designates not just a date, or an event that took place on a certain date, but a kind of rupture in the fabric of reality. Moreover, the rupture the term marks is something that we are supposed to both remember and forget. The name imposes an America-centred version of recent history (for example, in reversing the European system of dating, which would force us to say "11/9", or in effacing the significance of other 9/11s, such as the one on which American-sponsored reactionaries assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende) and thereby signifies a triumph of the (American) will even while it commemorates a terrible (American) defeat.

The rupture in American life shall be a rupture in the life of us all. The name even serves, along with other such commonplaces attached to the event as the widespread idea that "it was like a movie", to reverse our sense of causality. First there was the Hollywood-promoted spectacle of the imagination, hovering over our anxieties about the future; then there was the realisation of the spectacle in an actual disaster. Our fear seems, in retrospect, to have brought into existence the thing we feared.

The challenge that 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror posed to the way we think and feel about the world was taken up quickly by a number of our most prominent philosophers and social theorists. Within weeks of the event, Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard were weighing in brilliantly on the calamity, calling attention to the contradictions of heart, mind and public policy that this spectral "event" inevitably evoked. They were soon followed by Susan Sontag and other social thinkers, not to mention journalists, novelists, film-makers, historians, visual artists, museum curators and government commissions. From the beginning, 9/11 was a mediatised disaster; its power as an event depended on its mediatisation. And the response to it has been more and more mediatisation, and thus more and more of what Redfield calls "virtual trauma".

The War on Terror, it is well known, started as a kind of reaction formation, in defiance of the trauma 9/11 had inflicted on the American psyche, and the effects of this reaction formation still abide with us even after the Obama Administration has officially declared the rhetorical war to be over. But Redfield has a further suggestion to make. The declaration of a War on Terror by the George W. Bush Administration, he argues, was an expression of the nature of sovereignty itself. The declaration was a "performative act" - an act whose pedigree can be traced at least as far back as Edmund Burke's reaction to the French Terror - which in fact attributed sovereignty to "the terrorist" in order to claim back sovereignty for itself. Indeed, for Redfield, sovereignty itself is terror, and nothing exemplifies that more than the hysterical conduct of the War on Terror from late 2001 to early 2009.

The Rhetoric of Terror doesn't so much break new ground about 9/11 and the War on Terror as provide a masterly elaboration of post-structuralist thought on the subject. The guiding spirit behind the work is Jacques Derrida. That will serve as a warning to readers with little patience for the language of deconstruction and its apparent love of paradox for its own sake. But for those who know the late Derrida's emphasis on the absolute claims of justice in the face of the "spectrality" of modern thought, it will serve as reassurance. The Rhetoric of Terror is really about what it would take to go beyond the "war" and establish, without quotes, something like peace.

The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror

By Marc Redfield. Fordham University Press. 176pp, £52.50 and £19.50. ISBN 9780823231232 and 1249. Published 15 September 2009

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