What if nothing at all has changed?

September 6, 2002

As September 11 approaches, THES writers look at research in the US and UK in the wake of the attacks and US academia's fight to present a balanced view.

The US has rejected an opportunity to reflect on itself and its place in the world and instead reasserted its exclusionary, unilateralist ideology, argues Slavoj Zizek.

To the displeasure of many a leftist, the US enjoyed a certain moral capital after 1990. The victory in the cold war was also a moral victory - at least in that it exposed the misery and inner corruption of communist regimes. The position of the US was reinforced after the attacks of September 11 when, for the first time, it found itself a victim, enduring massive human suffering. One year on, its goodwill is spent - how did this loss, much more shattering than the stock market fall in the same period, take place?

One of the big pop culture events of 2002, the premiere of Star Wars: Episode II , perhaps suggests one answer. In an interview, the film's director, George Lucas, explained its central topic: "How did the Republic turn into the Empire? That's paralleled with: how did Anakin turn into Darth Vader? How does a good person go bad, and how does a democracy become a dictatorship? It isn't that the Empire conquered the Republic, it's that the Empire is the Republic. One day Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, 'This isn't the Republic anymore, it's the Empire. We are the bad guys.'" Therein resides the danger the US is courting in its "war on terror", the danger perceived a century ago by G. K. Chesterton, who criticised the fundamentalism of those who attack religion, saying they begin by fighting for freedom and humanity and end up losing these very things because they become so obsessed by their goal. He said: "The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them."

Does the same not hold true for advocates of religion? How many fanatical defenders of religion started by ferociously attacking contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience? Similarly, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end up flinging away freedom and democracy in the process. They have such a passion for proving that non-Christian fundamentalism is the main threat to freedom that they are ready to argue that we have to limit our own freedom to defend it. If the "terrorists" are ready to wreck this world because of their love of another world, our anti-terrorist warriors are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim Other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture - the ultimate degradation of human dignity - to defend it. A couple of recent examples of such inconsistencies suffice.

In the domain of international politics, the US rejects the idea that the permanent global war crimes court in The Hague should have any jurisdiction over US citizens. It argues that the court would infringe its national sovereignty and could lead to politically motivated prosecutions of US officials or soldiers working outside its borders - Congress is even considering legislation authorising US forces to invade The Hague in the event of prosecutors grabbing a US national. Yet the court was constituted with the full support (and votes) of the US. Why, then, should Slobodan Milosevic, who is now on trial in The Hague, not be given the right to put forward a similar argument? Are US citizens "more equal than others"?

Apropos of The Hague tribunal, the historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote recently: "No Fuhrer or Duce, no Pinochet, no Idi Amin or Pol Pot should any longer be allowed to feel safe from the intervention of people's justice behind the palace gates of sovereignty." Notice who is missing from this list of names, which, apart from Hitler and Mussolini, contains three third-world dictators: there is not even one name from a major western power.

It has also been revealed that a covert US programme during the Reagan administration gave Iraq critical battle planning assistance at a time when US intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in its war against Iran. Now, however, Iraq's use of gas in that conflict is repeatedly cited by President George W. Bush as justification for "regime change" in Iraq.

In terms of US domestic politics, there is Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System), a national system for reporting suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity that will involve millions of American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public and private places. In July, the US attorney general, John Ashcroft, also unveiled a new and expanded mission for the Neighborhood Watch Program as part of the "war against terror". Neighborhood groups are to report on people who are "unfamiliar" or who act in ways that are "suspicious".

Recently, a debate about the need to legitimise torture was opened by Jonathan Alter's Newsweek magazine column titled "Time to think about torture". Essays such as this - which do not directly advocate torture but advise us to "keep an open mind" on it - are more dangerous than a direct endorsement. Explicit endorsement would be too shocking and would be rejected quickly; however, introducing torture as a legitimate topic for discussion allows us to court the idea while retaining a clean conscience. But are we aware that this is how the very ethical substance of our societies is gradually and often imperceptibly corroded?

Unfortunately, the US is not alone in this tendency. Recently, an ominous decision taken by the European Union passed almost unnoticed: the plan to establish an all-European border police force to secure the isolation of EU territory and prevent an influx of immigrants. If global capitalism celebrates free circulation, it is the circulation of "things" (commodities), not of "people", whose traffic is becoming more and more controlled. This new racism of the developed nations is in a way much more brutal than the previous one: its justification is neither "naturalist" (that the West is "naturally" superior) nor "culturalist" (that we need to preserve our cultural identity). Instead, it appeals to economic egotism: the divide is between those who enjoy relative economic prosperity and those who do not.

Underlying these measures is an awareness that the present model of capitalist prosperity cannot be universalised - as the political analyst George Kennan articulated more than half a century ago: "We have 50 per cent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 per cent of its population. In this situation, our real job... is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality. We should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation."

And the sad thing is that there seems to be a silent pact on this between capital and (whatever remains of) the working classes - if anything, the working classes are more protective of their relative privileges than the big corporations. This is the hidden truth of the discourse on universal human rights: the wall separating those covered by the umbrella of human rights and those excluded from its protective cover.

And what about that ubiquitous phrase: "Nothing will be the same after September 11"? Significantly, there is never any attempt at further elaboration - it is just an empty phrase, a way of saying something "deep" without really knowing what we want to say. So our first reaction to it should be: Really? What if nothing epochal happened on September 11? What if - as the massive display of American patriotism seems to demonstrate - the shattering experience of September 11 ultimately served as a means of enabling the dominant ideology to "go back to basics", to reassert itself against anti-globalisation and other critics. Perhaps I should qualify this statement: on September 11, the US was given a unique opportunity to realise what kind of world it was part of. It could have used this opportunity - but it did not. Instead, it opted to reassert its traditional ideology: out with any feeling of responsibility or guilt towards the third world, we are the victims now.

In a classic line from a Hollywood screwball comedy, a girl asks her boyfriend: "Do you want to marry me?" "No!" he says. "Stop dodging the issue! Give me a straight answer!" she replies. In a way, the underlying logic is correct: for the girl, the only acceptable straight answer is "Yes!" - anything else counts as evasion.

The logic is that of the forced choice: you are free to decide as long as you make the right choice. Would a priest not rely on the same paradox in a dispute with a sceptical layman? "Do you believe in God?" "No." "Stop dodging the issue! Give me a straight answer!" For the priest, the only straight answer is to assert one's belief in God: the atheist's denial of belief is an attempt to dodge the issue of the divine encounter.

Is this not also true of our "choice" today between "democracy and fundamentalism"? It is simply not possible to choose "fundamentalism" within the framework of this kind of choice. However, it is not "fundamentalism" that is the problem, but rather democracy, the democracy offered to us - that of the "new world order" - as the only alternative to fundamentalism.

And what about Americans? One is tempted to recall the words of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in his address to the American people on September 25 2001: "You accept everything your government says, whether it is true or false.I Don't you think for yourselves?I It would be better for you to use your own sense and understanding."

While this statement is undoubtedly cynically manipulative (what about giving the same rights to Afghanis?), is it not appropriate? Using their own sense and understanding, Americans could see that the ultimate victims of the measures enacted on behalf of the "war on terror" are Americans themselves.

It is the US government that is manipulating the September 11 events to enforce its own political agenda. What has changed in the past months is not the world but the political tenor of the US itself. Just think, for example, where Bush would have been without September 11?

Slavoj Zizek is senior researcher at the Institute for Social Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and author of Welcome to the Desert of the Real , published this week by Verso, £8.00.


Other THES "Aftermath of 9/11" stories

Looking forward, and back from 9/11

Liberal minds not welcome

Students clamour for courses

Tragedy grapples with gap between human meaningfulness and despair

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments