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An analysis of ‘The Spirit of Terrorism and Other

Essays’ by Jean Baudrillard


Baudrillard’s ‘The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays’ is a consummate précis of
the effects and machinations behind the ‘mother of all events’; the 9/11 terrorist
attacks and their aftermath.

Baudrillard immediately makes an impression by relating the West to the ‘position of


God’ over the rest of the world, and proposing the idea of the West ‘committing
suicide’; of the Twin Towers collapsing as some kind of symbolic suicide of the
whole system of Western Über-Capitalism. He suggests that we were somehow
complicit in this destruction, wanting it subconsciously without actively taking part,
and alludes to Hollywood disaster movies for some proof of this collective fantasy.
He discusses the theory that, as the system progresses and becomes centralised and
concentrated to a single network, it actually becomes simpler for it to be brought
down by the anarchist individual or minority, and, in fact, this is the only method of
making a statement against the apparently unquestioned system of thinking, a method
Baudrillard terms as terroristic situational transfer.

The discussion of ‘terror against terror’ posits that modern terrorism no longer desires
to change the world, but to ‘radicalize it through sacrifice, while the system aims to
realize it by force’. Baudrillard questions whether perhaps America against
fundamentalist Islam is not really the battle at all, but rather: ‘triumphant
globalization battling against itself’.
He terms this new state of affairs as the ‘Fourth World War’; contextualising and
simplifying the First World War as symbolically ending the supremacy of Europe and
Colonialism, the Second World War defeating Nazism, and the postulated ‘Third
World War’, which Baudrillard seems to suggest was a collection of battles, including
the Cold War, which saw the ‘end’ of Communism as a potential new world order.
Each of these wars was fought with a new world order in mind, and Baudrillard
clearly defines this new climate of global terrorism as seeking to challenge the current
world order of Capitalism, or more pertinently globalization. If the replacement for
this dominant system was to be Islam, then, Baudrillard states, this system would be
next in line for a global war.

Baudrillard then breaks down these concepts even further to their most reducible state
of ‘Good versus Evil’, claiming very philosophically that ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’, abstract
concepts thought they are, are almost always in alignment with each other. He uses
the example of the Cold War, where the dichotomy of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ appeared ‘in
balance’, and alluding to the idea that this new breed of terrorism has simply filled the
void that was left when the Cold War ended, as if ‘Evil’ shrunk away, licked its
wounds and plotted to come back even stronger to assert its dominance over ‘Good’,
which of course it could never hope to attain, since the two are apparently always
well-matched within the ‘moral universe’.
From these highly abstract and conjectural arguments Baudrillard segues into another
contextualisation of the concept of ‘terror against terror’, calling it ‘assymmetric
terror’, for it resides in all of us. Intriguingly, Baudrillard, quips that death has ‘been
erased from its own culture’ in the West, but does not expand on this point until later.

The indomitable power of the Western system seems to quell any negativity at source,
which Baudrillard suggests actually breeds deep resentment and disillusion among
many of its denizenry, from the very poor to the very privileged. Throughout the piece
Baudrillard talks of the Western system reaching some ‘quasi-perfection’, which
ironically makes it far more susceptible to the aforementioned individual or minority-
induced terroristic situational transfer, or, in Baudrillard’s own words, likely to ‘be
ignited by a single spark’. Because the Western system operates on an ideology of
‘zero deaths’, which we may interpret as meaning an unrealistic ideal situation of no
unnatural deaths within communities, the tactic of wiping out large numbers of
citizens in a single violent attack strikes to the very heart of the inherent weakness of
this overbearing and unrealistic system. When the enemy is as willing to die as we (or
the Americans) are to live then it presents the ultimate challenge to the system that
binds us.

So the ‘spirit of terrorism’ appeals to a ‘death which is far more than real: a death
which is symbolic and sacrificial…the absolute irrevocable event’. Baudrillard argues
that the fundamentalist terrorists attack on their own terms, not those of the system
they are attacking, which would be to invade and fight on the ground, military against
military. By fighting using the indefensible weapon of their own lives, ‘death can only
be met by greater death’, the strategy being that the ‘system itself will commit suicide
in response to the multiple challenges posed by deaths and suicides.’ Although it is
suggested that the terrorist’s death is less than insignificant, the effect and
repercussions that it has on the system it attacks is huge, in chaos theory: its ‘butterfly
effect’. An ‘excess of reality’ will potentially see the system collapse beneath this
excess. Willing and certain death seems to be viewed as the last taboo in global
warfare, and allied with modern technology, intelligence and media it represents a
formidable opponent for the petrified Western system, formerly basking in a self-
satisfied sense of security.

Not only do these terrorists utilise modern conveniences and communications against
the system that pioneered them, but merge seamlessly into their surroundings within
the enemy’s country, utilising the freedom of movement and speech again within the
system that promotes and celebrates these freedoms. Their actions not only have
direct but the indirect consequences of suspicion falling on all Muslims as potential
terrorists, so the devastation is wrought on numerous levels, Baudrillard using the
term ‘mental terrorism’, although ‘psychological terrorism’ might be more apt.

Next, Baudrillard discusses the processes of recruiting potential terrorists, talking of


the ‘combination of two mechanisms – an operational structure and symbolic pact’
making these atrocities possible; these being the convincing belief that these attacks
are both necessary and justified, and the use of every modern facility available to
them to complete the mission ‘successfully’. Because the pact they accept is rooted in
strong beliefs and fervent zeal, it is immune to potential defection or corruption in a
way that, as Baudrillard argues, an employment contract would not be. Differing from
suicide attacks of the past, this is proposed to be a ‘terrorism of the rich’ rather than,
previously, of the poor, because these terrorists have all the knowledge and resources
to strike with maximum efficiency. The notion that there is a grotesque aberration of
the spirit of ‘fair play’ is mentioned, because of course, when a man offers his own
life, what possible method is there of deterring him from his course? These are new
rules that we have not written.

Baudrillard then develops an intriguing argument over the all-too-human reaction of


attempting to discredit the terrorists. The futility and false motives of martyrdom are
weighed against the very futile notion of a universal truth that needs to be defended.
He argues that if the deaths of the suicide bombers proved nothing, then by the same
token it must mean the deaths of the victims of the atrocities similarly proved nothing,
and this proves distasteful to Baudrillard, prompting him to rule out any suggestion of
a moral argument on this point.
Another point Baudrillard is keen to discuss is the notion that the acts were ‘not
authentic’ or borne of disinterest, because they were in fact motivated by the very
human desire of a place in an afterlife of paradise. If these Jihadists really attain
salvation, or even die with the unshakeable faith in salvation, then they are receiving
more than the victims of the attacks, whose family and friends mourn their deaths
while the terrorists’ colleagues and relatives celebrate theirs. Baudrillard concludes
this section by alluding to the West attempting to measure deaths and suffering
through economic terminology, the only way they truly can, being a slavishly
Capitalist system.

But is there a method of striking back effectively against these unfair terrorists, of
fighting them at their own game? Baudrillard proposes that for the West to effectively
‘humiliate’ this enemy, it must ‘be made to lose face’. This is easier said than done,
and would take a monumental effort from the American government particularly,
having demonstrated in both the Gulf War and the current struggle in Afghanistan that
they tend to shoot first and ask questions later, with no discernible long-term strategy
for eradicating or at least demoralising the terrorists’ impetus and motivation.

Next, Baudrillard claims that the 9/11 attacks ‘resuscitated interest in both images and
events’. Although the image defines the horrific moment, it also lays claim to it and
offers it for mass consumption, this being the slightly shameful but now unavoidable
lovechild of globalisation, impossible to disassociate with ourselves. We gave birth to
this method of communication and must now raise and nurture it, or at least tolerate it,
for it is our own. He asks if this was potentially a ‘welcome dose’ of the ‘real’, a
respite from the relentless ‘virtual’ world of fiction we are assaulted with, and proof,
if it were, that the ‘death of history’ was in fact just a rather worrying coma.
But, at the same time, he suggests that this ‘real’ only attained its true power of
affectation through ‘absorbing the energy of fiction’ and has itself ‘become fiction’.
He continues this increasingly abstract line by advocating an idea of the line between
fiction and reality becoming not just blurred, but somehow indivisible, and talking of
the outrageous but fascinating concept of the ‘real’ being ‘superadded to the image
like a bonus of terror’, where the image exists, but it is only later that reality is added
as a ‘frisson’. This symbolic violence was a Manhattan disaster movie, only, we were
later informed, it had actually occurred.

This tiny act of defiance against an offensive and subtly oppressive system blew a
hole in the world. Baudrillard argues that what hurts most is that this does not fall into
any previously perceived categories of ‘noble violence’, and although terrorism
thrives on media coverage, we cannot resist or prevent the media from swelling the
magnitude to unimaginable levels, because this is the media that we wanted, that we
have developed and given our blessing to, let off the leash and now cannot restrain
even if we wished to.
No matter how we may try to play down the effects and hurt this event caused, our
wound is too great and too infected to conceal effectively. It has infected our trust in
Government, our tolerance of Muslims, our sense of security, and our faith in the
system that binds us. Baudrillard discusses the controversial concept of ‘police state
globalisation’, where the ideals of Neo-Liberalism are quickly swept aside in order to
protect the interests of the rulers, exposing the ugly true face of Hyper-Capitalism.
Not only have the terrorists struck at the heart of the Capitalist system with violence,
but they have also provoked it to lash out at its own family, thus reinforcing their
victory. In the bitterest irony of all, the peoples of the Fundamentalist state have used
the forces of the Capitalist state against itself, and now have provoked the Capitalist
State to adopt many of the ideals of the Fundamentalist state. This is what Baudrillard
means by the system ‘committing suicide’.

Baudrillard also writes that the system has reached a ‘critical mass’, now making it
hyper-sensitive to any outside aggression. So what does Baudrillard advocate as a
potential strategy against this unseen enemy? He encapsulates the dilemma in his
concluding paragraphs, stating that the terrorists have struck a blow previously
unforeseen; progressed terrorism to a new level using a combination of initiative,
education, zealous religious indoctrination and turning the opposing system’s
weapons on itself. Surely, he writes, the answer should be a similar, meticulously
researched and inspired counter-strike at the heart of the terrorists’ bases of
operations, a fresh, targeted and hitherto unconceived strategy which could take many
years to put effectively into action. Instead the U.S. (and U.K.) military have reverted
to type once more, fighting the only way they know how, in a ‘rehashed pseudo-
event’, making all the same mistakes again, like a child who can only respond to
disappointments with blind aggression. Or, as Baudrillard so succinctly puts it: ‘war
as continuation of the absence of politics by other means.’