(Originally written a year ago)
Last night I had a conversation with friends on politics and cultural theory. The subject matter drifted towards the 9/11 terrorist attacks, whereupon I proposed a view that struck me as fairly self-evident: 9/11 did not happen in a historical vacuum; whilst it was a deeply horrific act which was morally unjustifiable, it was also a logical response to and reaction against, amongst other things, US imperialistic foreign policy. Having expressed this view, my friends, whom up to this point I had considered to be generally likeminded, castigated me for having described the attacks as ‘reasonable’ and ‘logical’. Shocked by their immediate reactions, I took heart in the idea that in defining my terms a little more precisely I might make myself clear. ‘Reasonable’, they rightly pointed out, has a semantic tinge of ‘justifiable’, or ‘emotionally valid’. Henceforth, I tried to stick to the cold light of ‘logic’, but unfortunately their disagreement went deeper than terminology: their fundamental belief was that in insisting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a logical reaction to a very particular historical and socio-economic context, I was somehow endorsing the attacks. The purpose of this article is to combat such reactionary folly, and let us be absolutely clear about this: folly is precisely what it is.
Indeed, Terry Eagleton has shown that by invoking the ‘explanation is exculpation’ mantra, you actually de-ethicize terrorist acts:
In the so-called war against terror, ‘evil’ is used to foreclose the possibility of historical explanation…In the disparagement of rational analysis which it suggests, it reflects something of the fundamentalism it confronts. Explanation is thought to be exculpation. Reasons become excuses. Terrorist assault is just a surreal sort of madness, like someone turning up at a meeting of the finance committee dressed as a tortoise. Like the sublime, it lies beyond all rational configuration…On this somewhat obtuse theory, to explain why someone behaves as they do is to demonstrate that they could not have acted otherwise, thus absolving them of responsibility.
The truth is that unless you act for a reason, your action is irrational and you are probably absolved of blame for it. A being who was truly independent of all conditioning would not be able to act purposefully at all, any more than an angel could mow the lawn. Acting for a reason involves creatively interpreting the forces which bear in upon us, rather than allowing them to smack us around like snooker balls; and such interpretation involves a degree of freedom. It is inadvisable to caricature your enemy as crazy or spurred on by bestial passion, since morally speaking this lets him off the hook. You must decide whether you are going to see him as evil or mad. Unless we can propose some reasons for why people act as they do, we are not speaking of specifically human behaviour at all, and questions of innocence or guilt become accordingly irrelevant. Moral action must be purposive action: we would not call tripping over a stone morally reprehensible, or wax morally indignant over a rumble in the gut. Reasons may be morally repugnant, but actions without them cannot be.
He who begins as a liberal transforms himself, through his denunciation of the proposed act of comprehension, into the very fundamentalist his flawed politics attempts to refute.
Beyond the realm of logic, there are further manifestations of such reversals. In order to understand them, we must first understand one or two unique characteristics of the current historical epoch. Frederic Jameson points out in his Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that one of the results of multinational capitalism is that we are no longer able to create effective ‘cognitive maps’. What he means by this is that in less capitalistically developed or in pre-capitalist society people used to be able to carry around in their minds the totality of which they were a part as an articulated ensemble: a cognitive map in which they could visualise their place in the world. Today, it has become increasingly common and increasingly impossible to imagine our real place in the world. Take the term ‘post-industrial’, for example, which is used by many First World commentators to describe our current historical epoch; what they forget – or choose to forget – is that just because industrial production has gradually disappeared from the West does not alter the fact that it’s now moved to places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. (Indeed, one might be tempted to argue that the first step towards becoming genuinely geo-politically conscious would be to take a look at the labels in one’s clothes and have a think about how they got there.) In other words, part of the problem with my friends’ argument is that it willingly forecloses the possibility of producing a cognitive map in which global interactions and our place within them would make sense. For them, these attacks come from literally nowhere: their perpetrators are ahistorical phantoms from outer space.
Related to this is a second problem. Slavoj Žižek makes a distinction between subjective and objective violence. By subjective violence he means violent acts committed by concrete individuals or groups of individuals who are clearly identifiable agents. Objective violence, by contrast, is systemic, and is no longer attributable to single agents and their ‘evil’ intentions. The mistake that most people make is to use the latter as a neutral background in front of which to view the former. He gives as an example the outbreaks of violence in pre-revolutionary Russia, whereby the liberals simply could not understand the reason behind these seemingly irrational outbursts. What they failed to perceive was that their ‘neutral background’ of imperial Russia, the socio-economic formation on which their relative prosperity was founded, was itself an objective, systemic violence which gave rise to these outbreaks. The same holds true for 9/11. If you perceive those aeroplanes launching themselves into the Twin Towers as a subjective act of violence on a neutral background, then you cannot hope to understand it. If, however, you realise that your intellectual safety blanket – the ‘neutral background’ of US foreign policy and multinational capitalism – is in fact a profoundly violent system, then you have more hope of understanding where these attacks came from and why.
Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me how blind liberals actually are. They are the political equivalent of small children; they haven’t quite grown out of the habit of seeing their nation (usually Britain or the US) as ultimately good. “Yes,” they say, “we know the ruling powers make mistakes, we know they are capable of horrible things, but deep down Daddy loves us.” Well, know this, my child: Daddy doesn’t love you. Daddy loves himself. But if you ever want to kick your habit of subliminal paternal affection, might I suggest a less violent substitute: Noam Chomsky. Unlike the majority of post-9/11 muddleheaded commentators, just seven days after the attacks Chomsky gave a brief, carefully worded radio account of why they had happened. Here are the principal reasons:
- First we must remember that Bin Laden was a Saudi-Arabian millionaire who rose to prominence as an Islamic military leader in the war to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. He was one of many religious fundamentalists recruited, armed, and financed by the CIA and their allies in Pakistani intelligence with the aim of carrying out maximum carnage on the Soviets.
- Once the Russians had been driven out, these soldiers then joined the Muslim forces in the Balkans: the US did not object, since this enhanced its particular geo-political aims at the time.
- Bin Laden and his “Afghanis” turned against the US in 1990 when the Americans established a permanent base in Saudi-Arabia – from his point of view, it was a counterpart to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, but far more significant because of Saudi Arabia’s special status as the guardian of the holiest shrines.
- Remember, however, that Bin Laden loathes the corrupt and repressive regimes of the region – especially that of Saudi Arabia – which he views as ‘un-Islamic’. Bin Laden despises the US’s longstanding support for these regimes.
- He also despises the US for their constant support of Israel’s brutal military occupation, now in its 42nd year: Washington’s decisive diplomatic, military, and economic intervention in support of the killings, the harsh and destructive siege over many years, the daily humiliation to which Palestinians are subjected, the gross violation of the Geneva Conventions, and other actions that are recognized as crimes throughout most of the world, apart from the US, which has prime responsibility for them.
- Bin Laden also contrasted these crimes against humanity with the US-British decade long assault against the civilian population of Iraq, which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and ultimately strengthened Saddam Hussein – who was a friend of the US and Britain during the period of his worst atrocities, including the gassing of Kurds.
- The US supported anti-democratic regimes throughout the region and imposed barriers against economic development by propping up oppressive regimes. It is not surprising, then, that among the great majority of people suffering deep poverty and oppression bitterness was rife and led to fury and despair. It is from this source that arise suicide bombers.
- Finally, Bin Laden was praying for large-scale attacks on Muslim states by the West because he knew – correctly, in hindsight – the result would be that fanatics would flock to his cause.
This was the runway from which those aeroplanes took off, not some ahistorical black hole. Not to understand this is to render yourself impotent in the task of preventing more innocent people from being butchered. Well-meaning liberals are subjectively lovely people, but if they refuse to accept that 9/11 was a logical act, thereby divesting themselves of the need to seek its true causes, then at the objective level they mirror the violence that the 9/11 terrorists committed at the subjective level.
 They’ve since informed me that this ‘cold light’ was more of a ‘heated inebriation’ on my part, so for that I apologise.
 Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 116-117.
 Slavoj Žižek, Violence (London: Profile Books, 2008)