On the morning of Nov 14, I woke up to the bloody massacre in Paris feeling blunted in my head. It’s terrible, it’s huge, it’s immense. But beyond that, there was very little I could say about what had happened there. A state of speechlessness descended upon me more or less like a cold: a part of your sensory capabilities is trapped in your own body by an external condition. It’s uncomfortable.
I spent hours swiping my telephone screen pointlessly, browsing Weibo posts one after another, most of which were about the terrorist act. It’s interesting how fast Chinese online discussion about the incident turned into a collective lamenting about the entire agenda of the European Left, ranging from its foreign policy (supporting Syrian Rebels against Assad), to its moral tendency (the limitation of “tolerance”), to its cultural norms (excessive political correctness). While these could be legitimate shortcomings of the Western liberal camp, it’s still amazing how a part of the Chinese society, which is in no way bound by the moral codes, the cultural taboos and the political constraints of the Western liberal-democracies, can be so worried about a “Europe turning Muslim.” Equally fascinating is how much of that discourse is imported through the Western ultra-right (even Zionist). Two articles that went viral on the Chinese cyberspace last week were translations/summaries of writings from pundits who openly lambast Muslims, one about the “demise of Europe” through population decline and welfare state, the other approvingly describing Japan as “a land without Muslim” by setting up all kinds of restrictions in its society, which is highly dubious. There seems to be an underlying craving for homogeneity manifested by the popularity of the second article, whose subject Japan is probably one of the most homogeneous societies in the world.
The propensity of Chinese online opinion to be carried away by misguided judgment prompts some influential figures on the Internet to openly declare a “shut-up”, claiming that they are not informed enough to comment on such a perplexing issue as the rise and spread of ISIS. There is also a part of me that resists the daunting task of doing a rundown of the clearly misinformed commentaries or the shoddy analyses provided by mainstream media outlets. So I turned to someone who I knew was intellectually more equipped than me to take on the Paris attack and terrorism in general.
Below is a solicited commentary written by my college friend Xymbolic, whose critical mind and erudition I have admired ever since we shared the traumatically cramped dorm room in Beijing fifteen years ago. The views expressed here are all his, but his call for a “planetary response” and a “cosmopolitan order” does invoke in me Philip Allot’s famous critique of the international order as “a glove turned inside out”. While the French Revolution got rid of kings for France, on the international level our world is still essentially ruled by the “princes” (sovereign) who do not respond to an “international society” the same way as they do to the societies within their own arbitrary boundaries. The very chaos of Syria today could be rooted in the fundamental inability of our “princes”, who get so accustomed to dealing only with other sovereigns, to relate to, negotiate with and be held accountable for a part of the human society that has been suffering too profoundly too long.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing, albeit truthful, descriptions of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris is “not unexpected.” Actually, not only the recent attacks, but the Charlie Hebdo attacks, at the time it happened, was described in the same way by many. Though its cruelty is still shocking, and the loss deeply grieved; though the same feeling of powerlessness resulting from the inability to grasp the meaning, or total lack of meaning, of the event, still haunts the public, the strange undertone that the attacks had been somehow vaguely foreseen; and that by now such events even carry an eerie familiarity, is definitely disconcerting.
November 1, 1975, almost exactly forty years ago, Pier Paolo Pasolini gave what turned out to be the last interview of his life. During the interview, commenting on the murkiness of the situation of the struggle, Pasolini said: “We’re particularly pleased with conspiracies because they relieve us of the weight of having to deal with the truth head on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, while we’re here talking, someone in the basement were making plans to kill us? It’s easy, it’s simple, and it’s the resistance. We might lose a few friends, but then we’ll gather our forces and wipe them out.” However, when asked by the interviewer, Furio Colombo, to give a title for the interview, Pasolini said: “Here is the seed, the sense of everything. You don’t even know who, right at this moment, might be thinking of killing you. Use this as a title, if you like: ‘Because, we are all in danger.’” A couple of hours later, Pasolini was brutally murdered. The details of the murder, even the identity of the perpetrators of the crime, remain a mystery to this day.
Though it is not terrorism in today’s sense that he had in mind, we can still detect the similarity between Posolini’s “prediction of his own death” and the current situation. (Pasolini’s view that consumerism contaminates the working class with middle-class hedonism and thus stifles class struggle in the social life is clearly related to the discussion of the emergence of terrorism in its present form in the context of global capitalism, but we will leave this aside for the moment.) We are aware that we are indeed “in danger,” an impending, gigantic danger, which is at the same time extremely elusive and protean. Efforts at pinning down the source of the danger often deteriorate into various forms of conspiracy theories, e.g. the 9/11 truth movement, the ungrounded belief that Saddam Hussein was harboring al-Qaeda, or even the most banal version of racism and islamophobia from the average person in the street. Though ISIS is perceived to represent the biggest threat at the moment, it only rose to prominence less than two years ago, and it is impossible to tell when the next deadly reincarnation of terror will emerge. And even about this present archenemy, much less than adequate is known. The fact that Obama made the remarks that ISIS had been “contained” just hours before the Paris attacks took place, even if these remarks correctly describe the situation in general, indicates the imprecision and inadequacy of information. There seems to be no measure that can be taken to stop the lurking danger from leaping at the people. As Patrick Cockburn has commented: “Because the potential target is civilian populations as a whole, no amount of increased security checks or surveillance is going to be effective. The bomber will always get through.”
Subtly different from the widespread #jesuircharlie hashtag and the Republican marches in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, social media hashtags like #prayforparis and #porteouverte, and also the most prominent spectacle: the world’s landmark buildings lit with the French tricolor, all emanate an air less of outrage than of composure and courage. The impression is almost as if Paris had been struck by a catastrophic natural disaster. But maybe this is indeed how the terrorist attacks could be treated, i.e., as if they were natural disasters.
By no means am I saying that no one should be held responsible for this inhuman cruelty. What I am suggesting is that the inhuman feels inhuman and should be treated as inhuman. First of all, both terrorist attacks and natural disasters are absolutely meaningless in human terms. Oftentimes, when a terrorist attack happens, the perpetrators would release a message saying that the attack is meant to “teach a lesson” to the victims or their country. There is, however, no lesson to be learned from a terrorist attack, which is pure meaningless violence, just as Slavoj Žižek says when commenting on the Charlie Hebdo attacks: “We have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” To comprehend is a human intellectual activity. There is nothing human in inhuman violence. It is therefore incomprehensible, and there is in fact nothing to be comprehended in it. In fact, to assume the role of a spectator and attempt to extract or produce certain meaning from grisly scenes of both terrorist carnages and natural catastrophes is in itself obscenely presumptuous.
Perhaps the disconcerting sense of familiarity upon learning that a terrorist attack has happened is not so different from the way we feel when a natural disaster strikes. We experience terrorism much like the residents of an earthquake-prone area experience earthquakes: they are aware that earthquakes may strike any time, try they best to do precise predictions, take all cautionary measures, but are still unable to stop them from happening. Furthermore, terrorism seems to have evolved into a stage where it no longer has a face. (I would argue that this is the reason why the term “terrorism” has remained in use despite constant criticisms.) Even though our daily life is much more saturated with images than a decade ago, the image of Baghdadi is not as instantly recognizable to the average person as those of bin Laden or even Zarqawi, who were “the faces of terror.” However vague the term “terrorism” is, it conveys the feeling that it is an inhuman, nameless, shape-shifting force that constantly displays its horrendous forms in terrible manifestations. Derrida was right when he predicted that the way in which the 9/11 attack took place would one day appear outdated. When we now read news reports about how today’s terrorist groups recruit new members by lurking on the social media and corrupting those susceptible to their propaganda, we cannot help but somehow take the metaphor of terrorism as a contagious disease more seriously than we usually do with a common figure of speech. Thus, we are, as Pasolini has it, “in danger,” a danger that is very much like natural disasters, which we as humans confront equally, and in the face of which we are equally vulnerable.
Recognizing the inhuman, natural-disaster-like aspect of terrorism may provide insights into the necessity of international cooperation in response to terrorism. In a letter written the day after the attacks, Judith Butler says: “…[P]ublic services are curtailed, and no demonstrations are allowed. Even the “rassemblements” (gatherings) to grieve the dead were technically illegal. I went to one at the Place de la Republique and the police would announce that everyone must disperse, and few people obeyed. That was for me a brief moment of hopefulness.” Such gatherings in defiance of the ban from the police, I believe, exemplify what Walter Benjamin refers to in Thesis 8 of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as the “real state of emergency.” Hollande’s declaration of the State of Emergency has been greeted largely with mistrust and scorns from the Left. “The State of Emergency has become a synonym for the government doing as it pleases,” writes Paul Alliès. Echoing Giorgio Agamben, he also points out “a violent paradox: the institutionalization of exceptional powers reduces the scope of public liberties even as it is justified by the need to defend those liberties. ” According to Agamben, Benjamin’s idea of “a real state of emergency” aims at breaking out of the Carl Schmitt’s rigorous constructed “state of emergency” which is an anomic space where law has been suspended, while the force of law remains effective, and which, according to Benjamin, has become the norm. The prolonged “War on Terror” since 9/11 has witnessed such a process where it is no longer possible to differentiate between laws and exceptions to laws enforced by the force of the law. As Alliès oberseves, the State of Emergency “is therefore less a democratic mobilisation of society as it is its demobilisation.” If, however, the violence of terrorism is perceived as akin to that of natural disasters, which poses an equal threat to the life of every individual as a living organism, then this is a violence coming from out of the state of emergency rigorously controlled by the sovereignty. It may not be what Benjamin calls a divine violence, but it is clearly a pure violence that human beings, provided that we want to guarantee our survival as a species, must give a planetary response. When responding to the crisis of 9/11, both Habermas and Derrida proposed that it was necessary to begin a transition from the framework of international laws still based on 19th-century nation-states to “a cosmopolitan order.” Yet what we have seen since that time was exactly the opposite to this vision. International cooperation has become an oft-mentioned yet empty promise, and the space for such cooperation is torn up by sovereignties operating in their respective states of emergency. So maybe it was too optimistic to expect the international alliances of sovereignties to transition automatically into a cosmopolitan order. Maybe what we need is, like the gatherings Judith Butler has mentioned but probably on a grander scale, self-organized responses to inhuman terrorism by people whose very lives are in danger, which may render the state of emergency declared by sovereignties superfluous.
Though since the attacks took place, given the background of the Syrian refugee crisis, the discussion has been carried out largely within a framework of the relationship between the West and the Middle East. As the ensuing events have demonstrated, however, China will by no means be able to assume the role of the spectator in the current situation. The ideal scenario, however pale its imitation in the real world would turn out to be, is that China will be able to take part without superficially taking sides, i.e., without submitting to the dichotomy of Eurocentrism versus Anti-Eurocentrism, which, according to Derrida, has its possibilities already exhausted; and according to Žižek, is but a trap set by global capitalism to counter that which, in the legacy of the Enlightenment, is still powerful as a resistance, viz. egalitarianism, fundamental rights, freedom of the press, the welfare-state, etc., the values that may ultimately fulfill the promise of a cosmopolitan global order that protects us from inhuman danger.