Interpretations of the events of 9/11, 2001, and the diverse political and intellectual responses to them, have oscillated between a concern with the wrath of the disinherited and exploited and the elements of self-destruction built into a hegemonic system. In this essay, I shall focus on the rage of those who feel they have been let down by the present global system and have no future within it. This feeling has been acquiring a particularly dangerous edge in recent times. For the rage often does not have a specific target but it is always looking for one; and regimes and movements that latch on to that free-floating anger can go far. Indeed, once in a while, their targets too have the same kind of need to search for, and find, enemies. The two sides then establish a dyadic bond that binds them in lethal mutual hatred.
Six years after the event, it is pretty obvious that this time there has been a narrowing of cognitive and emotional range all around. The global culture of commonsense has come to the conclusion that it is no longer a matter of realpolitik and hard-headed, interest-based use of terror of the kind favoured by the mainstream culture of international relations and diplomacy — as for instance the repeated attempts by the CIA over the last six decades to assassinate recalcitrant rulers hostile to the United States — but a terror that is based on the defiance of rationality and abrogation of self-interest, a terror that is deeply and identifiably cultural.
It also seems to insist, to judge by the responses to 9/11, that there are only two ways of looking at this link between terror and culture. One way is to emphasise cultural stereotypes and how they hamper intercultural and interreligious amity. This emphasis presumes that the West with its freedoms — political and sexual — and its lifestyle, identified in the popular imagination by consumerism and individualism, has come to look like a form of Satanism in many millennial movements, particularly in those flourishing in Islamic cultures. Multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue are seen as natural, if long-term, antidotes to such deadly stereotypes. So is, in the short run, ‘firm’ international policing.
The other way is to locate the problem in the worldview and theology of specific cultures. What look like stereotypes or essentialisations in the former approach are seen as expressions of the natural political self of such cultures in the latter. At the moment, Islam looks like the prime carrier of such a political self but some other cultures are not far behind. The American senator who ridiculed those who wore diapers on their heads did not have in mind only the Muslims; nor did the American motorist who, when caught while trying to run over a woman clad in a sari, declared that he was only doing his patriotic duty after 9/11.
The first way — that of multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue — is of course seen as a soft option, the second as too harsh. However, the second has in the short run looked to many like a viable basis for public policy and political action. The reason is obvious. Terror has been an instrument of statecraft, diplomacy and political advocacy for centuries. To see it as a new entrant in the global marketplace of politics is to shut one’s eyes to the deep human propensity to hitch terror to organised, ideology-led political praxis. Robespierre said — on behalf of all revolutionaries, I guess — that without terror, virtue was helpless. Terror, he went on to claim, was virtue itself.
This propensity has also enjoyed a certain ‘natural’ legitimacy in the dominant global culture of public life when it comes to the serious business of international relations. Despite recent pretensions, in international politics violence does not have to be justified; only non-violence has to be justified. The mainstream global culture of statecraft insists that the true antidote to terror is counter-terror.
In that respect, the killers who struck at New York on 9/11 and the regimes that claim absolute moral superiority over them share some common values. Both believe that when it comes to Satanic others, all terror is justified as long as it is counter-terror and interpreted as retributive justice. Both look like belated products of the twentieth century, which in retrospect looks like a century of terrorism and its natural accompaniment, collateral damage. Guernica, Hamburg, Dresden, Nanking, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are all formidable names in the history of terror and counter-terror, used systematically as political and strategic weapons. On a smaller scale, the same story of attempts to hitch terror to virtue and to statecraft has been repeated in a wide range of situations — from Jallianwalla Bagh to Lidice and from Sharpeville to Mi Lai. The culpable states were sometimes autocratic, sometimes democratic.
Liberal democracy has not often been a good antidote against state terror unleashed by its protagonists. Few are now surprised that some of the iconic defenders of democracy, such as Winston Churchill, were as committed to terror as Robespierre was. Churchill was not only a co-discoverer of the concept of area bombing, as opposed to strategic bombing, he also did not intercede when supplied with evidence, including aerial photographs, of Nazi death camps.
Hence also the widespread tendency to dismiss all talk of fighting terror without recourse to counter-terror as romantic hogwash. It is a basic tenet of the mainstream global culture of politics that only the fear of counter-terror dissuades terrorists from walking their chosen path. Hence also the admiration for the terrorism-fighting skills of a country like Israel in states like Sri Lanka and India and the pathetic attempts of such admirers to use Israeli ‘expertise’, forgetting that Israel has been fighting terror with terror for more than fifty years without success. All that the Israeli state can really take credit for is that, in a classic instance of identifying with its historic oppressors, it has succeeded in turning terrorism into a chronic ailment within the boundaries of the Israeli state, in the process brutalising its own politics and turning many of its citizens into fanatics and racists.
Into this atmosphere has entered a new genre of terrorists during the last few years in Palestine, Sri Lanka, India and now the United States. These are terrorists who come in the form of suicide bombers and suicide squads. They come prepared to die and, therefore, are personally and, one might add, automatically immune to the fear of counter-terrorism. Actually, they usually view counter-terrorism — and the reaction it unleashes — as a useful device for mobilisation and polarisation of opinion. This is one thing that the hedonic, death-denying, self-interest-based, individualistic culture of the globalised middle classes just cannot handle. It looks like an unwanted war declared by the death-defying on the death-denying. What kind of person are you if you do not want to keep any options open for enjoying or even seeing the future you are fighting for? What kind of person are you if you do not care what happens to your family, neighbourhood or community in the backlash? To the civilised modern citizen, such suicidal activism looks like the negation of civilisation and the ultimate instance of savagery, apart from being utterly irrational and perhaps even psychotic.
In the nervous, heated discussions about the kamikaze nearly fifty years ago, they often appeared like strange, subhuman adventurers and carriers of collective pathologies, driven by their feudal allegiances and unable to distinguish life from death or good from evil. Recent discussions of the suicide bombers of Hamas, Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and Al Qaeda and Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan and Kashmir invoke the same kind of imageries and fantasies. Hence, probably, the abortive attempts to rename suicide bombings as homicide bombings. They invoke such imageries and fantasies because the modern world is always at a loss to figure out how to deter somebody who is already determined to die.
For most of us, this kind of passion has no place in normal life; it can be only grudgingly accommodated in textbooks of psychiatry as a combination of criminal insanity and insane self-destructiveness. Outside the modern world too, few call it self-sacrifice. For unlike the freedom fighters of India and Ireland who fasted to death during the colonial period as an act of protest and defiance of their rulers, the self-sacrifice of the suicide bombers also includes the sacrifice of unwilling, innocent others, what the civilised world has learnt to euphemistically call unavoidable collateral damage.
Yet, the key cultural-psychological feature of today’s suicide bombers and suicide squads, despair, is not unknown to the moderns. Indeed, the idea of despair has become central to our understanding of contemporary subjectivities and we also acknowledge that it has shaped some of the greatest creative endeavours in the arts and some of the most ambitious forays in social thought in our times. Van Gogh cannot be understood without invoking the idea of despair, nor can Friedrich Nietzsche. So powerful has been the explanatory power of the idea of despair that recently Harsha Dehejia, an Indian art historian, has tried to introduce the concept in the Indian classical theory of art — by extending Bharata’s theory of rasas itself — as an analytic device. Dehejia feels that without recourse to this construct, we just cannot fathom contemporary Indian art.
One suspects that the desperation one sees in the self-destruction of the new breed of terrorists is the obverse of the same sense of despair that underpins so much of contemporary creativity. Only, this new despair expresses itself in strange and alien ways because the cultures from which it comes are not only defeated but have remained mostly invisible and inaudible. Indeed, their sense of desperation may have come not so much from defeat or economic deprivation but from invisibility and inaudibility.
Of the 18 people identified as members of the suicide squad that struck on 9/11, 15 have been identified as Saudis. They come from a prosperous society where dissent in any form is not permitted, where political conformity and silence are demanded and extracted through either state terror or the fear of it. It can be argued that by underwriting the Saudi regime, which also presides over Islam’s holiest sites and has acquired an undeserved reputation in many circles as a prototypical if not exemplary Islamic state, the United States has helped identify itself as the major source of the sense of desperation that the killers nurtured within them. Violence of the kind we saw on 9/11, Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer argue, presumes “a very high level of dehumanisation of the victims in the minds of aggressors.” That dehumanisation does not happen in a day, nor can it be conveniently explained away as unprovoked.
Ashis Nandy, renowned political psychologist and social theorist, is a leading figure in postcolonial studies and arguably India’s best known intellectual voice of dissent. He is Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. His recent awards include the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize