- 10/10/01 - Reply to Marco Mauas
by Slavoj Zizek
The worst thing to do apropos of the events of September 11 is to elevate them to a point of Absolute Evil, a vacuum which cannot be explained and/or dialecticized. To posit them in a series with Shoah is a blasphemy: the Shoah was committed in a methodical way by a vast network of state apparatchiks and their executors who, in contrast to the bombers of the WTC towers, lacked the suicidal acceptance of their own death - as Hannah Arendt made it clear, they were anonymous bureaucrats doing their job, and an enormous gap separated what they did from their individual self-experience. This "banality of Evil" is missing in the case of the terrorist attacks: they fully assumed the horror of their acts, this horror is part of the fatal attraction which draws them towards commiting them. Or, to put it in a slightly different way: the Nazis did their job of "solving the Jewish question" as an obscene secret hidden from the public gaze, while the terrorists heroically and display the spectacle of their act.
The second difference is that the Shoah was a part of EUROPEAN history, it was an event which does NOT concern directly the relationship between Muslims and Jews: remember Sarajevo which had by far the largest Jewish community in ex-Yugoslavia, and, on the top of it, was the most cosmopolitan Yugoslav city, the thriving center of cinema and rock music - why? Precisely because it was the Muslim dominated city, where the Jewish and Christian presence was tolerated, in contrast to the Christian-dominated large cities from which Jews and Muslims were purged long ago.
Why should the New York catastrophe be in any way privileged over, say, the mass slaughter of Hutus by Tutsis in Ruanda in 1999? Or the mass bombing and gas-poisoning of Kurds in the north of Iraq in the early 1990s? Or the Indonesian forces' mass killings in East Timor? Or... the list of the countries where the mass suffering was and is incomparably greater than the one in New York, but which do not have the luck to stand in the focus so as to be elevated by the media into the sublime victim of Absolute Evil, is long, and therein resides the point: if one insists on the use of this term, these are all "Absolute Evils." So should we extend the prohibition to explain and claim that none of these evils could and should be "dialecticized"? And is one not obliged to go even a step further: what about "individual" horrible crimes, from those of the sadist mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer to those of Andrea Yates who in a cold-blooded way drowned her five children? Is there not something real/impossible/inexplicable about EVERY of these acts? Is it not that, as Schelling put it more than 200 years ago, in each of them we confront the ultimate abyss of the free will, the imponderable fact of "I did it because I did it!" which resists any explanation with psychological, social, ideological, etc. causes.
So have the events of September 11 something to do with the obscure God who demands human sacrifices? Yes, the spectacular explosion of the WTC towers was not simply a symbolic act (in the sense of an act whose aim is to "deliver a message"): it was primarily an explosion of lethal jouissance, a perverse act of making oneself an instrument of the big Other's jouissance. Yes, the culture of the attackers is a morbid culture of death, the attitude which finds the climactic fulfillment of one's own life in the violent death. Yes, the ultimate aim of the attacks was not some hidden or obvious ideological agenda, but - precisely in the Hegelian sense of the term - to (re)introduce the dimension of absolute negativity into our daily lives: to shatter the insulated daily course of the lives of us, true Nietzschean Last Men. Sacrilegious as it may appear, the WTC attacks do share something with Antigone's act: they both undermine the "servicing of the goods," the reign of the pleasure-reality principle. However, the "dialectical" thing to do here is not to include these acts into some larger narrative of the Progress of Reason or Humanity which somehow - if not redeems them, at least - makes them a part of an all-encompassing larger consistent narrative, "sublated" them in a "higher" stage of development (the naive notion of Hegelianism), but to make us question our own innocence, to render thematic our own (fantasmatic libidinal) investment and engagement in them.
So, rather than remain stuck in the debilitating awe in front of the Absolute Evil, the awe which prohibits us to THINK what is going on, one should recall that there are two fundamental ways to react to such traumatic events which cause unbearable anxiety: the way of superego and the way of the act. The way of the superego is precisely that of the sacrifice to the obscure gods of which Lacan speaks: the reassertion of the barbaric violence of the savage obscene law in order to fill in the gap of the failing symbolic law. And the act? One of the heroes of the Shoah is for me a famous Jewish balerina who, as a gesture of special humiliation, was asked by the camp officers to perform a dance for them. Instead of refusing it, she did it, and while she hold their attention, she quickly grabbed the machine gun from one of the distracted guards and, before being shot down herself, succeeded in killing more than a dozen officers... was her act not comparable to that of the passengers on the flight which crashed down in Pennsylvania who, knowing that they will die, forced their way into the cockpit and crashed the plane, saving hundreds of others' lives?