Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
dialogue in the aftermathArrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004


Dialogue in the Aftermath:
On good, evil and responsibility after September 11

Fiona Jenkins
Australian National University

Evil and the violent means taken to combat evil are essentially the same.

—Rene Girard, 1977.

1. The dominant political reaction to the spectacular, shattering events of September 11 divided the world between 'good' and 'evil'. Yet in the ensuing pursuit of a war on terror, all the starkest accounts of Enlightened reason as mimetic double of fundamentalist violence might appear to have been realized. I begin here from one philosophical response to the war on terror, that of Judith Butler, which both draws attention to this doubling effect and highlights the consequently crucial role played by an insistence upon establishing asymmetries in the assessment and judgement of violence. In what follows, I first aim to map certain logics of response to violence that seem key to the war on terror and then to work towards a partial answer to the question: what other responses to the events of September 11 were or might become possible than the one we have seen unfold?

September 11: Violence and Asymmetry

2. On October 11th 2001, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal came to New York with expressions of horror and moral condemnation for the attacks of September 11. This was backed up with the desire to present a generous cheque for some ten million dollars. He committed the offence against decency, however, of asking that 'the US take a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause', adding that 'our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered while the world turns the other cheek'. Mayor Rudi Giuliani, refusing to accept the cheque when accompanied by this request, said: 'Not only are those statements wrong, they are part of the problem. There is no moral equivalent to this attack. There is no justification for it' (cited in Butler 2001: 5).

3.This remark exemplifies the sense in which any implied criticism of US policy at this time, came in an especially dramatic way to be identified with 'making statements that are not only wrong but part of the problem', or with (as Butler puts it) 'the reduplication in language' of the terroristic attack. Giuliani's key claim would seem to be that if there were moral equivalents to the September 11 attacks, then this would amount to the possibility of justification and there can be no justification in this case. But granted the force of this claim, what are its grounds? Is it that violence can never be justified? Or is it rather that an act of terrorism is by definition a singularly unjustified and unjustifiable act of violence?

4. Supposing the latter assumption is at work in Giuliani's response, then what lends terrorism this status? It cannot be by virtue of any strictly consequential consideration, since it would seem plain that very many more people have died in acts of violence perpetrated by states, in wars, for instance, than through acts performed by terrorist organizations; in any case, such comparisons are precisely what is being ruled out. Clearly terrorism can be condemned outright for aiming itself at innocent civilians; it violates a categorical imperative against killing, which is suspended only where a cause that requires such killing can be shown to be just - as in the instances of the 'just war' or self-defence. In the context of the subsequent 'war on terror', however, the clear terms of opposition between the 'just war' and 'acts of terror' have become muddied; those who from a strictly juridical point of view can only be regarded as innocent of perpetrating the violent event of September 11 - the Taliban or Saddam Hussein - have been made to 'stand in' for the agents of terror. Moreover, in the notion of a pre-emptive strike against those who are alleged to have the 'intention' to attack it, the US forecloses the claim of justice to respond to a committed act of evil in favour of presuming its nebulous possibility as vindication of an aggressive response. These subsequent events could not, of course have been known to Mayor Guiliani. But is there not, as Butler suggests, a sense in which the terms of the unfolding war on terror were already implicit in his insistence upon the non-comparability of evils and the assumption that to mark moral equivalence would be tantamount to an (impossible) justification of terror?

5. Taking this thought as a cue, I want to argue here that it is in the insuperable difference between who acts with violence, and what their entitlement is to do so, that the key must be found to assuming the unjustifiability of terrorist action a priori; namely that terrorist action lacks any authority to provide the terms of a vindication. The terrorist act of violence has strayed into a domain in which its belief in its own sense must be deprived of all rights. It is not only condemned outright for the injustice it commits against the innocent but also because it is an act of violence for which no possible legitimation can be offered without breaching a certain privilege of state sovereignty, integral to the preservation of its majesty. This is the state's right to determine the meaning of violence, its very appropriateness as means to legitimate ends. Here we are on terrain mapped by Walter Benjamin in his 'Critique of Violence': 'The law's interest in a monopoly of violence vis-à-vis individuals is not explained by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by that of preserving the law itself;… violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends it might pursue but by its mere existence outside the law' (1997: 281).

6. A similar point concerning the determining role of asymmetries (which hold the right to deal the cards on one side only) can be made with reference to the victims as well as the perpetrators of violence. Of this Butler comments, the affront to decency came with the Saudi Prince's use of the term 'slaughter' as the description of what Israelis do to Palestinians: 'like 'terrorist', the word 'slaughter' is a word that, in the hegemonic grammar, should be reserved for unjustified acts of violence against first-world nations'(Butler 2001: 5). To posit that Palestinians have been 'slaughtered' as US citizens were slaughtered is to breach this grammar, to utter the unutterable. The matter, in essence, again seems to turn upon how the question of what is justifiable and what is not is linked to an essential asymmetry that would be negated by positing moral equivalence. This thought, I shall argue in what follows, should also be placed in relation to certain problems intrinsic to sovereignty at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

7. The idea that the events of September 11 were absolutely singular, that they lacked all moral equivalents, is not merely the expression of the sense that every tragic event has its ethical singularity. Although an alliance may certainly be formed with this idea, the insistence on a fundamental asymmetry between this and any other event takes its political force from the thought that an act of violence committed by a sovereign first world nation is not the equivalent of an act of violence committed by a 'network organization' that finds its recruits in the third-world; that an act of violence committed on the civilians of New York is non-equivalent with the act of violence committed on the civilians of Iraq or Afghanistan; that our acts of 'self-defence' are not equivalent to the acts of those against whose incursions we protect our persons and our authority.

8. Authority is indeed the key term here and it limits my analysis to bringing out a certain angle in which the war on terror might be regarded. The remarks I shall make about how we might think about these asymmetries are in no way intended to deny that in another sense something unspeakable happened on September 11; it is not to deny the ethical singularity of the tragic event. Nor is it to deny that there were agents of this attack and that those agents would deserve punishment and should be pursued to this end. However, I want to suggest that not only the ethico-political but the symbolic significance of the attack, its meaning for the world today, become more complex than might at first be imagined, when we begin to consider the importance to relations of authority of enforcing and maintaining such asymmetries.

Sacrificial Victimage/ Juridical Responsibility

9. Rene Girard's seminal work, Violence and the Sacred, argues that as 'evil and the violent means taken to combat evil are essentially the same' (1977: 37), the problem posed for any community by violence is how to disguise and obscure this mimetic doubling. Violence is incendiary; once begun, it spreads its contamination like wildfire. A violent act requires a violent reaction in response; injury evokes revenge and counter-vengeance. The problem of how to break this cycle is at the root both of sacrificial economies and of the juridical substitution of the principle of justice for that of vengeance.

10. Thus Girard argues that the 'primitive' solution to this problem is to find a sacrificial victim or 'scapegoat': 'The scapegoat is the innocent party who polarizes a universal hatred' (1977: 33). What matters here first and foremost is that the scapegoat be innocent - for to punish the guilty would be to add fuel to the cycle of vengeance, of violence endlessly returned. The scapegoat chosen to break this cycle must be inappropriate, in the sense that he bears no responsibility as agent for the evil his sacrifice is required to purge. On the other hand, he is far from being randomly chosen. The scapegoat may be chosen from among those who were formerly recognized as one of us - 'as American', say - but are now seen to be 'not one of us', as marked by a crucial difference, for instance, being Arab in origin or Muslim. The community may then re-unite around the sacrifice of an 'outsider' whose crucial difference reinstates identity (1977: 102). The scapegoat, however, may as well be a king or president as one occupying the margins of society in the way that foreigners, slaves or children evidently do. What Girard emphasises is that the essential characteristic distinguishing potential sacrificial victims from non-sacrificeable beings, is that in the former case 'a crucial social link is missing, so that they can be exposed to violence without fear of reprisal. Their death does not automatically entail an act of vengeance' (1977: 13). The characteristic of the sacrificial victim from the point of view of breaking the cycle of violence is simply his utter defencelessness, his 'lack of a champion' who would avenge his death (1977: 13). Bonnie Honig adds, in a refinement of Girard's position, that 'scapegoating is [sometimes] a social process that finds or produces the objects it needs'; a scapegoat can be 'a figure made to represent some taint borne by the community as a whole, in particular, the loss of distinctions that defines the sacrificial crisis from which the community is trying to recover…'(2001: 34, italics mine). We should not suppose that the scapegoat always belongs to an existing pool of outsiders; he or she may also be constructed in any new articulation of the 'us' and the 'them'.

11. Nor may we assume that this is a 'primitive' solution which modernity has fully surpassed. The juridical alternative to this sacrificial logic of scapegoating which, Girard argues, should be represented less as an evolution of the former system than as a break with it, resolves an identical problem of mimetic violence by taking the right of vengeance out of the hands of those injured. A system of law, itself dependent on a firmly established political power, functions insofar as its authority constrains all parties alike. Insofar as the juridical system possesses a monopoly on the means of revenge, a vengeance that takes as its target the actual agent of injury can be fully re-instated (Girard, 1977: 22-23). The question of the guilt of the agent is, indeed, now brought to the fore in a way that effectively obscures the underlying principle of retribution. The guilty person is held to deserve punishment in a sense that implies he brings it fully upon himself, so that those who punish do merely what is commanded of them by the law. The judicial system aims itself at a culprit whose responsibility is fully assumable in a sense from which the sacrificial victim, the substitute or scapegoat is logically excluded. That this system represents a break with, rather than an evolution of the sacrificial one is indicative not only of Girard's debt to Nietzsche's genealogical pursuit of the meaning of these phenomena (cf. Nietzsche 1967: Essay II) but also implies the possibility of some kind of co-existence or even reciprocity of the two systems.

12. Although there are crucial differences between the 'primitive' and the 'juridical' system there are also crucial parallels. On the one side, the principle of vengeance is redirected; on the other it is rationalized. But not only do these systems have in common the fact that they are responses to the same problem of incendiary cycles of violence; in addition, both share the need to succeed in obscuring the mimetic doubling of 'evil and the violent means taken to counter evil'. Both, Girard argues, need to secure the asymmetry between what is legally authorized and what illegal, what is permissible and what impermissible, by invoking the transcendent. Girard concludes:

As soon as the essential quality of transcendence - religious, humanistic, or whatever - is lost, there are no longer any terms by which to define the legitimate form of violence and to recognise it among the multitude of illicit forms. The definition of legitimate and illegitimate forms then becomes a matter of mere opinion, with each man free to reach his own decision. In other words, the question is thrown open to the winds. Henceforth there are as many legitimate forms of violence as there are men to implement them; legitimacy as a principle no longer exists. Only the introduction of some transcendental quality that will persuade men of the fundamental difference between sacrifice and revenge, between a judicial system and vengeance, can succeed in bypassing violence. (1977: 24)

Asymmetries of violence, on this account, can be maintained only through reference to a transcendent authority; if that authority becomes the object of questioning, 'legitimacy as a principle no longer exists'. It would be interesting to explore the affinities and differences between the 'critique of violence' offered here and that of Walter Benjamin (1997), as well as the messianism to which both are ultimately led, which I shall touch upon below. For the moment, however, I shall simply test out an initial sense of one possible application of Girard's analysis to ask: how does the schema of 'scapegoat' victimage (linked to a sacrificial logic of substitution) intersect with the schema of 'assumable' responsibility in the form of guilt (linked to a juridical logic based upon the monopolization of the exercise of violence) in the context of the war on terror with which the US answered the violent attack of September 11?

How else could the US respond to the violence of September 11?

13. In its first reactions the US combined elements of both these schematic rhetorics. There was clearly a sense in which the US administration sought to assign blame for the unclaimed act to a terrorist network it vowed to bring to justice, by tracking down the culprits. On the other hand, the willingness to accept surrogate targets for the urge for vengeance also seems pronounced; both the war on Afghanistan and the war on Iraq deployed elements of the scapegoating procedure that identifies those sufficiently 'outside' social links to stand in as innocent substitutes for the real agents of terror. The issue I want to focus on is what we are to make of this simultaneous deployment of a rhetoric of guilt and a rhetoric of sacrificial purging combined together in the thought of 'ridding the world' of the sources of terror, of threats to democracy, freedom etc., wherever these may be found. In this 'wherever' we may hear both notes of juridical comprehensiveness and sacrificial arbitrariness, and although the sacrificial element is largely subsumed by the claim to justice, the actual terms of war have in each instance been less those of 'just war' than the re-establishment of a global order. This takes place through the symbolic purging and not the elimination of sources of evil-doing. If, as some of us believe, the world is no more safe after the war on Iraq and Afghanistan, it is perhaps because this war is not conducted with reference to real responsibility but rather, as Slavoj Zizek eloquently argues, to secure an image of a global order that has displaced all genuine antagonism. To be an 'unlawful combatant', to introduce the telling category coined in the context of the campaign on Afghanistan, is to criminally resist the forces of universal order, to be out of place or out of line in relation to a form of power premised entirely on denial that there is anything to struggle over (Zizek 2002: 93). At this point we might perhaps remark the existence of a 'zone of indistinction' between sacrificial and juridical schemas.

14. But what does this tell us about how things might have been conducted otherwise? There have been many people protesting against the war on terror that the appropriate response to a 'crime' of this sort would have been to bring the perpetrators to trial, preferably in some international court of justice. The latter stipulation is one that answers to the problem of transcendence Girard insists upon as critical: the means of vengeance have to be taken out of the hands of the injured party if we are to have justice. And in so far as the US figures itself as the injured party, no less, indeed probably more so, than the people killed on its soil, it cannot operate as judge or jury in this case. This is not at bottom, however, a question of whether a 'fair trial' could be had on US soil, in the sense of forming an impartial judgement as to the guilt of those brought to justice. The question far more fundamentally concerns in whose hands the rights of punishment can properly lie, so as to ensure that violence may be administered by an agency removed from the cycle of reciprocal action and reaction; the issue concerns the right to exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, so as to take that right out of the hands of all others. This gesture too requires the suspension of antagonistic relations in the name of a global order that cannot be identified with the dominance of an interested party.

15. Perhaps, however, this response does not take adequate account of what terror does to the authoritative claim to justice. It seems important here, in view of what remained the unclaimed nature of these attacks and the suicidal project of the most directly participant agents - those who seized and destroyed the planes - that a 'point of view' or, more strongly, a claim to justice was nonetheless widely evoked in popular commentary as something that could properly be attributed to the terrorists. In so far as the act of terrorism itself appeared to represent some alternative 'point of view', that of the Middle East or of Islamic Fundamentalism for instance- which might have a legitimate claim to be heard as such, the victimage of the US became subject to a question of 'right'. A common question asked at this time was whether the US, in its manipulative indifference to the viewpoints of others, somehow deserved or could have expected such a violent reaction. The terrorists were imagined as posing a demand that might in principle have been answered without recourse to violence, as though the violence simply added force to the 'point'.

16. Can a violent action 'make a point' about what is just and unjust as though enacted at least potentially from a legitimate space? Often enough, this is indeed what terrorist groups do claim they are doing - for instance, the Palestinians who took Israeli athletes hostage at the Olympic games in Munich, 1972, justified their action with the claim that only through this spectacular gesture could they bring their plight onto the public stage. Only by making sacrificial victims of innocent Israelis could they make plain their sense of injustice at their own innocent victimage. This makes evident, however, that the claim to potential legitimation of the action will require a radical levelling of all prior asymmetries and distinctions. The terrorist action might perhaps be said to assert the equivalence of all violence by staging a kind of anti-sacrifice, one improperly conducted, on improper victims, by those who have no right to do so. At the same time, a kind of anti-juridical logic is invoked, again damaging the claim to transcendence of the 'proper' authority, by seizing illicitly from the powers to monopolize it, a right to exercise violence based upon the claim not to have been heard or to have been otherwise treated unjustly. Clearly a variety of mimetic effects are rife here and in a manner that, if we follow Girard's analysis, pose serious difficulties to any instituted authority, particularly where the question of legitimacy has become one that is democratically conceived as being (at some level) open to discussion. For the claim to symmetry integral to any dialogical understanding of democratic legitimacy risks undoing the asymmetry which remains integral to authority (and in part for this reason, the role of violence in establishing political orders is radically disavowed according to such accounts of legitimation, in favour of the image of an un-coerced agreement reached within speech).

17. This was a problem of which the US seemed powerfully aware in the days following September 11 when a consensus of opinion and feeling concerning the event was both demanded and enforced. Part of the aim of Bush's dubbing of the terrorists as purely 'evil' was surely the effort to foreclose any possibility that they might express a 'point of view'. Similarly, in reaction to the suggestion that it was important to place the event 'in perspective' by comparing it with other horrific acts of violence causing the mass deaths of civilians, the US seemed to take itself to be defending the very illicitness of the act by insisting upon its exceptional singularity. For if it were simply comparable with other acts of violence, including those perpetrated by the United States - if it entered at all into an economy of comparison and exchange - then all claim to pass a judgement of injustice here would be damaged. The very comparability of the sources of violence damages the force of law, opens violence out to the spiralling intensification of exchange, even as internally the rule of law stakes its claim to justice on the absolute comparability of all violence subject to its procedural judgement. One might feel forced to agree therefore, that the transcendence of US authority was - as it took itself to be - profoundly damaged when people asked themselves whether the US did not, somehow, 'have this coming to it'; or when people wondered whether this event, and probably any response to it, too, should not be most properly located within the cycle of violent revenge to which justice was now reduced. Indeed the suspicion might be apt that attacking the US in the spectacular fashion of September 11 was in itself sufficient to damage a form of authority based on the premise of invulnerability to victimage - if we read US authority as a version of transcendence vested in the sheer supremacy of imperial might.

18. This matter, however, returns me to the point of my previous question about the significance of both notions of guilt and of sacrificial purging being invoked post September 11. Here what I want to ask is this: was it possible for the US to follow a juridical logic that would pursue only those whose responsibility could be directly assumed? Or was this possibility in some sense foreclosed by the very character of the act of terror itself? Is the sovereignty of the modern state such that, inscribing violence at the heart of its own administration of law in a simulacrum of transcendence, it must address both the status of the perpetrator and that of the victim in a fashion that is necessarily extra-juridical? The key issue here is whether the contemporary construction of political transcendence is such that it is in general rendered hopelessly vulnerable to the inadmissible 'question' posed by terrorism - the question as to who holds the right to exercise legitimate violence, or even to identify and act against the scapegoat. This might, as I have already suggested, raise serious difficulties for the 'dialogical' image of the political proposed by Habermas, which led him, in remarks made shortly after September 11, to suggest that what this event revealed was the need for more understanding and richer dialogue between West and East (Habermas 2001). Of course, for Habermas dialogue is not simply about the exchange of points of view as though each bore legitimacy, and he is far from indifferent to problems of authorization. Nonetheless, it is clear from his responses to September 11 that he sees a need for greater democratic dialogue between more and less 'advanced' countries of the world which will shore up the international institutions of legality making a 'cosmopolitan' universality available to the world (2001, cf. Borradori (ed) 2003: 35-9). On Habermas' account of matters, no fundamental crisis in the very terms of liberal democratic self-understanding was revealed on September 11 or by any other act of terror. The problem for the world remains how to realize the enlightened 'project of modernity' in a just and comprehensive fashion.

19. By contrast with Habermas' picture of a principle of legitimation redeemed through the possibility of dialogue between opposed positions, Giorgio Agamben may be an important figure to bring to bear here for his more direct attention to the specific character of the relation between authority and violence in the modern world in the context of a crisis of legitimation that is unredeemable except by reference to a messianic transformation. Agamben follows Benjamin's lead in the 'Critique of Violence' towards reflections upon the way in which we have, in modernity, entered into a zone of 'indiscernibility' - marked by 'the radical crisis of every possibility of clearly distinguishing between membership and inclusion, between what is outside and what is inside, between exception and rule' (Agamben 1998: 25). It is this idea I want to bring to bear on briefly exploring the idea that terrorism and the biopolitical state might mirror one another in their exigencies.

Zones of Indiscernibility

20. Agamben's view that we exist today in a zone of indiscernibility echoes certain of Girard's remarks about the mimetic doubling of violence, the perpetual uncertainty over its proper target and legitimation, indeed the ultimate indifference as to where its force may be unleashed (the relation between these two figures is dealt with in a rather summary fashion by Norris 2000). Going beyond Girard, however, Agamben suggests that the logic of sacrificial violence and that of juridical violence are both surpassed in the figure of homo sacer. One way of interpreting the difficult account of homo sacer in Agamben's thought, would be to say that he who can be 'killed but not sacrificed' forms a limit condition for both logics which may therefore find their threshold of indistinction in this figure of 'inclusive exclusion' (Agamben 1998: passim). Agamben himself puts the point in terms of the thought that the 'bare life that constitutes the immediate referent of sovereign violence is more original than the opposition of the sacrificeable and the unsacrificeable, and gestures towards an idea of sacredness that is no longer definable through the conceptual pair… of fitness for sacrifice and immolation according to ritual forms' (1998: 113-4). Unsacrificeable life is sacred life and as such is 'capable of being killed to an unprecedented degree' (1998: 114). Onto an account of life's 'sacredness' as its extreme nihilistic form, then, Agamben overlays what he claims is the paradigmatically political figure of the bandit, exposed to the sovereign ban that includes him simply by excluding him. Thus the bandit/homo sacer is 'he who can be killed without committing homicide' and who thus stands in constant relation to the 'unconditioned threat of death' (1998: 106, 183).

21. Does sovereignty then imply the figure of the bandit? And can the 'bandit' be identified with the modern terrorist? These are difficult questions to answer, however we can note echoes of certain aspects of the analysis developed so far in Agamben's treatment of sovereignty in its 'suspended' relation to terror. Following Benjamin closely, Agamben argues that the 'sovereign' character of law, its transcendent ability to discriminate authoritatively between instances of violence, rests upon its repetition of the transgressive act it proscribes; the juridical order 'constitutes itself through the repetition of the same act [as that which it sanctions] without any sanction, that is, as an exceptional case' (1998: 27). The juridical order, then, is not only to be characterized by the impartial regularity of its judgement and its allocation of guilt to the agent of evil but by its exceptional status, structured by radical asymmetry. The monopoly on the legitimate regular and regulative exercise of violence and the decision on an exceptional, incomparable instance that might 'break' the cycle of revenge founded on the equivalence of acts are here conjoined. Together these elements constitute the formality of law, its 'being in force without significance'. Law is thus

solely directed toward judgement, independent of truth and justice. This is shown beyond doubt by the force of judgement that even an unjust sentence carries with it. The ultimate aim of the law is a res judicata, in which the sentence becomes the substitute for the true and the just, being held as true despite its falsity and injustice. Law finds peace in this hybrid creature, of which it is impossible to say whether it is fact or rule… (1999: 18)

22. Taking up this sense of the juridical, we might reasonably say that the US is acting entirely within a paradigm of law in its actions in the war on terror. The sovereignty that invests the force of law, however, is inseparable from violence; 'the sovereign is the point of indistinction between violence and law, the threshold on which violence passes over into law and law into violence' (1998: 31). Moreover, the characteristic of our particularly modern times, according to Agamben, is that the 'state of exception' as a juridically empty space has 'overflowed its boundaries' and 'is starting to coincide with the normal order' (1998: 38). In aiming to secure a monopolistic right to pass judgement, the US invokes a paradigm of security that exceeds and overflows the paradigms of law. Remarking on this contrast, Agamben writes:

While disciplinary power isolates and closes off territories, measures of security lead to an opening and globalisation; while the law wants to prevent and prescribe, security wants to intervene in ongoing processes to direct them. In a word, discipline wants to produce order, while security wants to guide disorder…

And he adds:

A state which has security as its only task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to turn itself terroristic.

The type of political legitimation sought by reference to security is not the same as that sought by reference to the rule of law; however, where the state of exception starts to coincide with what is normal, or where juridically empty space overflows its boundaries, we can begin to see how nothing in the rule of law precludes a development whereby 'security and terrorism [form] a single deadly system in which they mutually justify and legitimate each others' actions' (2002).

23. The question I raised before is of what the alternative response might be or become to that offered by the 'war on terror'. If the analysis I draw from Agamben is correct, then the decision to go to war in a fashion that conflates and confuses sacrificial and juridical logics is integral to modern biopolitics and its form of sovereignty. The largely non-existent authority of International law would then be insufficient not for its lack of powers of enforcement (as Habermas holds, in Borradori 2003: 39) but for the dilemmas with which the force of law is itself bound up, making it not the antithesis but the accomplice of war. The idealised image of a strictly juridical order, or even of one underwritten by dialogical democratic principles, as Habermas envisages, would, on Agamben's account, simply obscure the contaminating power of a terroristic violence at the heart of law itself.

24. It is to the juridical conceived in these terms that Agamben consigns the notion of responsibility from which he suggests we must depart if we are to approach ethics. It is also this faith in the power of law to decide responsibility that he finds to be deeply limited when it comes to responding to the unspeakable, unforgivable crimes of Auschwitz. Following Primo Levi, he posits a 'new ethical element', a 'gray zone' in which the 'long chain of conjunction between victim and executioner' comes loose, where 'the oppressed becomes oppressor and the executioner in turn appears as victim' (1999: 21). In the space created by Auschwitz we encounter a 'zone of irresponsibility and 'impotentia judicandi' that is situated not beyond good and evil but rather, so to speak, before them'; and it is to the existence of this zone that we bear witness with a responsibility that is 'unassumable' (1999: 21). From this zone all transcendence has been eliminated and hence all rights of judgement. Consequently, in this zone, the witnessing that is called for has also become impossibility. Even ethics appears 'abandoned'. Yet Agamben also suggests that in this very abandonment lies the potentiality of ethics and its unassumable responsibility to break with discourses of sovereignty.

25. 'They are evil, we are good,' Bush said after September 11, in a fundamental assertion of the asymmetry that, I have argued, most readily governs a response to September 11 from the perspective of imperilled sovereignty. Was another response possible? In the Passion, according to Girard, a God of violence is replaced with a God of non-violence: 'The Christ of the Gospels dies against sacrifice, and through his death, he reveals its nature and origin by making sacrifice unworkable, at least in the long run, and bringing sacrificial culture to an end' (Girard 1996: 18). Agamben excavates a structure of sovereignty deeper than that of sacrifice/ non-sacrifice, but also writes repeatedly of the messianic moment called for by the 'zones of indiscernibility' and the state of exception in which we all live, stressing the completion and thus closing of the law the Messiah effects (1998: 49-58). Exploring this contrast any further lies beyond the scope of this essay. In what follows, however, I should like to introduce what I take to be one of the most careful articulations of a way, open to the messianic, in which we might respond to our sense of the inadequacies of contemporary political responses to terroristic violence. This is provided by Derrida in his works on forgiveness (2001) and more recently in direct engagement with 'thinking the event' of September 11 (Borradori 2003).

The Potentiality of Forgiveness

26. Of forgiveness, Derrida writes: 'Forgiveness is not, it should not be, normal, normative, normalising. It should remain exceptional and extraordinary, in the face of the impossible: as if it interrupted the ordinary course of historical temporality' (2001: 32). And also, 'forgiveness forgives only the unforgiveable' (2001: 32).

27. Throughout his discussion of forgiveness, Derrida is concerned to locate a 'pure' forgiveness beyond the law. One cannot, for Derrida, justify 'the refusal to forgive by the fact… of non-repentance' (2001: 35) as this is to inscribe forgiveness within an economical exchange foreclosing its radically unconditional dimension. Derrida's point here is that to propose such a limit on forgiveness is to 'imply that forgiveness remains the correlate to a judgement and the counterpart to a possible punishment, to a possible expiation' (2001: 36); and he seeks to distance himself from positions such as that of Arendt and Jankélévitch, who propose a symmetry between punishing and forgiving which places both in the realm of human affairs. What such an approach is unable to engage for Derrida, is every case where crime is out of proportion to human measure. The issue of transcendence thus haunts Derrida's response to the 'irreversibility of evil' (2001: 39) which must not be dialectically rendered into moral transformation. The radical transcendence of forgiveness blocks the very possibility of substitution, exchange, the economy alike of the sacrificial and the juridical; evil, then, must remain in its irreparability if forgiveness is to begin.

28. It follows from this that 'one could never, in the ordinary sense of the words, found a politics or law on forgiveness' (2001: 39). Can these considerations then have any purchase in the post- September 11 world? Derrida is careful to insist that we must not confuse forgiveness with any of the 'therapies of reconciliation' current in the world, for instance, the project of reconciliation underway in South Africa. Although this process sought to forestall vengeance by substituting for it the 'work of mourning', they nonetheless are engaged in fostering 'confusion between the order of forgiveness and the order of justice' (2001: 43). Forgiveness, Derrida will grant, is inseparable from the order of 'conditions, repentance, transformation, as many things as allow it to inscribe itself in history, law, politics, existence itself'; but it must never be reduced to these. The relationship that the (im)possibility of unconditional forgiveness bears to the order of political events is thus highly complex. Unconditional forgiveness, the strictly transcendent moment of forgiveness, is what grants meaning to the entire discourse of forgiveness; but in order to give meaning it 'must have no 'meaning', no finality, even no intelligibility' (2001: 45). Addressing the question of where such an unintelligible act might be located in relation (without being reduced) to the political order, Derrida suggests that forgiveness in this latter sense is exercised only in the right of grace held by the sovereign to 'transcend and neutralize the law' in an act of pardon:

What counts in this absolute exception of the right of grace is that the exception from the law, the exception to the law, is situated at the summit or foundation of the juridico-political… As is always the case the transcendental principle of a system doesn't belong to the system. It is as foreign to it as an exception. (2001: 46)

Noting that this is a dangerous privilege, Derrida argues that the only case in which it is appropriate to exercise it is where the 'unforgiveable', the crime against forgiveness itself has taken place by directly threatening the sovereign - 'the sovereign could pardon only where the crime concerns himself (and thus concerns, in his body, the very guarantee of the law, of the rule of law and of the State' (2001: 46).

29. And yet, importantly, this remark on the 'appropriate' does not indicate Derrida's final position on the question of the relationship between sovereignty and forgiveness, for he is careful to distinguish his thought radically from that presented by Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche's version of the 'beyond the law' links this directly to the attribute of supreme power:

It is not unthinkable that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it - letting those who harm it go unpunished. 'What are my parasites to me?' it might say. 'May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!'

The justice which began with, 'everything is dischargeable, everything must be discharged', ends by winking and letting those incapable of debt go free: it ends, as does every good thing on earth, by overcoming itself. This self-overcoming of justice: one knows the beautiful name it has given itself - mercy: it goes without saying that mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful man, or better, his - beyond the law. (Nietzsche, 1967, II: 10)

For Nietzsche, then, the possibility of forgiveness is based upon the power of sovereignty - the invulnerability of sheer imperial might. In a direct criticism of this type of claim, Derrida remarks that 'what makes the 'I forgive you' sometime unbearably odious, even obscene, is the affirmation of sovereignty' (2001: 58). Were the power of forgiveness reduced to the possession of the power to forgive at the same moment as it becomes the power to judge, its purity would be invariably corrupted - 'You know the revisionist argument; the Nuremberg Tribunal was the invention of the victors' (2001: 59). To retain the purity of forgiveness it is necessary to think it as forgiveness without power, 'unconditional but without sovereignty' (2001: 59). But again we must ask: can this thought provide any orientation in the question we are considering?

Toward Unassumable Responsibility

30. There are many echoes of issues that I have already discussed in Derrida's response to the events unfolding from September 11. He remarks that with the attack on the Capitol in Washington, or on Capital itself in New York, the 'head', 'capo' or master guarantor of an entire system of meaning also came under attack; this was also an assault, then, on 'accredited discourse' whereby norms are inscribed in 'every apparently meaningful phrase that can be constructed with the lexicon of violence, aggression, crime, war, terrorism, with the supposed differences between war and terrorism, national and international terrorism, state and non-state terrorism, with the respect for sovereignty, national territory etc.' (2003: 93, italics mine). As all terms of language collapse and all guarantors of immunity and security prove fragile, what is described by Derrida as a 'suicidal auto-immune' response on the part of the political 'organism' itself begins. Those terms that would separate 'self' or 'friend' from the 'other' or 'enemy' that comes to bring harm from without, collapse from within, insofar as the terrorists acted from within the US itself, using its own technology against itself; or insofar as the 'agent' of these actions remains unidentifiable according to the terms of analysis that assumes an 'enemy' is always fully external to the self (whereas bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network were initially fostered by the US itself); or insofar as every vengeful response fosters the desire for further attack (2003: 94-102).

31. Such considerations parallel the analysis I gave earlier using Agamben's terminology to interpret the tension at the heart of the rule of law itself. Derrida comments that the oppositions in terms of which we seek to 'comprehend' the events of September 11 properly demand to be deconstructed as, in the first instance, the opposition of 'acts of terror' to the force of law qua 'acts of legitimate violence'. These oppositions that would place terror on the side of revolutionaries, radicals and all those who act against a state, whilst the 'monopoly on the legitimate use of violence' belongs only to the democratically mandated liberal state, are shown to be unworkable in a sense that follows from identifying the 'tensions, conflicts, and essential contradictions… self-destructive, quasi-suicidal, auto-immunitary processes' inherent to the discourse and practice of sovereignty. Granted which, however, he affirms nonetheless the importance of working within the discourses of international law. The self-immolation of language does not remove a commitment to work between the claims that lie within and those that lie 'beyond law, tolerance, conditional hospitality, economy and so on' (2003: 133); rather, we are called to a 'responsible transaction' between these orders. We are called by unassumable responsibility qua responsibility to the unconditional claim of a justice in excess of all sovereignty.

Another Response?

32. I claim no more in this essay than that these reflections provide something of a map of the terrain on which another response to September 11 might walk. Clearly, it does not tell us how we ought to respond to September 11 in the mode of practical recommendation. What it does rightly imply, however, is the importance of a de-territorialization that answers to the extension of a paradigm of security and its inscription in the notion of a 'global order'; and moreover, the importance of attempting to articulate responses out of what Derrida calls 'our exposure to what comes or happens'. Another response to September 11 would have to come out of what and where we are beyond

all citizenship, beyond every 'state', indeed, 'every people', indeed, even beyond the current state of the definition of a living being as living 'human being', and the universality of rational calculation, of the equality of citizens before the law, the social bond of being together, 'with or without contract' and so on' (Borradori 2003: 120).

Such familiar elements of our political selves as they stand in relation to sovereignty are not discounted by the event of September 11; yet our investment in them must be called into question by the war on terror that has unfolded as certain key asymmetries underwriting the propriety of our belonging to the side of the good and just collapse with all the weight of falling glass, steel and cement. The question is can we conceive this as a site of potentiality, not only as disaster? Can we imagine, as Derrida suggests, that September 11 could be at once a 'sign and a price to pay' on the way to the possibility of a politics beyond sovereignty and thus beyond the complicity of the nihilistic state and terror? Can we relocate asymmetry in the risk and unassumable responsibility of forgiving the unforgiveable?

33. In the turn to some kind of messianism, there is, perhaps, at least one way of engaging and transforming the Christian rhetorics evoked entirely in a punitive mode by George W. Bush, which might open up the potential for another kind of response to September 11.


Fiona Jenkins is a lecturer in Philosophy at the School of Humanities, Australian National University, teaching on subjects in contemporary French philosophy, on Nietzsche, on film, and on radical aspects of democratic theory. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled Gestures Beyond Dialogue which explores the relations between images of political community and images of linguistic being. Email:

Author's Note

My thanks to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and criticisms on an earlier version of this paper and to its original audience at the Unassumable Responsibility conference, for their many perceptive remarks.


Agamben, G (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. trans. D. Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford UP.

________ (1999) Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. trans. D. Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books.

________ (2002) 'Security and Terror', Theory & Event 5:4

Benjamin, W. (1997) 'Critique of Violence' in Reflections. ed. P. Demetz, trans. E. Jephcott, New York: Random House.

Borradori, G. (2003) Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago and London: Chicago UP.

Butler, J. (2001) 'Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear', Theory & Event, 5:4

Derrida, J. (2001) 'On Forgiveness' in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London and New York: Routledge.

Girard, R. (1996) 'Mimesis and Violence: Perspectives in Cultural Criticism' in The Girard Reader. ed. J. G. Williams, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 9-19.

________ (1977) Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Habermas, J. (2003) Speech of Acceptance for the Peace Prize given by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association Suddeutsche Zeitung, 15 Oct; translated into English by Equal Voice, 07,

Honig, B. (2001) Democracy and the Foreigner. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Nietzsche, F. (1967) On the Genealogy of Morals. trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, New York: Vintage Books.

Norris, A. (2000) 'Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead', Diacritics, 30: 4, pp. 38-58.

Zizek, S. (2002) Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso.

© borderlands ejournal 2004


To top of page to top of page spacer
ISSN 1447-0810