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Terrorism: reality or simulation?

"You can see 'Matrix Reloaded'," an English newspaper critic named Jonathan Romney recently suggested, "or choose to spend your time reading Baudrillard and Nietzsche instead." If you are a fan of the concepts behind the Matrix series, "reading Baudrillard" could literally mean going back to the source. It was Baudrillard who popularised the view that reality itself has become a simulation.

Very shortly after September 11 2002, Baudrillard published an essay in Le Monde called "The Spirit of Terrorism" which is one of the boldest analyses of what that event means. Let us look at this essay.

According to Baudrillard, the fall of the Twin Towers was not only the first symbolic event of worldwide scope in a long time. It was an event of cosmic proportions, a "mother of all events that comprises all previous ones". The terrorist acts of that day, Baudrillard says, were events the world had already long dreamed of, and, in dreaming of them, had desired.

That's right...we all dreamed of seeing great symbols of American wealth and power come crashing down. We wanted that, and in wanting it, were complicit in the events. Why? Because when power becomes monotonous and centralised to the extent it has now, everyone, naturally - and "happily", in Baudrillard's view - subconsciously wants it to come down. (This does not mean, he adds, that we have no sympathy for the victims.)

The disquieting (but in a sense obvious) first corollary is that "Terrorism", as Baudrillard writes, "like the virus, is everywhere". It is in us; and the terrorists are among us.

The weapon of the terrorists is the event, but the event would mean nothing without the complicity of the media. The media becomes a weapon. The terrorists of 9/11 turned ordinary harmless objects, box cutters, airplanes, buildings, into horrible weapons of mass destruction; they even turned daily life into one of their weapons by residing among ordinary people in the suburbs and pursuing dull ordinary lives with their families, thus making, by association, everyone in the future a suspect.

Moving from the events of 9/11, Baudrillard relates them to world history. The 20th century was the century of world wars and now in the 21st century we have a new and larger world war. Each of the great wars, Baudrillard claims, sought to end some power inimical to the private will. World War I ended the dominance of Europe and its colonialism. World War II ended Nazism. World War III has already happened: it was the Cold War, and what it ended was Communism.

And now we have a new war, World War IV, which is the war against the next inimical stage, globalisation, the stage of supra-national power. Globalisation, like the hegemony of absolute power represented by the USA today, is something that people instinctively do not want. ("The world itself," Baudrillard writes in the essay, "is against globalisation.") And this has nothing to do with any particular ideology or religion and those who are opposed are not any one group. It is only by chance that opposition has been concentrated in Islam.

Baudrillard sees what is happening partly as a war of good and evil, but with good and evil on both sides. This is because good (which liberal democracy represents) and evil (which terrorism represents) are inseparable. As one grows stronger, so does the other. While western liberal ideas are admirable (good), their dominance has awakened universal subconscious resentment (evil).

Indeed, the world dominance of liberal democracy is itself also evil; it is clearly a logical impossibility: absolute power cannot be democratic, and liberal democracy in the form of neo-liberalism (though Baudrillard does not use that term) is now only a carrier (to use the terms of a "virus") of globalisation.

The way terrorism works is that it opposes force with sacrifice. And sacrifice is, above all, death. Terrorism is the force of death. The ruling forces in the world, the western liberal democratic hegemony, "have erased death from consideration", Baudrillard writes, while the terrorists use death as their primary weapon. Hence, Osama Bin Laden's remark after 9/11, which the essay quotes: "Our men want to die as much as the Americans want to live".

Finally, Baudrillard ends with a flurry of "Matrix"-like thinking: the violence of 9/11, he says, is not real. It is symbolic, and it unifies the two primary 20th century "magics", "the white magic of cinema" and "the black magic of terrorism". More than that, the events not only are symbolic rather than real; they are symbolic but without meaning. And this is another reason why there is no adequate response to them.

This is the most chilling, and important, of Baudrillard's points: terrorism has no adequate response.

What can we learn from Baudrillard's analysis? A number of things. It may appear that he is truly and wholly in the world of "Matrix", in a world of sci-fi fantasies, computer games and verbal models. In a sense he is. He is also in the hermetically sealed ivory tower of a French philosopher. But to dismiss him for those reasons would be wrong.

First of all, Baudrillard has a lot to teach us about terrorism. We must understand that "the war on terrorism" is not a reality, and cannot be. There may be a vast process by which the US might seek to defuse the existing antagonisms that motivate anti-American terrorism but in achieving that goal nothing short of dismantling American power will really do the trick, so this is not really anything that the US is going to be doing any time soon. It may happen, in the fullness of time, but it will not be brought about by American forces or in accordance with the American will.

It is also essential to realise that "the war on terrorism" is a war that cannot be won, in the same sense that the US could not win in Vietnam: because bombing, invading, killing and occupying only creates more and more Osamas, willing to die, as Americans are not.

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