September 11 and the Value of Having Defined Enemies
us back clear enemies, a conflict between democrats and terrorists, an
'axis of evil,' George W. Bush and the Islamists offered us in 2001 a
new - and deadly - friend or foe antagonism for the entire decade. A decade
that, in fact, ended in May with the 'definitive' end of bin Laden."
Since this is THE great week
of remembrance, we'll be dining on September 11, only for it to come to an
Ten years. Ten years since
that sunny day when 19 lunatics, armed only with box cutters and a pilot's
manual turned airliners into flying bombs.
Ten years since the start of a
decade that witnessed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which increased the number
of civilian victims of September 11- not twofold, not tenfold - but at least a
This is undoubtedly time to
revisit the concept, borrowed from Samuel Huntington, of a "clash of civilizations,"
which characterizes human history as one involving antagonistic blocs condemned
to compete with one another in order to develop.
In his day, Huntington's work
was greatly caricatured, as if he had painted a political but undescriptive
picture. In fact, talk of civilizations appeared simplistic because there are
no homogeneous civilizations. What's at work is something much simpler and more
universal that transcends culture: friend or foe opposition.
In this respect, Huntington
invented nothing new: in his The Concept of the Political,
brilliant and sulfurous German jurist Carl Schmitt defined the antagonism between friend and foe as
the basis of politics. This is a useful framework for understanding the world today.
In short: one always needs an
enemy. A multipolar world never works for long. Recall the 1930s: The First World War was one of nations, and once it was over, in
a fuzzy world blurred by a lack of real antagonism, ideologies became
radicalized at both extremes - far left and extreme right. These were seen as
reference points in a world marked by a deep economic crisis in a wounded
Europe, which was soon to lead the globe into its most deadly ordeal.
Then came, for over 40 years,
the frightful but simple terror of the Cold War, which was marked by two clearly identifiable camps confronting
one another with strong ideologies and around which all human activity was polarized.
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On the other hand, when the
world becomes vague - when there is no longer a dominant model and when
identities must be created from scratch - feelings of fear are grafted onto
what seems to be something homogeneous and secure, giving rise to a mechanism
of withdrawal. Nature abhors a vacuum.
In the world of the 1990s,
when the East-West paralysis disappeared, the end of the Cold War launched the idea that anything was possible. And
what a decade: Saddam Hussein allowed himself to invade Kuwait, the Yugoslav war
flared into mass murder, genocide was quietly perpetrated in the heart of the
African Great Lakes, etc. And all this without the world's policeman, under the
banner of the chaotic "benevolence" of a multipolar world in which
anything is possible.
So by giving us back clear
enemies, a conflict between democrats and terrorists, an "axis of evil,"
George W. Bush and the Islamists offered us in 2001 a new - and
deadly - friend or foe antagonism for the entire decade. A decade that, in fact,
ended in May with the "definitive" end of bin Laden.
So unpolarized moments in
history, during which enemy volatility rises and "the wicked" are to
be cut down, are more fragile than we may think - particularly when they come
along with an economic crisis and a lack of confidence in general.
Now we're once again in the
midst of one of those moments ... When there is no structured ideological grid,
identities are in retreat, and individuals have assembled to defend themselves
against chaos to form smaller, highly-homogeneous and sure identities for fear
of being absorbed into a larger whole. And this fear sweeps away everything in
its path, promotes every extreme and brings forth new antagonisms much more quickly
than one might think. Essentially, a few years beforehand, who would have foreseen
the coming of the Second World War, the identity conflicts of the 1990s or the September 11 attacks?
History, if it has any
meaning at all, is a balance between identities that unfold and retreat, which
battle not to disappear into a homogenous blend and whose richness we all
celebrate, but which nonetheless become diluted, and since the dawn of humanity
have churned out and given birth to distinctive new identities. At the same
time that we rejoice at the end of bin Laden and the end of some dictatorships,
it is healthy to recall: today's joyous chaos may well distract our attention
from the emergence of the "enemies" of tomorrow.
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