The game of war

The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers

Jean Baudrillard, translated by Chris Turn

The tradition of French apologists for terror is as long as it is undistinguished. From the fall of the Girondins in 1793 to Michel Foucault's impassioned defence of the Iranian revolution of 1979, French intellectual life has been shaped by revolutionary violence; indeed, it is one of the founding myths of French political thought. The publication, then, of these essays by two leading French thinkers and a fellow-traveller on the events of 11 September 2001, and their aftermath, is, to say the least, intriguing.

A couple of years ago, I saw Jean Baudrillard give a lecture in Paris. Solidly built - nothing of the fey academic about him - he spoke with an almost Presbyterian rigour and passion about the war in Kosovo and how a cult of victimhood had become the defining issue of international politics, at least from the point of view of western intervention. The problem with the Kosovo conflict, he said, was not that Milosevic was evil, but that the Kosovar Albanians had been portrayed as helpless victims in need of "our" aid. What can be called the Steven Spielberg version of history meant that, from Auschwitz to the Gaza Strip, politics in the 20th century had been abolished in favour of sentiment and emotional hypocrisy.

Baudrillard is notorious in the English-speaking world for his declaration, made in late 1990, that the "Gulf war did not take place". By this, he did not mean that nothing had happened in the deserts of Iraq, but that the conflict had really taken place in the western media, and had no real meaning outside of that space. In this sense, the Gulf war confirmed Baudrillard's theories of "simulacrum" and "hyperreality" - parallel ways of describing how all contemporary phenomena, from pornography to war, exist at an untouchable distance from everyday life.

The obvious challenge of 11 September, for Baudrillard, is that the slaughter took place in real time and in a real space. This, as he recognises, makes it impossible for him to theorise in any meaningful way on the metaphorical possibilities of a virtual conflict. Instead, he argues that what happened in September last year was a form of "spectacular Evil" that destroyed for ever the possibility of consensus politics in the global arena. Baudrillard describes how the destruction of the twin towers, as representatives of global power, had been the secret, unspoken fantasy of all those who had to any extent opposed such power. What he calls the "spirit of terrorism" is the waking nightmare of fantasy become reality, which means that in the west, we are all, whether of the right or left, now engaged in a murderous game, the rules of which are constantly being changed, not according to the globalised strategies of the western powers, but according to the inscrutable, ultimately unknowable, demands of "the enemy".

Baudrillard's essay was originally published in Le Monde, alongside an equally illuminating article by the Tangier-based writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, who emphasised the dangers of the new, unpredictable rules of international lawmaking. "The new rules are ferocious," Baudrillard concurs, "because the game is ferocious."

Baudrillard, perhaps unexpectedly for his detractors, offers a sober and hardheaded commentary on the events of last September and their aftermath. Significantly, there is no trace of the specious and pretentious nihilism that is so often claimed as the hallmark of his thinking. Rather, he offers a clear analysis of the terrible miscalculations in the west that have brought us to this point, and which seem to offer us no way back from the spectral "war on terrorism".

Paul Virilio is equally bleak, but casts his net far wider than Baudrillard. He presents a gloomy overview of present cultural conditions in the west, which he pronounces as moribund and "morally rudderless". Despite his often convoluted arguments, Virilio is able to reach simple, if blindingly obvious, conclusions: the attack on the World Trade Center was a declaration of total war; Osama Bin Laden is a war criminal. But because western civilisation is rubbish, he writes, in an Inspector Clouseau-like echo of Oswald Spengler and Frazer in Dad's Army, we're all doomed anyway.

There are some interesting, if peculiar, insights here. But the overall effect of this book is to confirm Anglo-American prejudices about the redundancy of Marxist and post-Marxist intellectuals in a world that has abolished Big Ideas as the determining forces in human history.

The thrust of Slavoj Zizek's essay is that 11 September offered the United States "an opportunity to realise what kind of world it was part of" and, he says, jabbing his finger even harder, to feel "responsibility and guilt towards the impoverished third world". That the Americans refused to seize the opportunity to indulge in a festival of self-loathing served merely to confirm their wickedness. This is by now a long-familiar and, in some quarters, even respectable position to hold. The real problem here is that Zizek is unwilling to distinguish between the American government, which may well be bad or at least dim-witted, and the American people, who may not be as familiar as Zizek with the nuances of thought of Giorgio Agamben but who, as a walk down a New York street will reveal, are far more diverse in looks, ideas and opinions than he ever gives them credit for. It does not help matters that the book is written in the irritating and ingratiating jargon of cultural studies textbooks of the 1980s, with its multi-layered and dismal puns and its references to anything from Apocalypse Now Redux to the Monkees.

Zizek seizes the moral high ground and, with all the haughtiness of the clever-dick academic that he is, proceeds to lecture us from it. But this is not scholarship or original thought. It is simple exhibitionism of a particularly nasty sort. Most ignorantly, he accuses the Americans of exploiting their status as victims, without ever seeming to grasp that the ordinary men and women who were killed or maimed that day were, in the most real and terrible sense, victims. If they were later exploited as such, it was as part of a process that was beyond their control.

Each of these writers is correct to assume that we need philosophy more than ever in the face of great events, if only to separate real thought and feelings from emotional blackmail and hysteria. But it is also one of the tasks of the philosopher, at least according to Montaigne, to confront morality with compassion. The inability to do this - which exposes the limits of so-called postmodern thought and its avatars - may yet prove to be one of the most sinister legacies of 11 September.

Andrew Hussey is the author of The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord (Pimlico)