With what measureless naivety has the twenty-first-century democratic citizen managed to be surprised when hate breaks down his door? He has—along with his father and his father’s father—witnessed, directly or indirectly, wars, murderous revolutions, and the genocides that were the last century’s specialty. How could he believe himself immune? “Not here, not me,” he told himself. But then, on September 11, 2001, Americans saw several thousand of their own assassinated, for no reason. There they were, unsuspecting, in their usual places, at work or at a café, white, black, and yellow, housewife and banker, when they suddenly realized that they were targets of an indiscriminate, merciless will to kill.

A pitiless new day is dawning. The powers of the inhuman and the efficacy of hatreds mutate dangerously. A generation that worked diligently to tame the threat of nuclear war finds itself driven toward a horizon more frightening to contemplate than the one it dreamed of avoiding. Now it must try again to think the unthinkable, to leave the era of the H-bomb and enter the time of the human bomb.

Barely two generations separate us from the shock of Hiroshima, whose terrifying force we have tried over the decades to neutralize. At the time, overcome by the unprecedented event, Jean-Paul Sartre, along with many others, described a fundamental break in history: “The community that has made itself the custodian of the atomic bomb is above the natural realm, since it is responsible for life and death: it will now be necessary that each day, each minute, it consent to live.” Irreversibly endowed with the power to blow up the world, mankind became defined by its capacity for universal homicide, and thus for suicide. The previously unimaginable capacity to put an end to the human adventure remained the privilege first of a single nuclear power, then of two, and then of seven.

But soon, people grew used to the new condition. Coexistence on the edge of the cliff, a balance of terror, seemed more and more reasonable. The prospect of mutual annihilation for the rival powers chilled bellicose passions. Five billion vaguely concerned men and women attended to their affairs and delegated—democratically or not—the ultimate care for their survival to a small number of political leaders. For half a century, we fashioned our peace, both external and internal, according to Sartre’s fragile axiom: “The atomic bomb is not available to just anyone; the crazy person [who unleashed Armageddon] would have to be a Hitler.”

Great confusion understandably resulted when this certainty disintegrated before our eyes, exploded by human bombs in Manhattan. An annihilating power is available today, or will soon be available, to just about anyone; the destructive will of an enemy without borders, equivalent to Nazi dreams, targets civilians: this combination amounts to a do-it-yourself Hitler kit. How can one make sense of, how can one neutralize, a human bomb?

The history of our last 100 years consists of a number of unexpected ruptures, of which September 11 is the most recent. Revelations so powerful as to rob us of breath have confronted us with the scorched face of a human condition too troubling, too overwhelming, to perceive during ordinary times. Rare but decisive moments of truth have short-circuited current opinions. Respected traditions have yielded to the greater strength of a searing realization. The events broke out like lightning in a calm sky, like the storm before the shipwreck.

These poor metaphors inadequately represent the irresistible enthusiasm of August 1914, which plunged Belle Époque Europe—enlightened, unaware, and tranquil—into the abyss. The declaration of war, the unexpected zeal, the joyful mobilization on all sides—in the end, these overturned the material, economic, and social foundations of the old continent, wounding civilians in their flesh and in their spirit, shaking their convictions and their faith. But this amazing reversal of values came to light only after the fact, little by little. In 1915, Freud, among the first to describe it, unveiled the prodigious “disappointment” or “disillusion” of the war, a war that rejected “all the restrictions pledged in times of peace.” The “blind rage” that our civilizations unknowingly harbored “hurls down . . . whatever bars its way, as though there were to be no future and no peace after it is over.” The inventor of psychoanalysis detected at the heart of the human condition a “death wish,” burrowing silently beneath the pleasure principle, the musical and deceptive call of Eros.

Four years later, the peace treaties were signed but nothing was settled. Those who insisted on worshiping at the altar of soporific right thinking—those who thought that conflict had become obsolete—were swept away in less than 20 years. “The asses!” whispered France’s prime minister, Édouard Daladier, after winning a plebiscite for saving the “peace” by backing down from Nazi Germany; he had expected—wanted—to lose. The upheaval of World War I had produced only partial truths; history would repeat its tragic warnings more harshly still.

World War II was hardly over when the need to think through its horrors—Auschwitz, the atom bomb, millions dead—became pressing. Les Temps Modernes, the journal for European intellectuals after the war, set the tone for a whole generation, at least until disagreements between its founding editors, Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, tore it apart. Even in its first issue, in 1945, Merleau-Ponty showed scant respect for the sleepwalking intellectual elders who had guided his studies: “We knew that the concentration camps existed, that the Jews were persecuted, but these certainties belonged to the universe of thought. We did not yet live in the presence of the cruelty of death; we had never confronted the alternative of submitting to them or confronting them.” Sartre, a few pages removed, was no more sanguine: “We believed without proof that peace was the natural state and the substance of the universe, that war was only a temporary agitation on its surface. Today, we recognize our error: the end of war was merely the end of this war.”

It is doubtful whether these authors’ writings and commitments after 1945 truly addressed the radicality of the existential problem that they raised here. Indeed, twice in one century, unprecedented conflicts drove a kind of questioning that turned out to be more important, more profound than the answers that intellectual elites dispensed to prove their innocence and to comfort fragile souls. The answers camouflaged the truth. The questioning, by contrast, reflected the true image—scrambled and torn—of man reduced to nothing.

Western universities had for two centuries taken pride in responding in Enlightened terms to critical questions: What can one know? What must one do? For what may one hope? These were, according to Immanuel Kant, three different ways—learned, moral, and religious—to formulate the question of questions: What is man? After 1918, and still more after 1945, the idea of man became equivocal. In the dark light of mass graves that assumed an increasingly planetary scale, other questions took priority: What about the inhumanity of man? About what is it necessary to despair?

The European conflict offered not just the truth of the man in uniform but that of man stripped naked—the truth of man purged of the illusions of guaranteed peace, whether a Roman or a modern peace, an internal or an external one. Terrible ordeals tear individuals from their false shelters and rose-colored dreams, summoning society to face the hardness of reality. In the best case, Aeschylus teaches, the lesson enables one to move from passion to reason, or, more precisely, from the experience of suffering to the knowledge of that experience. This tragic understanding consists of awareness of the human condition and of its limits.

More often, though, one runs up against the limits of awareness. The worst of the storm has barely passed, and one is busy “moving on”—renovating dead-end roads, regilding the clocks of Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. We turn away from reality and its truths, which are neither easy to live with nor pleasant to talk about. Before long, repression is complete.

Will repression overtake us again as we get further from the revelation of 9/11? “Who is a terrorist?” we increasingly hear. The despot or invader says: Terrorists are all those who take part in irregular warfare, led by nonuniformed combatants against those in uniform. This was Napoleon’s definition as he engaged Spanish and Russian guerrillas; and the Nazis’ as they hunted down resistance movements.

A better definition of terrorism is a deliberate attack by armed men on unarmed civilians. Terrorism is aggression against civilians as civilians, inevitably taken by surprise and defenseless. Whether the hostage-takers and killers of innocents are in uniform or not, or what kind of weapons they use—whether bombs or blades—does not change anything; neither does the fact that they may appeal to sublime ideals. The only thing that counts is the intention to wipe out random victims. The systematic resort to the car bomb, to suicide attacks, randomly killing as many passersby as possible, defines a specific style of engagement. When, after Saddam Hussein’s fall, terrorist attacks multiplied in Iraq, they spared no one, especially not Iraqis: schoolchildren in buses or on sidewalks, men and women at the market, the faithful at prayer.

When the naive, the falsely naive, and the downright evil blur categories in support of their ideological prejudices and christen the killer of innocents a “resistance fighter,” more lucid minds disclose a different landscape. Consider an editorial published in a Lebanese paper on August 20, 2003, the day after a bomb-laden cement truck destroyed the United Nations’ center of operations in Baghdad: “Yesterday’s operation against the Baghdad headquarters of the United Nations exemplifies this mentality of destruction. Expel all mediators. Banish every international organization. Let things collapse. Let electricity and water be cut off, and the pumping of oil cease. Let theft prevail. Let universities and schools close. Let businesses fail. Let civic life cease. And at the end of the day the occupation will fail. ‘No!’ protests Joseph Samara, ‘at the end of the road, there will be a catastrophe for Iraq. . . . The attack against the United Nations’ headquarters in Baghdad belongs to another world: it is a form of nihilism, of absurdity, and of chaos hiding behind fallacious slogans, which proves the convergence among those responsible for this action, their intellectual limitation and their criminal behavior.’ ”

We have entered another world. The threat of a new Ground Zero, small or great, advances behind a mask. The human bomb claims the power to strike anywhere, by any means, at any time, spreading his nocturnal threat over the globe, invisible and thus unpredictable, clandestine and thus untraceable. The terrorist without borders makes us think about him always, everywhere. Without an accidental delay on the tracks—just a few minutes—the pulverization of two trains in Madrid, at the Atocha station, would have claimed 10,000 victims, three times more than in Manhattan. Then there was London. Whose turn is next? Each of us waits for the next explosion.

The business of terrorists, after all, is to terrorize—so said Lenin, an uncontested master in the field. The ultimate refinement lies in the inversion of responsibility. Operating instructions: I take hostages, I cut off their heads, I show them on video; those who beg for mercy must address themselves to their governments, who alone are to blame for my crimes: my hubris is their problem. The less the terrorist’s restraint, the more he causes fear and the sooner you will yield in tears, or so he believes.

Recall the cries of hostage Nick Berg, agonizing as his torturers persisted laboriously over his bent body. “You know, when we behead someone, we enjoy it,” one of them informs us. “We did not kidnap to frighten those we hold,” another corrects him, “but to put pressure on the countries that help or might help the Americans. . . . It is not a good thing to decapitate, but it is a method that works. In a fight, Americans tremble. . . . Besides, I tried to negotiate an exchange of prisoners for Nick Berg. It was the Americans who refused. They are the ones truly responsible for his death.” Terrorist hubris bases its arguments on uncontrollable drives: I can’t help myself—give up! A similar strategy shows up on playgrounds: Stop me or I’ll do something terrible! The terrorist refines this rationale; he draws out his pleasure, prolongs death, cuts the throat slowly, goes beyond physical torture.

To resurrect the dead, if only by video, in order to execute them a second time: this compulsion prolongs war infinitely from the other side of life. It is pure hatred. A traditional war, however savage, comes to an end. Terrorist war, given over to limitless fury, knows no cease-fire. For the demonstration of force it substitutes the demonstration of hatred, which, nourished by its own atrocities, becomes inextinguishable.

Nowhere is this demonstration more visible than in Iraq. For a long time, the mental sin of Western armies was to dive into a new conflict as if they were fighting the previous war. This weakness now affects pundits and politicians, who reproach the U.S. for getting bogged down in “another Vietnam.” But Zarqawi was not Ho Chi Minh. No geopolitical fact permits us to impose the framework of the last great hot war of the cold war on the current situation in Iraq. Every month, thousands of Iraqis fall, indiscriminate victims of terror—over 500 peaceful Iraqi Yezidis on August 14 of this year, in the deadliest terrorist attack since September 11—while the total number of American soldiers killed in four years is approximately 3,600. In Iraq, then, what rages is a war of terror against civilians, not a war of independence against an occupying foreign army and its indigenous military supporters. Vietnam is far away; those who miss Woodstock forget that the world has changed in 40 years.

What threatens Iraqi society is not Vietnamization but Somalization. Recall Operation Restore Hope, in which an international force, led by Americans, disembarked in Mogadishu in 1993, seeking to ensure the survival of a population that was starving and being massacred by rival clans. After losing 19 in a horrific trap, the GIs left. The rest is well known. An angry President Clinton swore “never again,” and a year later refused to intervene in Rwanda, where 5,000 blue helmets would have been enough to interrupt the genocide that wiped out as many as 1 million Tutsi in three months.

The Somalian model has spread across the planet, from the Congo to chaotic East Timor to Afghanistan, where the Taliban have violently resurfaced, to Iraq. Populations are taken hostage, terrorized, and sacrificed, the spoils of wars by local gangsters. Under various pretexts—religion, ethnicity, makeshift racist or nationalist ideology—commandos contend for power at the point of AK-47s. They fight against unarmed populations; most of their victims are women and children. Terrorism is not the prerogative of Islamists alone: the targeting of civilians has been used by a regular army and by militias under the command of the Kremlin in Chechnya, where the capital city of Grozny was razed to the ground. Where the killers appeal to the Koran, it is still primarily Muslim passersby who suffer. Algeria, Somalia, and Darfur (at least 200,000 dead and millions of refugees in just a few years, with the Sudanese government, protected by China and Russia, acting with impunity) are live laboratories of the abomination of abominations: war against civilians.

Between 1945 and 1989, the war between Eastern and Western blocs was a cold one, in Europe as in North America. Everywhere else, however, there were outbreaks of revolution and counterrevolution, coups d’états and massacres. Never before were human societies so shaken as during that brief half-century, in which colonial empires crumbled, but in which, all too often, the uprisings, insurrections, and wars of liberation gave birth to new despotisms. Centuries-old regimes, customs, and bonds were destroyed. As a result of this world-historical earthquake, two-thirds of the globe’s population lost its bearings. These people can no longer live as before. Nor can they—yet, says the optimist—exist as tranquil citizens of Western-style liberal democracies.

Across the world, breeding grounds have as a consequence formed for young and not-so-young warriors, who—uniformed or not—prove equally eager to conquer homes, women, and wealth, equally ready to use machine guns or mortars to take control of the countryside or to use car bombs or human bombs to dominate urban slums. Ambitious and unscrupulous forces readily exploit these breeding grounds, sponsoring diverse terrorist groups to gain power.

The war unleashed this process in Iraq. Would it have been better, therefore, not to have overthrown Saddam Hussein and to have allowed him another decade to complete his horrible record of tortures, mutilations, and corpses—1 or 2 million victims in a quarter-century? The Iraqis, despite the threat of murder, have gone to the polls three times, en masse; they do not seem to regret the dictator’s fall. Should the GIs and their allies now withdraw, as in Somalia? Even some anti-American governments must cross their fingers against the possibility of abandoning the terrain to the beheaders.

The fight to avoid the Somalization of the planet is just beginning, and it will probably dominate the twenty-first century. If they resist the sirens of isolationism, Americans will learn from their mistakes. Europe will either resolve to help them or abandon itself to the care of the petro-czar Vladimir Putin, who stands ready to police the old continent, while preaching antiterrorist terrorism, with his devastation of Chechnya as a case in point. The borderless challenge of emancipated warriors allows us little leisure for procrastination.

Astrophysicists have found, wandering in the starry expanse, certain black holes. When faraway stars come into contact with them, the stars disappear, along with their planets, swallowed by bottomless darkness. From the beginning, human civilizations have existed alongside analogous moral abysses, which foreshadow an end of all things. According to tradition, such annihilation suggests a jealous and vengeful divinity, or malevolent demons.

In their endeavor to understand the black holes that threaten societies, the inventors of Western philosophy, comparing them to natural cataclysms, earthquakes, volcanoes, and epidemics, refused to see in them a supernatural sanction or to deny the responsibility of mortals. If God is not a cause, the darkness that threatens to overtake humanity is human, irreducible to an impersonal fate. The destructive principle inheres in us, whether we know it or not—this is the persistent message of the tragedians. Hate moves like Thucydides’s plague, not a purely physiological condition but an essentially mental disorder, which takes over bodies, minds, and society. The idea of a contagion of hatred must be taken literally: hatred spreads hatred, an outbreak that inoculates itself against all who oppose it.

Maybe one day, we will view the last century with nostalgia, even if it was dealt Auschwitz and Hiroshima. For today’s terrorism strives to mix these two ingredients into new cocktails of horror. During the cold war, the threat to man was dual: one, between two blocs, involved reciprocal annihilation; the other, terrorist, confined the savage extermination of civilian populations to the interior of each camp. Today, global terrorism eliminates geostrategic borders and traditional taboos. The last seconds of the condemned of Manhattan, of Atocha, and of the London Underground sent us two messages: “Here abandon all hope,” the Dantesque injunction carried by a bomb that wipes the slate clean; and “Here there is no reason why,” the nihilist gospel of SS officers. Hiroshima signified the technical possibility of a desert that approaches closer and closer to the absolute; Auschwitz represented the deliberate and lucid pursuit of total annihilation. The conjunction of these two forms of the will to nothingness looms in the black holes of modern hatred.

Imre Kertész was twice a survivor, once from the death camps and then again from Communism; saved by literature, he was Hungary’s first Nobel Prize winner. He writes: “Some day we should analyze the mass of resentments that bring the contemporary mind to scorn reason; we should undertake an intellectual history of the hatred of the intellect.” The various forms of racism, chauvinism, fanaticism, and the apparent rebirth of an aggression that was thought to be a thing of the past surprise us. Should we not be surprised at our surprise? The understandable but wrongheaded choice to sleep peacefully, whatever the price, puts us all in jeopardy.

Photo by Abid Katib/Getty Images


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