The 20th century will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body, but the enemy’s environment. This is the basic idea of terrorism in the more explicit sense. Shakespeare prophetically articulated its principle through Shylock’s line: “You take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live.” ¹. Of such means, economic conditions excepted, critical attention today is focused on the essential environmental condition for human survival. By working on the enemy’s environment, these new process, which consist in suppressing the basic prerequisite for life, yield the contours of a specifically modern, post-Hegelian concept of terror.² Indeed, twentieth-century terror was considerably more than the “I-have-the-right-because-O-want-to” attitude whereby Jacobin self-consciousness would trample over the corpse of those who stood in the way of its freedom; it also bore a fundamental difference to the anarchist and nihilist attacks of the latter third of the 19th century, which were aimed more at a pre-revolutionary destabilization of the late-aristocratic and bourgeois societal order.³ In the end, neither can it be confused, in terms of method or objective, with the phobocratic techniques of onetime or future dictatorships, which consist essentially in the use of a calculated micture of “ceremony and terror” to bring their own population to submit. The terror of our times consists in the emergence of a knowledge of modernized elimination that passes through a theory of the environment, the strength of which is that it enables the terrorist to understand his victim better than they understand themselves . If an enemy’s body can no longer be liquidated with direct hits, then the attacker is forced to make his continued existence impossible by his direct immersion in an unlivable milieu for sufficiently long period of time.

Terror From The Air by Peter Sloterdijk, tr. by Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran, Los Angeles: Semiotext, 2009 © (Originally published in 2002 as Luftbeben by Editions Suhrkamp, Frankfurt) See the editor official website for this book.

I find the general concept of an “environmental terrorism” to be quite helpful in trying to understand some of the outbursts of violence responsible for shaking the very fabric that hold us (society, community) together. Maybe it could even shed some interesting light on the dynamic of mass murders. The problem consisting of identifying mass murder with terrorism was raised lately by the case of Major Nidal Malik Hasan. It was put forward once more this week-end when American media relayed a statement made by Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner:

“If I define terrorist then a terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon. I define terrorist,” he wrote. “If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is ad hominem. You call me a terrorist.” (The New York Times: “Arizona Suspect’s Recent Acts Offer Hints of Alienation” by Eric Lipton, Charlie Sacage and Scott Shane, January 8, 2011)

One thing though: I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that Jared Lee Loughner “[understands] his victim better than they understand themselves”. Maybe this calls for yet another concept of terror, one where the perpetrators wouldn’t have a clear understanding of their violent actions (The New York Times article quoted above insisted on the fact that many of the statements Jared Lee Loughner made online prior to the murders appear to be incoherent).

¹ The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I.
² Cf. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, New York 1979, p. 359. According to Hegel, terror actualizes “the discrete, absolute hard rigidity and self-willed atomism of actual self-consciousness… The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, a death too which has no inner significance or filling, for what is negated is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting of a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouth full of water” (ibid., p. 360).
³ For a description emphazing the difference between individual terror and state terrorism, see Albert Camus, L’homme révolté, Paris 1951, in The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, New York: Vintage, 1992, pp. 149-233.
Cf. Joachim Fest, Hitler. Eine Biographie, Munich: Ulstein, 2000, p. 294. Published in English as: Hitler, Trans. Richard and CLara Wilson, Orlando, AUstin, New York, San Diego, Toronto: Hartcourt, 1974.


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