Friday, August 15, 2008

Our Unbearable Potency

On page 148 of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Just War Against Terror, The Burden of American Power in a violent World, she writes, “It appears to be the season of anti-Americanism, some of it bizarre. The cultural analyst Alexander Stille sketched the highly popular views of the famous French intellectual and philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who expressed ‘” vast jubilation” over the September attacks.’ Baudrillard delighted ‘at seeing the destruction of this world superpower’ and claimed that because of ‘its unbearable potency,’ the United States ‘has roused all the world’s innate violence, and thus (without knowing it) the terrorist imagination that dwells in all of us.’”

Further down, Elshtain writes, “One French social commentator, Alain Minc, suggests that Baudrillard has fallen victim to a confusion of the virtual and the real. Minc believes that Baudrillard equates the make-believe world of Disneyland (with which Baudrillard has long been obsessed) and its attempts to simulate a kind of ‘reality’ what never existed with a real attack in which ‘thousands . . . were killed in cold blood. Enraptured by his own verbal prestidigitation, [Baudrillard] has turned mass murder into a “beautiful suicide.”’ Stille concludes that ‘only a French philosopher could turn reality on its head in such a rhetorical flourish’ and find the events of September 11 breathtaking and beautiful.”

Elshtain concludes this chapter by writing, “In the final analysis, the reaction of the European intellectuals I have criticized is fueled more by resentment and envy of American power and dynamism than by a principled concern about the use of force. If the latter were the real issue, much more would be said about it. Instead, we are subjected to one attack after another on bellicose Americans, with precious little nuanced reflection of when, under what set of provocations, and within what restraints, force is ever justified. Yes, American power is an extraordinary thing, and it can be used well or it can be used badly. What is America’s special burden in light of its extraordinary power?”

Elshtain believes that we have sought and indeed are fighting just wars according to Western standards. Islam, however, doesn’t have the same concept of “Just War” that we do. In 1993 she attended a conference on “the Ethics of War and Peace” at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. An Islamic scholar, Bassam Tibi, professor of International Relations, who had written on Islam, War, and Modernity, told them:

“[The] Western distinction between just and unjust wars linked to specific grounds for war is unknown in Islam. Any war against unbelievers, whatever its immediate ground, is morally justified. Only in this sense can one distinguish just and unjust wars in Islamic tradition. When Muslims wage war for the dissemination of Islam, it is a just war. . . . When non-Muslims attack Muslims, it is an unjust war. The usual Western interpretation of jihad as a ‘just war’ in the Western sense is therefore, a misreading of this Islamic concept.”

Thus the Islamic Civilization (using S. P. Huntington’s use of the term), if one believes Tibi, is clear about what it is fighting for. That is why there was no widespread outburst of Islamic outrage when 11 Muslims crashed planes into the twin towers. We in the West, however, are far from clear about what we are fighting for. We quickly empowered G. W. Bush to do the sort of thing Presidents are expected to do, namely punish the enemies who attacked us and do everything possible to make sure additional such attacks didn’t occur. Most of us (at least most of us not overwhelmed by self-loathing) understood and appreciated that. But Baudrillard (not a Muslim but a Westerner) could express “vast jubilation” at the event because he objected to our Unbearable Potency. Unfortunately there is an enormous number that share in his “vast jubilation.” I suppose, following the principles of “just war,” and being better nuanced, we shall just have to bear their unbearable impotence.

Lawrence Helm

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