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HALL OF FAMEon 24 May 2006
As Borradori states in his introduction, 'Both [Habermas and Derrida] hold that terrorism is an elusive concept that exposes the global political arena to imminent dangers as well as future challenges.' I think that this sums up what many people feel about the war on terrorism - unlike conflicts such as World War I and World War II, or even the more vaguely defined Cold War or Vietnam war, this is a war where there the front-line can be anywhere and nowhere, where the enemies can be anyone and no one, and where the tactics, strategies, motives and hoped-for achievables are so far removed from what traditional political and military methodology deals with that it requires a paradigm shift in our thinking. 'While the Cold War was characterized by the possibility of balance between two superpowers, it is impossible to build a balance with terrorism because the threat does not come from a state but from incalculable forces and incalculable responsibilities.'

As is typical of Derrida, he sees the relationship between terrorism and communication to be paramount. (I was first exposed to Derrida in theology classes, dealing with the postmodern predicament of looking for meaning in language and behind language in ways that make sense). It is perhaps ironic that the term that springs to mind most when contemplating Derrida is 'deconstruction', which is, in often a dramatically literal sense, what terrorism also hopes to achieve. 'The intellectual grounding of Derrida's deconstruction owes much to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century lineage constituted by Nietzsche, Heidegger and Freud. For Derrida, many of the principles to which the Western tradition has attributed universal validity do not capture what we all share or even hope for.' This becomes all the more problematic when dealing with those outside the Western tradition, such as occurred in Vietnam, Korea, and now in the war on terror.

For Derrida, communication is not simply political. 'Derrida engaged the themes of terror as a psychological and metaphysical state as well as terrorism as a political category.' This draws upon philosophical ideas that can reinterpret the events in various ways, as plays out in various media outlets even to this day. But the events of 9/11 for Derrida are not surprising. 'Was 9/11 truly unpredictable? Not for Derrida. ... The kind of attack that the terrorists launched in 2001 had already been prefigured in detail by the technocinematic culture of our days.'

Habermas also sees communication as a critical element. One issue for Habermas is the speed of modern mass communication - it 'works in the interest of those who select and distribute the information rather than those who receive it. Habermas suggests that the pressure of thinking and evaluating data quickly has a political import, because it facilitates an experience of politics based on the persona of the actors rather than the ideas that each of them defends.' Habermas' theory of communicative action, including its idea of violence as distorted communication, shows the importance of perception, understanding, critical analysis and response.

'Habermas understands modernity to be a change in belief attitude rather than a coherent body of beliefs. A belief attitude indicates the way in which we believe rather than what we believe in. Thus, fundamentalism has less to do with any specific text or religious dogma and more to do with the modality of belief.' This fits in many ways when one commentator I read recently who discussed the overall state of Muslim theology, expressing the understanding that the Muslims have never gone through a period of Reformation as Christendom did, nor have Muslims come to embrace the idea of a society and nation-state separate from religious. Indeed, we can hear echoes of this latter idea in political speech in America, often from groups that can be described as (and often embrace the term) fundamentalist. This will continue to be an issue in the war on terror.

Another issue for Habermas will be the issue of nation-state vs. international organisation power. 'Habermas is convinced that what separates the present moment from a full transition to cosmopolitanism is not only a theoretical matter but a practical one, too, for the decisions of the international community need to be respected. ... Unfortunately, the power differential between national and international authorities threatens to weaken the legitimacy of any military intervention and to retool police action as war.' This has been true not just in the twentieth century, but previously as well. The Congress of Vienna, the League of Nations, and the United Nations have all failed to have power to counter the superpowers of their times; alliances such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact relied heavily on one particular partner.

For both Derrida and Habermas, the war on terror is not as simple as Arab vs. West, Muslim against Christian/post-Christian society, or particular nations against one another. Perhaps had this been written after the recent situation with the Dubai acquisition of American ports being stopped, they would have pointed out that once again, our definitions and communicative premises fail - how does one balance the idea that foreign ownership of ports is unwise with the fact that few are concerned when British, Canadian, Australian or Norwegian firms do the same? There is a lack of definition about it all, even when all the words we use, to bring about clarity. The war on terror might be the quintessential post-modern situation.
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