The Discourse of Terror: Interview with Judith Butler


[The following text is an extract from Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes’ recent book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (Pluto, 2012), also featuring Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Edward S. Herman, Norman Finkelstein, and others.  Click here for more details.]

To what extent, in your view, do the ways in which mainstream media select and contextualise events determine the boundaries of public thinking?  You have said on one hand, regarding the “framing” of war and terrorism, that, “Efforts to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war delimit public discourse by establishing and disposing the sensuous parameters of reality itself”,[i] but also that “specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality”.[ii]

Judith Butler: There are surely many ways that this happens, but we can note at the most obvious level the way in which forms of resistance or violence get cast as “conflicts” that assume two sides that are fighting only against one another.  We are more often than not asked, for instance, to regard Israel and Palestine as in a conflict of this kind, a framing that sets each of them on equal footing, and implicitly analogises the political situation to a fist fight, a soccer match, or a domestic quarrel.  So if, then, the only two intelligible political positions are “pro-Palestinian” or “pro-Israeli,” the presumption is that one’s position is determined by a sentiment that wants one side to win over the other.  In the meantime, what is lost is any sense that the Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonial rule is waged from a situation of occupation or expulsion, that there is a military order that controls the boundaries of what would be a sovereign Palestinian state, that the land on which that state is now thinkable has been radically diminished by an ongoing practice of land confiscation and appropriation.  So we set the actors on the scene through the banal discourse of “conflict” in ways that fully deflect from the history and struggle of colonial resistance, refusing as well by that means to link the resistance to other forms of colonial resistance, their rationale, and their tactics.

Obviously, visual renditions of war not only establish what can be seen, and the audio-track established what can be heard, but the photographs also “train” us in ways of focusing on targets, ways of regarding suffering and loss.  So photographs can be forms of recruitment, ways of bringing the viewer into the military, as it were. In this way, they prepare us for war, even enlist us in war, at the level of the senses, establishing a sensate regime of war.

Given that, do you think framing, or PR, or even concealment of facts in media and politics decisively damages public awareness on the means and ends of US foreign policy (particularly the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies through unilateral war, and sponsorship of dictatorships or the overthrow of democratic governments)?  Or is there a high level of awareness, which for some reason still does not lead to an outcry, and if so what ideological role does such coverage play?

JB: Perhaps we have to remember that there are forms of outrage that do not lead to any sort of mobilisation, and  there are ways of “registering the facts” that do not lead to outrage.  So if we are trying to account for mobilisation, we have to ask, under what conditions do outraged forms of knowing lead to social mobilisations and movements?  So awareness alone does not suffice, and neither does outrage.  I think something happens only when people find that they are moved with others, find themselves linked or allied in new ways, showing up or speaking out in ways that resonate with one another.  That resonating can be very compelling and lead to moving and speaking more emphatically and with sharper focus.

In your essay, ‘The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and the Risks of Public Critique’, you make the point that labelling as anti-Semitic those who protest Israeli state violence against the Palestinians, is “to seek to control the kind of speech that circulates in the public sphere, to terrorise with the charge of anti-Semitism, and to produce a climate of fear through the tactical use of a heinous judgment with which no progressive person would want to identify.”[iii]  Is the word “terrorise” here deliberately chosen to create resonance with the idea of terrorism itself?  To what extent is this form of political correctness a “linguistic terrorism” that, if effective, helps facilitate state terrorism?

JB: As I read that sentence, I wonder whether I might have meant “terrify us” but perhaps as well there was a less than conscious effort to show that the suppression of debate about Palestine and about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement – within many academic circles – does seek to establish those who would address such issues in speech as already collaborating with “terrorist” regimes, although now only Hamas is officially terrorist according to the US government and its allies.  In any case, the idea that speaking at all on the topic, demanding public space in which to have that debate, is itself an act of complicity with violence, and violence against Israelis, understood as synonymous with Jews, and so violence against Jews, clearly stops the speech with an unspeakable allegation.  If you speak, you are in an unspeakable place, have become a Nazi or its moral equivalent (if there is a moral equivalent).  It certainly terrifies, but perhaps also it is a linguistic permutation of state terrorism, an assault that stops one in one’s tracks, and secures the continuing operation of the regime and its monopoly on politically intelligible speech.

The dominant “Western” political climate today seems to be one in which protecting sections of the population from danger, whether actual or predicted, takes precedence over considerations such as civil liberties or the lives of “non-Western” people.  Surely, however, garnering consent through fear has always been a part of politics, and this is not a specifically modern phenomenon.  What, if anything, distinguishes its current form?

JB: Maybe we need to start with the rethinking of what is “west” and what is “non-west.”  It seems to me that there are any number of populations who already cross that divide, and we could probably point to several existing states that belong exclusively neither to one category nor to the other.  Do we use these terms to designate geographical realities, geopolitical ones, or perhaps sites of power, exploitation, orientalism that move through space and time in ways that have to be tracked historically.

In any case, it is true that non-governmental organisations working within strong human rights frameworks are now confounded by securitarian forms of logic and power that extend the paternalistic bias of their work in new ways.  The state or global forms of power that seek to protect populations considered in danger may well extend their own power through those acts of protection.  Where is democratic process or popular sovereignty for the endangered population?  It cannot be “given” or “allocated” by some other power without that same power claiming the right to withdraw what it gives.  And yet, popular sovereignty has to be given by a people to itself, and this is the important meaning of self-determination.  So the question is whether NGOs that bring protection or aid or reparation therapies are furthering the possibility of self-determination or extending a form of managerial power and paternalism.

You have also pointed out that the notion of safety related to greater security is actually false, and entails great risk.  To accept this security is to put oneself in the hands of authorities – state and corporate – as if they can be completely trusted to act purely in one’s interests.  In fact the less accountable they are the less likely they are to do so.  What does support for such “security” focused policy indicate – is it fear again, or, say, naivety or desperation (a lack of perceived alternative)?

JB: There are doubtless all kinds of ways of explaining why people want security, but I do not think we can start with the psychological explanations.  Even psychological states like fear or desire for safety are conditioned by social and political forms of intimidation and scare-mongering that intensify those emotions, and even work to persuade people that nothing less than their survival is at stake.  So we have to be able track the ways in which fear, for instance, is monopolised by state and media institutions, ways in which fear is actually promoted and distributed as a way of bolstering the need for greater security and militarisation.  I do not mean to say that such institutions act unilaterally on psychic life, or that they determine certain psychic outcomes. Rather, they exploit forms of fear and insecurity that are there for any population – no political organisation of life could ever fully do away with fear and insecurity; but some work to intensify, accelerate, and make more acute forms of fear, and to provide ideological focus for such intensified fears, at which point critical thinking has a fierce rival.  The critical analysis that shows precisely how those forms of fear are promulgated, and for what purpose.  If those forms of criticism are successful, then people can feel rage about having had their fear exploited, and form an analysis at the same time.

What, if any, have been the major shifts in US state discourse during the Obama presidency, especially, for example, given the events of the “Arab Spring?”  Has the US softened its more aggressive post-9/11 rhetoric, even forced to do so because peaceful uprisings like the one in Egypt in early 2011 successfully re-appropriated the meaning of democracy?

JB: I do not follow closely anymore, since there is a limit to how much heartsickness one can bear.  But it is clear that whatever language of democracy Obama and his administration use is very tactically deployed, and has as its main aim the extension of US power and interests.  I am sorry to be so blunt, but I do not see much ambiguity here.  Obama was late to affirm the Egyptian revolution as a democratic movement, and even then he was eager to have installed those military leaders who were known for their practices of torture.  And now he is quick to make allies with the Muslim Brotherhood for tactical reasons as well (though earlier that same administration stoked Islamophobic fear about that very political party).  Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo is yet another instance where the rhetoric of democratic and constitutional rights proved not useful for his international relations, relations which are always pursued in ways that continue to link and fortify securitarian power with the opening of new markets.

In considering dissent, you say that the events of 9/11 “led public intellectuals to waver in their commitment to principles of justice and prompted journalists to take leave of the time-honoured tradition of investigative journalism.”[iv]  But was there really such a shift, or does this romanticise the situation before 9/11?  Would public intellectuals and investigative journalists have made, say, a war on Iraq significantly more difficult if 9/11 hadn’t happened?

JB: I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all investigative journalism prior to 9/11 in the US was praiseworthy.  But there were more examples to which one could point, and there were at last some activist photographers who understood that getting information into the public sphere in spite of military censorship was a right and obligation within democracy.  That strain in war journalism did nearly vanish during that time.

But was it not precisely the complacency and attitude to reporting world affairs and US foreign policy, including US state terrorism, for years before 9/11 that made the reaction that followed it possible?  The event itself, devastating as it was, effectively had no context.  The government was free to write its own narrative because one had not been started earlier (for the most part), and it is far more difficult to undo that now.  Effectively, it was relatively small amount of critical academia and journalism before 9/11 that created a climate in which no other reaction was possible.  Is that a fair analysis?

JB: I am not sure that I know enough about the pre-history of 9/11 to agree or disagree.  But I did think at the time that the Bush administration took a number of cues from the Israeli government, not only by drawing on and intensifying anti-Arab racism, but by insisting that the attack on US government and financial buildings was an attack on “democracy” and by invoking “security at all costs” to wage war without a clear focus (why the Taliban?), and by suspending both constitutional rights and the regular protocol for congressional approval for declaring war.  The Gulf War was a clear precedent as well, and it let us begin to understand how the US government would go to war to secure strategic oil reserves and potential markets.

Jean Baudrillard wrote about 9/11 “that we have dreamt of this event, that everyone without exception has dreamt of it – because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree”, but this “is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience.”[v]  What do you think of this idea, or the implications that follow from it – firstly, that “we” must be almost relieved at the opportunity, given by the War on Terror, to transfer our guilt to the “terrorist”; secondly, that this relief brings its own guilt, and imbeds us even more deeply in a complex relationship with a power we become collectively responsible for, and must defend, despite understanding its inherent violence?

JB: Perhaps that view is too totalising.  It is true that one was not allowed at the time to really ask, what would lead people to do this, from what sense of political outrage or injury?  And in that way, the possibility of sympathetic identification was foreclosed.  That does not mean that some people took quiet pleasure in certain icons of US capitalism coming down, even though they would oppose such action on moral and political grounds.  So a different kind of pleasure surfaced in the aftermath, the pleasure of seeing the towers fall time and again, the experience of being entranced by the visual spectacle, and then also the very graphic forms of public mourning for exemplary citizens (taking place at the same time as the refusal to mourn the undocumented, the foreign, gay and lesbian lives lost there, for example).  I am not sure that the guilt over the pleasure re-installed the good citizen.  I think maybe the destructive pleasure got turned into the destructive pleasure of war (something we see still in the images of US soldiers urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban soldiers).  Something of the pleasure in destruction gets unleashed, and then becomes part of war effort rationalised first as revenge (or justice defined as revenge).  But then it takes new forms, as we see now.  The pleasurable part of public mourning can also lead to a sense of self-sanctification that justifies in advance any war effort, whether or not the target and destruction are in any way related to the initial event.

Is it possible to imagine a non-violent response to something like 9/11?  Is it not the case that with such an act of violence (inevitably taken as aggression, even if part of an ongoing cycle) the only response is self-preservation at the expense of the attacker, continuing the cycle?  Or, is the claim of revenge more a systemic inevitability, that there is no way at least within the current model of capitalist global relations that the reaction could have been anything other than more terrorism?

JB: I think that many of the mobilisations against the wars waged by the US and its allies since 2001 have been non-violent and massive.  We have seen them throughout European capitals and in the US, and in many other parts of the world as well.  So it is not only imaginable, but already actual.  If you are asking whether states and state actors can only respond through revenge, then you are suggesting that diplomatic solutions are hopeless.  I wonder about economic sanctions, though, since that is a way that states engage in boycotts against one another.  But because Al-Qaeda has been a non-state centred organisation, many of these scenarios do not exactly apply.  These are not wars between states.  And yet, it seems to me that we make a mistake if we accept the view that states are fighting terrorism, since we have abundant evidence for accepting the idea of state terrorism, and what is most urgent is to track and expose how state terrorism operates under the rubric of “democracy.”

In discussing pictures of Guantanamo Bay from 2002, you point out that “the DOD [US Department of Defense] did  not hide these photos, but published them openly.”  One conclusion you draw from this is that “they published these photographs to make known that a certain vanquishing had taken place, the reversal of national humiliation, a sign of successful vindication.”[vi]  However, do you think there was also an implied threat there too – a message that, as due process is no longer applicable to “terror suspects,” anyone is vulnerable if they do not conform?

JB: Yes, of course.  The photographs are warnings, but also badges of pride.  In other words, it is a way of saying that we will without any shame torture and kill you, and you should not forget that.  It is also a way of establishing the national “we” as one who only has the power to torture and destroy, but who will not be destroyed, will emerge as indestructible.  Of course, it is a fantasy at the same time that it is an instrumentalisation of power.  And it lets us see the link between them, which can be an important point of departure for a critical cultural practice against war, which would include another photography and another form of crafting the senses.

And the enemy in this case is not necessarily a foreigner.  Is it fair to say here perhaps that the US state does terrorise, rather than terrify, its own population?

JB: Those it arrests without cause and imprisons without due process, those it stops on the borders or detains indefinitely on off-shore prisons are clearly terrorised by state power.  Those who fear that such fates might become their own are terrified, but we can see how state terrorisation is already at work in the experience of being terrified.

i. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London and New York: Verso, 2010), p.xi.
ii. Ibid., p.xiii.
iii. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2004), p.120.
iv. Ibid., p.xi.
v. Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (London and New York: Verso, 2002), p.5.
vi. Butler, Precarious Life, pp.77–8.