Regarding others: Habermas and Derrida on terrorism

Lee Corbett, University of New South Wales

G. Borradori Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003 (224 pp). ISBN 0-22606-664-9 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

Susan Sontag wrote eloquently in Regarding the Pain of Others that ‘if the goal is having some space in which to live one’s own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into a more general understanding that human beings everywhere do terrible things to each other’ (Sontag 2003, p. 103). She draws our attention to the fact that the most distressing and apparently ineradicable violence is that perpetuated in the name of peoples, states or movements. This kind of violence also sinks roots deep into collective memory, and can initiate generations of internecine conflict. For each group the memory of violence becomes a sort of specifically egregious injustice that only they can understand, justifying the violence they commit in their defence. For Americans after 11 September 2001 violence seemed a natural solution to the violence done to them; violence will neutralise the enemy before they can strike again.

What Sontag wants us to realise, and what both Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida emphasise in their dialogues with Giovanna Borradori, is that to be truly safe, to have our own space, requires us to move from an economy of violence, from violence as retribution, toward an understanding that we are not special victims of violence. Being the subject of violence gives us no particular right to be violent in return. The first step in renouncing violence is to regard the pain of others as somehow equal to our own, and thus come to see violence anywhere as a harm to ourselves.

Both Habermas and Derrida have oriented their philosophical projects around questions of peace, democracy, justice and human rights. In Philosophy in a Time of Terror they deal with what is wrong with terrorism, and the political relationships that produce it. These philosophers’ reflections on terrorism show how philosophical thinking—thinking about concepts and what they designate and exclude—is useful for comprehending the origins of and reactions to concrete events such as terrorist violence.

Terrorism as a modern phenomenon.

To begin with Habermas, the more accessible of the two, we note first of all that he wants us to see terrorism as a modern phenomenon. Habermas differentiates contemporary fundamentalism from pre-modern religious worldviews, whose adherents understood their faith as a ‘world faith’, the only faith in the world as they understood it. Fundamentalism emerges ‘when, under the cognitive conditions of scientific knowledge and of religious pluralism, a return to the exclusivity of pre-modern belief attitudes is propagated’ (p. 32). The intolerance we associate with fundamentalism shocks us because it denies the respect for religious and ethical freedom we take as an established fact. Religious violence implies a moral attitude that is anathema to our sense of what justifies violence (such as defence of human life in the face of aggression). Habermas would have us understand religious-fundamentalism as anti-modern not pre-modern: political terrorists fuelled by religious fundamentalism don’t misunderstand modern values; they reject them.

Habermas believes that violent fundamentalism arises because modern societies have failed to inspire alternatives that compensate for the loss of traditional ways of life. Fundamentalists repudiate the values of enlightened secular politics which place human rights, if not practically at least normatively, at the centre. Global terrorism jeopardises what is positive in the system of nation-states, which is at least an attempt to ensure violence is legitimately grounded through reasoned argument in an enlightened public sphere. Habermas wants us to understand terrorism as modern, because it represents the negative side of a modernity that has paid insufficient attention to the pain it has caused. Terrorism is not atavistic. It is a pathology of modern life, the effect of a carcinogenic disregard for the pain of others.

This points us to Habermas’s characteristic stance on the ‘project of the enlightenment’. He sees it as an unfinished project that we should not abandon despite its shortcomings. Both terrorists and states commit acts of violence, which as violence, have the same deplorable character. Yet, there is an important difference that Habermas thinks we cannot ignore. The normative basis of liberal democracy is ‘an egalitarian individualism of morality that demands mutual recognition, in the sense of equal respect and reciprocal consideration for everybody’ (p. 42). This level of moral justification of violence acts as a potential safeguard in liberal-democracies, ensuring that the use of force is justified in public with reference to universal standards of human rights. ‘Moral and legal universalism is, thus, self-reflexively closed in the sense that its imperfect practices can only be criticised on the basis of its own standards’ (p. 42). The absence of such universal standards of justice is what Habermas feels is most grave in the fundamentalist counter-movement.

Terrorism is the effect of a carcinogenic disregard for the pain of others.

Habermas’s philosophy centres around this idea of ‘normative standards’ which he argues are built into the structure of everyday speech. He has attempted to provide a more plausible account of how individuals can come to regard others in a pacific and democratic way. Instead of relying on the individual to test their plans against the criteria of universal validity (a la Kant), he argues that universality is built into speech. According to Habermas, whenever we communicate to reach an understanding, we automatically subject our ideas and plans to criteria that are universal; viz. ‘could all rational individuals accept what I am saying’. This perspective expresses the enlightenment ideal that Habermas defends as a legal and political principle. For Habermas, in liberal societies, where religious motivations (for example) do not count as legitimate, violence is justified because state-violence and terrorism are set apart.

Powerful Western democracies have failed to live up to their own normative standards of justification for violence. The recent mendacious invasion of Iraq compellingly exposes this failure. This failure and the lack of prospects for peoples whose ways of life are under threat have combined to produce the malaise in which western nations find themselves. Unable to reconcile their beneficent self-image with the animosity expressed by peoples who support terrorism, many in the West portray these communities as benighted masses in need of liberation. Habermas proposes an alternative to this unsympathetic view. He asserts that ‘the critical power to put a stop to violence, without reproducing it in circles of new violence, can only dwell in the telos of mutual understanding and in our orientation to this goal’ (p. 38).

Terrorism and repression

Derrida is as much concerned as Habermas with how we regard others. His first interest is what the reaction to 9/11 reveals about America and its allies, and how this connects with terrorism as a symptom of our societies. Derrida is less intrigued by the bellicose reaction than by the incantation 9/11, by which metonymy substitutes a date for the traumatic deaths of thousands of people. Why is this interesting? ‘Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but rather to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language …’ (p. 87). For Derrida, language, like all systems of rules and norms, stabilises inherently unstable situations: by naming 9/11, we put it behind us in the attempt to neutralise what is most traumatic about the event—it could happen again!

Derrida suggests we imagine that we are told that ‘it’s all over, it won’t happen again, there will never be anything as awful or more awful than that’ (p. 97). This would make the work of mourning the dead no less terrible, but it would give the event a past tense, and we will know that we will never experience it again. According to Derrida, what lies behind the naming 9/11 is an attempt to work through the trauma, to at least confine this event to the past, despite our awareness that it could happen again. This logic of repression interests him most.

What is peculiar to this social repression is that—like psychological repression—it both reproduces what is repressed (in this case violence), and it represses something internal. The fact that Osama Bin Laden was trained by America during the Cold War, the fact that the hijackers were taught to fly in America, these things do not go unnoticed in the West, even if they are sometimes unspoken. What is traumatic is that this violence came from within America in a very real way. It was also not utterly unimaginable. The towers themselves had been attacked before. Perhaps most traumatic, although Derrida does not go this far, is that we know what we would have to do to achieve peace now to avoid this ever happening again. Yet this would be worse that the chance of future violence. Giving up the military and economic power that make America a target would perhaps be worse than the spectre of terrorism, adding to the social trauma.

State sovereignty is at best contingent and can be interrupted and redefined.

This trauma emerges from the same concrete social situation as terrorism. The terrorist network that forms the other combatant in the ‘war on terror’ is peculiar because its target is not only America but states in its own region. According to Derrida’s analysis ‘Saudi Arabia, while maintaining its ties with its American “protector”, “client” and “boss”, fuels all the hotbeds of Arab Islamic fanaticism if not “terrorism” in the world’ (p. 111). Derrida explains the contradiction that Saudi Arabia embodies as a symptom of globalisations’ direct challenge to sovereignty. State sovereignty is at best contingent and can be interrupted and redefined. The way the Australian government has redefined the nation’s migration zone in response to a threatening flow of refugees is an excellent example of the pressure exerted on sovereignty. It is clear that both the ‘refugee crisis’ and terrorism come from within the system of which we are a part: not the state itself, but the consequences of the actions, and conditions of existence, of states. Terrorism is a symptom of the system of state-based economic development and military conflict. It represents precisely what is excluded from the system of states—Al Qaeda is avowedly non-state—returning to challenge the authority of states.

As a philosopher Jacques Derrida is interested in the limits of concepts and what happens when they are challenged. His political philosophy concentrates on what happens when people excluded from any system of politics or law present themselves and ask for refuge or justice. How do we respond? How should we regard these others? The answer Derrida offers us, to summarise, is an ethical stance of openness to the other who has not yet come, to what he calls the to-come. In the same way that we close ourselves off to the threat of future terrorism, Derrida perceives that our political and juridical structures close off to the other who may one day come. It is this closing off that we must avoid.

Yet Derrida complicates this schema, and it is important to point this out, lest we assume that an openness is all that is required. He points out that complete, infinite openness is impossible. Take the question of refuge: how can we have a refugee system that is infinitely open, without regulation? This would not be system at all, and it would not achieve justice. This paradox characterises all Derrida’s deconstructions of political concepts such as hospitality, democracy, and justice. They all demand unconditional commitment (complete openness, complete autonomy, complete justice for all), yet require limits to be effective. Derrida leaves us with the message that attention to these limits and how we deal with them characterises how we regard others.

Asylum and Australia’s place in the world

In late 2003 Habermas and Derrida co-signed a ‘Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in the Core of Europe’. This was the first joint public statement from two men who had had little to say to each other philosophically. Their ‘plea’ showed what they shared and what is most important in their political philosophy: responsibility. It is also a good introduction for how their philosophies provide insights into the difficulties Australia faces in refugee policy.

The plea calls on Europe ‘to defend and promote a cosmopolitan order on the basis of international law against competing visions’ (2003, p. 294). Habermas and Derrida hope that a cosmopolitan order enforced by international law can emerge from the public sphere of a Europe committed to the traditions of liberal democracy and social justice that have been one part of its history. For those familiar with their work, this idea is more characteristic of Habermas than Derrida (who tends to be circumspect on questions of concrete legal developments). Habermas has built his political philosophy on the idea of a civil society that institutionalises open discourse, supported by the force of law, to create a liberal and just order. At the international level, his orientation is unchanged. He advocates the development of a global public sphere to generate mutual understanding, combined with international law to encode and enforce the standards of this public sphere. It is significant that Derrida thought it important enough to sign his name to this document. This act challenges what many have written about Derrida: that his philosophy is nihilistic and politically irresponsible. Their collaboration on the plea demonstrates that both Habermas and Derrida emphasise the public sphere as a place for the generation of understanding, and the role of law (legitimised through public debate) in ordering social relations.

Two things are particularly vexing about our current asylum policy. First is the inhumane way individuals are treated. Second is the neglect of our responsibilities to work within international law as a nation in a system of nations.

The system of nations itself generates both terrorism and refugee flows.

The system of nations itself generates both terrorism and refugee flows. The conditions of Australia’s existence are the reason it faces a flow of migrants and asylum seekers. Yet Australia cannot resolve these issues in isolation. Neither the relative affluence and democracy of Australia nor the impoverishment or intolerance of other regions can or should be fixed by Australia alone. Australia must participate in the international sphere to promote economic and social justice while maintaining a responsible and just asylum policy. As both Habermas and Derrida point out, terrorism and displaced peoples are a symptom of our existence and we exhibit our awareness of this reality in our paranoid response to the meagre flow of ‘boat people’. However the arrival of people on our shores does requires a systematic, just response. We must answer the question of how best to respond by engaging with the albeit imperfect standards of universal human rights, which find their expression in the development of international law.

Derrida helps us think through why perfect justice for asylum seekers is ‘impossible’. Perfectly justice would require that every individual who arrives is treated as an individual case, on its merits, without regard for the consequences. The paradox of absolute hospitality is clear. Yet Derrida diverges from the conservatives who also point out such difficulties. He argues that responsibility emerges from the contradiction between the requirements of absolute justice or hospitality, and the imperative for some (inevitably exclusive) system. As he writes in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness:

It is a question of knowing how to transform and improve the law, and of knowing if this improvement is possible within an historical space which takes place between the Law of unconditional hospitality … and the conditional laws of a right to hospitality. (2002, p. 22)

To be responsible both to ourselves and to all those who would come, Australia must have some asylum policy. Can our policy be better? I think so.

Habermas reminds us of the importance of law, especially international law, and the role of members of the community of nations in shaping this law. The refugee flows we perceive as a threat are not of our direct making. The childish figure of thought that because we did not do it we have no responsibility to fix it is unfortunately common in politics. A consequence of being an affluent nation that takes human rights seriously is that people will want to migrate here. The system of rules that protects us, gives us the right to make and enforce an asylum policy, is the same set of rules that precipitates the movement of people. The fact that a body of law applies in a particular territory leads to people moving between territories in search of justice, peace, and prosperity. If we expect the rule of law to be upheld internationally, we cannot abrogate our responsibilities when we feel they are too onerous. Despite the shortcomings of the United Nations and the various Charters to which Australia is signatory, the system needs to be improved not abandoned. This is why Australia’s refugee policy and our participation in the invasion of Iraq are so disappointing.

Australia is not unique in facing disorderly arrivals. If we wish to preserve our ‘space to live’, in Sontag’s words, we ought to move beyond treating this as a national problem. The only possible solution, as with the violence between Palestine and Israel or India and Pakistan, is to provide other options to those who would commit violence, or to those who brave people smugglers and over-crowded leaky boats. These people need other ways to realise their legitimate aspirations for self-determination and economic and social justice. We will remain prisoners of paranoia and terror if we fail to work towards providing them with opportunities to renounce violence and illegal border movements.


Derrida, J. 2002, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. M. Dooley & M. Hughes, Routledge, New York.

Habermas, J. & Derrida, J. 2003, ‘February 15, or what binds Europeans together: A plea for a common foreign policy, beginning in the core of Europe’, Constellations, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 291–297.

Sontag, S. 2003, Regarding the Pain of Others, Hamish Hamilton, London.

Lee Corbett is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of New South Wales. His research interests include civil society and democratic theory.

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