“This is Israel’s 9/11. This is Israel’s 9/11, and Israel will do everything it can to bring our sons and daughters back home” declared Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, three days after the offensive launched by Hamas and other Palestinian armed factions against Israel.
The sharp reminder of “9/11” evoked the material and psychological collapse of Western confidence, the painful memory of violence, the scandal of foreign invasion into the national home. And then, in response to this pain, the paternalistic yet bellicose tone of a state certain of its strength, capable of protecting its citizens from a foreign body that no longer needs to be named. But did it ever? Do we really need to identify the enemy? Since 2001, we have relied on the vague, indistinct term “terrorism”, so overused the ambassador no longer uses it. A word that says nothing about the actor, and only reflects the feelings of those who employ it.
Condemning violence... to legitimize one’s own
Here’s the first key piece of information to emerge from the Israeli ambassador’s statement to the UN: in 2023, it is no longer necessary to speak of terrorism to appeal to the semantic apparatus of the “global war on terror” endorsed by George W. Bush in 2001. To speak of Israel’s 9/11 is both to condemn the violence of others and to legitimize one’s own, to justify declaring war since terror has arisen from the opposing camp. After 2001, many authors adopted the notion of a “clash of civilizations”, of a war - against the Afghans, then the Iraqis - necessarily provoked by the victory of Western values over Islam in the global struggle for hegemony.
Relayed in the security, anti-immigration, Islamophobic discourse of our political leaders, this explanation ignores the common origins of Christian and Muslim traditions, and the many features that unite rather than oppose them. This is demonstrated by Islam specialist and anthropologist Talal Asad in his book On Suicide Bombing (Columbia University Press, 2007), which analyzes the discourse on terror in reaction to the aporetic narratives of the clash of civilizations.
In the now familiar dichotomy between Islamism and the West, terror and war, Asad highlights a new discursive mechanism of imperialism, born in 2001, in which war (and now armed resistance in the case of Ukraine) becomes the prerogative of Western states, intransigent in their justice and legitimate in their anger. According to Asad, this moral paraphernalia is a matter of psychology: the aim is to show that Western states have a moral compass and their decisions are based on reason, whereas “terrorism” is an outpouring of destructive provocation. Whatever terrorists’ political motives, they practice violence irrationally and devote themselves to death, in particular through suicide.
Although virtually unknown in France, where he has only recently been translated, Talal Asad is considered an essential reference in 21st-century anthropology, and his 2007 book remains strikingly topical in the wake of the Hamas offensive against Israel. Conflating the October 7 operation with the suicide bombing of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, Israel is skilfully manoeuvring by assimilating itself to the West and relegating its aggressor - who is no longer even named - to the position of a terrorist parasite. Israel was surprised by the violence on its soil, even though it is at the origin of the systemic and total violence of colonization and apartheid on which its institutions are based. By appealing to the psychological springs of the discourse on terror, Tel Aviv miraculously erases its violent and colonizing antecedents.
Moreover, the idea of an Israeli 9/11 ignores a fundamental parameter of the October 7 attack: the Hamas fighters were not there to die, and behaved like soldiers of an armed, organized group, acting strategically and with primarily military objectives. The operation did not end with the demonstration of force on October 7: it was part of a rational project of territorial reconquest, which claims to be based on justice and morality. The fact is that Israel’s enemy - Hamas, the various other factions of the Palestinian resistance that took part in the operation, and more generally the Arab alterity that haunts its territory - goes far beyond the narrow, moralistic and imperialist designation of “terrorism”.
In the discourse on terror, the speaker is ultimately guilty of everything he accuses his terrorist enemy of. Obsessed with his own pain, his own “terror”, he invites those on trial to let themselves be carried away by an amnesiac emotion, and to come together in what Asad calls a “counter-society” founded around the war against terror. Western subjectivities are imposed, and the adversary, no longer a subject, is a nameless, faceless monster with no function other than to provoke fear in the West. In this annihilation of alternative subjectivities, the discourse on terror produces an analogous discourse on suffering, since the sensitivity of the adversary is limited by the pain of the “counter-society” itself. War certainly causes suffering, but the anti-terrorist reaction legitimizes the use of violence through a discourse of humanitarian necessity - in 2001, the American way of life had to be saved, just as in 2023 the right of Israelis to live as they please, meaning their right to settle on land that doesn’t belong to them, and to party a few kilometres away from the narrow open-air prison that is the territory of Gaza, has to be saved.
The hermeneutics of suffering produced by the anti-terrorist counter-society thus results in a paradoxical discourse that calls for violence as much as it condemns it, and in the media, one purely emotional discourse and another genocidal one. This double standard was also present on French public radio (France Inter): on the same programme (October 9), Elie Barnavi, former Israeli ambassador to France, was treated with tearful compassion (“Do you understand what’s going on?” journalist Léa Salamé asked the historian and career diplomat), while Leïla Shahid, former Palestinian ambassador to the European Union, was asked three times to “condemn” the violence on the Palestinian side. Here, the violence suffered by the Israelis is given almost sentimental consideration, while the Palestinians are referred to solely in terms of the violence they produce.
It doesn’t matter that LeÏla Shahid tried to recall the context of 56 years of military occupation and violations of international law suffered by her people; given the immediate reactions to the attack on Israel after years of indifference to the colonization of Palestine, only Western or Israeli suffering seems to make violence exist. So much so, that when the former Palestinian leader calls for equivalent condemnation of the murder of Palestinian women and children, the ex-diplomat counters with the argument of a “moral” difference, describing the civilians of Gaza as “collateral victims”. Israel’s systematic recourse to the discourse on terror thus ends up discrediting all forms of resistance to oppression, condemning armed fighters and civilians alike. It should also be noted that the rhetoric of terrorism is selective: through its process of amalgamation, it applies to Muslim populations suspected of Islamism, while Ukrainians, who are assimilated to Westerners, have access to legitimate violence to resist the invader.
Confusing Jewishness and Israel
After deconstructing the “clash of civilizations” thesis in his first chapter, then examining “terrorist” subjectivities and the reasons for committing a suicide attack, Talal Asad devotes a third and final chapter to “horror” in the face of terrorism. He defines it as a loss of bearings that goes beyond understanding and discourse. It is generated by the breakdown of the limits imposed by society, for example by the eruption of death outside the spaces and rituals that incorporate it. As Asad points out, horror is triggered in particular by the revelation, through crime, of an opposition between civilization and barbarism, which offers its perpetrator no hope of redemption.
Take the example of mass shooters in the US who commit massacres in schools. We don’t call them attacks, but shootings, because, as the shooters are assimilated into Western culture and its values, they have the right to rational violence. They also have the right to repentance and social rehabilitation, as in the case of this man who, at the end of his 20-year prison sentence for opening fire in a New York school in 2004, became an overnight Tik Tok celebrity... with videos against gun violence. Palestinian resistance fighters have been reduced to the self-destructive violence of suicidal terrorism, lumped together in an irrational barbarian mass from whom no discourse can be expected - it’s no coincidence that the Israeli defence minister refers to them as “animals”, i.e. brutal, irrational beings deprived of language.
France did not wait for Israel to speak out before summoning up the images of terrorism. 9/11 has become an Israeli “Bataclan” in both media and political discourse, and Israel, long held up as a model of security, “ensures the protection of the entire planet” by indiscriminately striking down Palestinian fighters and civilians. These are the words of Muriel Ouaknine-Melki, president of the European Jewish Organization (one wonders to what extent she herself is doing Jewish people in Europe a favour by encouraging the supremacist, conservative identity politics that conflate Jewishness with the colonial project of the State of Israel, and thus feed the very anti-Semitism she claims to be fighting). Speaking on BFMTV (October 9), she offered a fine analysis: “Hamas is Daesh”. A brilliant illustration of the confused function of mobilizing the terrorist imaginary, and of the enduring relevance of Talal Assad’s thesis.