With Arendt on 7/7: The left, social theory and terror

DissentI wrote this originally for the Centre for Urban and Community Research’s Street Signs magazine in September 2007. I re-wrote it for Dissent in September 2010. Dissent’s website migration means all the formatting has been lost, so I am re-posting it here, for the anniversary of 7/7.

When the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York happened, I was in my office in London, trying to finish a report that was overdue. A colleague came in to tell me what was happening. It seemed unreal; my first thought, of which I am now ashamed, was that this was a distraction I didn’t need. I went downstairs to the communal office where people were standing around the radio listening to events unfold on the BBC, then after a while returned to my office to try to finish off the report. It was only when I arrived home and started to watch the images on television that it began to feel more real. And then it began to feel painfully real when I spoke on the telephone to my mother—a New Yorker transplanted to Yorkshire.

Within hours of the attacks, I got an email from a friend describing them as “chickens coming home to roost” for American foreign policy, specifically U.S. sponsorship of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, as part of the final stages of the war on communism. In this sense, the phrase has a certain chilling accuracy. But the more general claim behind the phrase was the idea that America’s foreign policy would inevitably lead to “blowback,” to use another phrase that soon afterward appeared in an email from another friend—in other words, that the responsibility for the attacks was somehow America’s; responsibility and culpability shifted away from the terrorists themselves and onto a larger system. In the days and weeks after September 11, the “chickens coming home to roost” emails came thick and fast.

In July 2005, when my adopted hometown, London, was attacked, exactly the same pattern of responses followed. I received my first email from a friend with the words “chickens coming home to roost” within hours of the 7/7 bombs—while I was still waiting to get through to close friend who lives very near Tavistock Square and who I feared had been caught up in the rush hour atrocity. Now it was not American international policy in general, but the Iraq War specifically, and Britain’s involvement in it, that was the chicken that had come home to roost.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, were those describing the bombers in terms of evil. The focus on the terrorists as evil, common in politicians’ speeches and newspaper editorials, removed the attacks from any kind of social or geopolitical context. It focused responsibility for the act squarely on the moral agency of the terrorists themselves.

These two responses—chickens coming home to roost on one side and pure evil on the other—demonstrate two opposite failures of thought, or, more precisely, failures of understanding. The claim that the attacks were evil was often accompanied by an insistence that seeking any explanation beyond the purity of evil was illegitimate and would somehow violate the sanctity of those who had been killed in the attacks. The concept of evil comes from moral—and more specifically religious—language, connoting the ineffable, the incomprehensible. To insist on this ineffability is to deny the possibility of rational analysis. The insistence on ineffability is a refusal to think about the attacks and shows a rush to judgment. In these statements, the attacks are a moral outrage, and to think about them, to try to understand their causes, is tantamount to excusing them.

For those whose drive is to analyze, particularly for those of us with a commitment to secular values, there is a basic reaction against the use of the concept of evil itself. Intellectuals, trained to refuse such moral categories, naturally reject this sort of rush to judgment. But there is no doubt that, if the word evil has any meaning, the indiscriminate mass murder of civilians—regardless of age, gender, race, religion, politics, or any other category—qualifies precisely as evil. To deny the evil status of the terrorist attacks is to deny the possibility of moral judgment.

The refusal of moral judgment typical of secular intellectuals does not, however, shy away from apportioning blame. The formula of “chickens coming home to roost” however, apportions blame not to evil individuals but rather to the underlying structures of global society. This has the effect, I believe, of removing the events from the agency of their perpetrators. The bombers cease to be protagonists but become pawns in some much larger game: global capitalism or Western imperialism. Such a refusal may be an intellectual strength, allowing us to reach for a deeper analysis than the politicians and newspaper editors, but it can be a moral failure, too.

It seems to me that the refusal to judge individuals and the dispersal of agency away from actors on to systems is very much programmed into social science, because of the legacy of its formation as a science: Marx’s notion of “scientific” socialism, and Durkheim’s insistence on sociology’s scientific method. We are programmed to seek the underlying causes, the deep structures: in Marxism, the material base which “in the final analysis” determines events; in structuralism, the elegant structures behind the messy realities; in both cases, the hidden reality behind appearances.

There is a strong affinity between the Left and social science in this, mainly because of the shared debt to Marx. The Left aims for “the correct analysis.” On the Left, when we criticize our rivals, we talk of them lacking an analysis, lacking a perspective. I was a person of the Left long before I was trained as a social scientist, so long before I went to university, I was well-trained to excavate root causes and lay bare systemic failures.

In recent years, I have become more and more influenced by the work of Hannah Arendt. In particular, I am taken by the way she uses the word “understanding.” It seems to me that to seek understanding is to refuse to choose between judgment and analysis. For her, understanding means “bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us” and “attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality.” Arendt sought to reckon with morality; she did not shy away from discussing evil, in both its banal and radical forms (and, most importantly, evil that is both banal and radical). Describing the Nazis in terms of the banality of evil was, for Arendt, a way of insisting on the non-rational, moral dimension of their crime (which for her was “radically” evil precisely because it defied “humanly understandable” motives like greed or revenge), while at the same time denying them any “streak of Satanic greatness.” In other words, the insistence on moral judgment, and the suggestion that there is something in acts of radical evil which exceeds rational analysis, does not make them ineffable or push them beyond the challenge of understanding.

Part of Arendt’s claim, I think, is that there is no “final analysis.” For Arendt, understanding is always something you seek rather than something you achieve: like the funeral shroud that Penelope weaves for her father, she writes, the task of understanding undoes every night what it has finished the night before. Responding to terror, seeking to understand it, is both a rational and, crucially, a moral task. It calls us to think morally, to reckon with the possibility of evil in the world, as urgently as it calls us to reach the “correct” analysis. This is a message of intellectual humility for the Left and for social science—a lesson that the chickens coming home to roost reflex, the rush to analyze, must sometimes be paused, to allow space and time for moral reflection.

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About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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