[Reader-list] Hans Magnus Enzensberger on the crisis

Ravi Sundaram ravis at sarai.net
Thu Oct 25 12:00:46 IST 2001

fwd from nettime list

Human Sacrifice Is a Thoroughly Modern Phenomenon
By Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 17

Born in 1929, the poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger was a member
of the influential postwar literary Group 47; in 1965 he founded the
journal Kursbuch, which he led until 1975. Since 1979 he has lived in
Munich. Numerous books of his poetry and essays are available in English,
including "Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia" (1995).

The swifter the comment, the shorter-lived its relevance. Nothing against
timeliness! But moments when no one knows what will happen next are
precisely the times when there is good reason to attempt a distanced view.
For example, on globalization: A German academic by the name of Karl Marx
analyzed this phenomenon in considerable depth as much as 150 years ago.
He certainly would not have dreamed of being "for" or "against" it. In the
conflicts that erupted in places like Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa, he
would have seen no more than a bout of shadow-boxing. Protesting against
such a massive historical fact may be honorable, but the best it can
achieve is worldwide television drama, showing that naive
anti-globalization protesters are in fact themselves part of what they
seek to combat.

In his day, Marx described globalization as a purely political and
economic phenomenon. And in 1848, that was the only possible angle, as the
expansion of the world market and the politics of the colonial powers were
then the key driving forces. But since then, this irreversible process has
come to affect all aspects of life. Those who look at globalization in
purely economic terms have not understood it. Today, nothing is left that
can remain separate from it, neither religion nor science, neither culture
nor technology, not to mention consumerism and the media. Which is why its
costs are counted everywhere, in every sphere.

Not only the countless economic losers are affected. Around the globe,
sudden collapses, weapons, computer viruses, new types of epidemics,
ecological disasters, civil wars and crimes all take their lead from the
world market with its currents of money and knowledge. The belief that any
society could isolate itself from these consequences is absurd. One such
consequence is terrorism. And it would be a miracle if terrorism had
remained the only thing not to go global.

Faced with fanaticized masses, the modern world has long clung to the view
that it was dealing with the peculiarities of backward societies. Many
believed that sooner or later, the unstoppable process of modernization
would put an end to such atavisms, even if the occasional relapse proved

The murderous energies of today cannot be traced back to any tradition.
Neither the civil wars in the Balkans, Africa, Asia and Latin America, the
dictatorships in the Middle East, nor the countless "movements" under the
banner of Islam should be seen as archaic throwbacks: They are absolutely
contemporary phenomena, reactions to the current state of global society.
This also applies to a venerable religion such as Islam, although it, like
ultra-orthodox Judaism, has not developed any productive ideas for a long
time. To date, its strength has consisted in a determined negation of the
modern world, to which it thus remains bound.

The immanence of terror, regardless of its source, is evident not only in
the protagonists' behavior, but also in their choice of methods,
pathological copies of the enemy like those made by a retrovirus of the
attacked cell. The feeling that this attack came from outside is mistaken,
since no external realm of human and inhuman action exists outside the
global context.

Those who carried out the attacks on New York and the Pentagon were right
up to date, not only in technical terms. Inspired by the pictorial logic
of Western symbolism, they staged the massacre as a media spectacle,
adhering in minute detail to scenarios from disaster movies. Such an
intimate understanding of American civilization hardly testifies to an
anachronistic mentality.

It is no coincidence that at first, doubts were voiced concerning who was
behind the attack. On the Internet, blame was leveled at extreme
right-wing groups in the United States, while others spoke of Japanese
terrorist groups or a Zionist intelligence service plot. As always in such
cases, all manner of conspiracy theories immediately sprang up. Such
interpretations are a measure of how infectious the culprits' mania is.
But they also contain a grain of truth, as they demonstrate how
interchangeable the motives for such attacks are. The letters claiming
responsibility in the wake of most attacks, full of clich├ęs and phrases
learned by rote, resemble one another in their vacuity.

Ideological analysis tells us nothing about the origins of the
psychological energy that fuels terror. Labels such as left or right,
nation or sect, religion or liberation all lead to exactly the same
patterns of behavior, and their only common denominator is paranoia. Just
how important the Islamic motive was to last week's mass murder in New
York will have to be evaluated. Any other motive would have served just as

In a gray area as murky as this one, certainties are hard to come by. Yet
it would be hard to overlook the one thing that practically all terrorism
as we know it has in common -- the extraordinary self-destructiveness of
those who perpetrate it. This is true not only of the groups of
conspirators and countless warlords, militias and paramilitary groups that
have laid waste to large parts of Africa and Latin America, but also to
so-called rogue states such as North Korea and Iraq.

Such dictatorships seem bent less on annihilating their true or imagined
enemies than on ruining their own countries. The as-yet unsurpassed
pioneer of such suicidal behavior was Adolf Hitler, who was able to count
on the support of the vast majority of Germans. Russia took 70 years to
reach a state of total collapse, while Iraq even takes pride in its own
demise. Countless "liberation movements" are pursuing similar goals.
Algeria, Afghanistan, Angola, the Basque Country, Burundi, Indonesia,
Cambodia, Chad, Chechnya, Colombia, Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala,
Kashmir, Liberia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Peru, the
Philippines, Rwanda, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda --
they make up an alphabet of horrors that shows no signs of ending.
The logic of self-mutilation applies to the terrorist attacks on the
United States too, as their most devastating consequences will have to be
borne not by the West, but rather by that part of the world in whose name
they were perpetrated. The foreseeable consequences for millions of
Muslims will be disastrous. Yet Islamic fundamentalists are already
celebrating a war they will never win.

Nor will the suffering be confined to refugees, asylum-seekers and
economic migrants. Beyond all sense of justice, entire peoples from
Afghanistan to Palestine will have to pay an enormous political and
economic price for the actions of those who claimed to be acting in their
name. The expected retaliation will not spare innocents any more than did
the attack that provoked it.

The West has consistently underestimated the power of this collective urge
to self-mutilation or even suicide. Reflecting on one's own past is
apparently not enough to make the unfathomable any less incomprehensible.
For that reason, perhaps it is time to risk a comparison with more
familiar phenomena. One glance at a newspaper is proof enough of how
irresistible this pleasure in one's own demise really is, even in the so-
called developed world. Although drug addicts and skinheads knowingly rob
themselves of every possible opportunity life has to offer and although
hardly a day goes by without some new "family tragedy" or someone going on
a shooting spree, we nevertheless continue to assume that most of what we
do is dictated by the survival instinct.

Every day brings new evidence to the contrary: A schoolboy lunges at his
teachers and fellow pupils with a knife, someone who is HIV-positive tries
to infect as many of his sexual partners as possible, a man who feels his
boss has treated him unfairly climbs up a tower and shoots at anything
that moves -- not despite, but precisely because this massacre will bring
his own end sooner.

There are certain parallels between individual death wishes like these and
the motives that drove last week's hijackers. No matter how real or
imagined the endless calamity is that he believes is threatening him, the
individual or collective suicide candidate invariably prefers a calamitous
end to every other alternative. The only difference is in the scale.
Whereas the skinhead is armed only with a baseball bat and the arsonist
only with a gasoline canister, the well-trained assailant has financial
backing, sophisticated logistics and state-of- the-art communications and
encryption technology at his disposal. And before long he will have
nuclear, biological and chemical weapons too.

For all the differences in scale, there is one thing that all these
perpetrators have in common. Their aggression is directed not only at
others, but rather -- and above all -- at themselves. If a terrorist can
claim to be pursuing a higher goal, then so much the better. It does not
matter which particular chimera it is. Any authority will do, any divine
mission, any sacred fatherland or revolution. If necessary, the murderous
self- murderer can even make do without such second- hand justifications
altogether. His triumph consists in the fact that he can be neither fought
nor punished, because he has already taken care of both these things

Those who prefer to remain alive will have a hard time understanding this.
Although the overwhelming majority of us has never felt the urge to go on
a rampage, none of us stands a chance against the adherents of suicide. As
there are probably hundreds of thousands of human bombs in this world,
their violence is likely to accompany us throughout the 21st century. What
we are witnessing now is the globalization of another of our species'
ancient customs: human sacrifice.

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