Philosophy in a Time of Terror by Habermas

global terrorism

Here is atranscription of a french interview given by Jürgen Habermas, a major german contemporary philosopher, about the September 11 attacks and about global terrorism. In this interview, Habermas, as a follower of Kant, is trying to give a philosophical definition of terrorism. Habermas critizes the clash of civilizations theory.

Giovanna Borradori – What do you mean by terrorism? Can we sensibly distinguish domestic terrorism of global terrorism?

Jürgen Habermas – To some extent, the terrorism of the Palestinians is a little terror to the old one. Here it is to kill, to murder, the goal is to annihilate the enemies indiscriminately, including women and children. That’s life against life. It is different in this regard terrorism as practiced paramilitary guerrillas, who determined the face of many liberation movements in the second half of the twentieth century and still makes today, for example, the struggle of Chechen independence. In response, global terrorism, which culminated in the attack of September 11, 2001, bears the traits of an anarchist revolt powerless in that it is directed against an enemy who, in pragmatic terms of an action obeying a purpose, can not possibly be defeated. The only possible effect is to create in the public and to governments a sense of shock and concern. From a technical point of view, the high sensitivity of our complex societies in the destructiveness offers ideal opportunities for a break-off of routine activities that can lead to lower cost of damage. Global terrorism to extremes two aspects: the absence of realistic goals and the ability to take advantage of the vulnerability of complex systems.


G. B. – Should we distinguish terrorism from regular crime and other forms of recourse to violence?

J. H. – Yes and no. From the moral point of view, a terrorist act, regardless of his motives and whatever the situation in which it is committed, can not be excused in any way. There is no reason that “reflects” the purposes that someone has given to himself and then justify the death and suffering of others. Every death is a death caused by too much. But a historical point of view, terrorism between contexts very different from those which are crimes that the criminal court dealing. He deserves, unlike the private crime, a public interest requires a different type of analysis that the crime of passion. Besides, if this was not the case, we do not mènerions interview.

The difference between political terrorism and ordinary crime is particularly evident in some dietary changes that are in power the terrorists of yesterday and are respected representatives of their country. It is such a political transformation can not be expected for terrorists, in general, pursue realistic goals and policies understandable, given their crime, can derive from the need in which they were out of a situation of manifest injustice, a certain legitimacy. But I can not now imagine any context that would make a day of the monstrous crime of September 11 as a political act that it is difficult to understand, and which can be in one way or another, claimed.


GB-Do you think it was a good thing to interpret this act as a declaration of war?

J. H. – Although the word “war” is less prone to misunderstanding and a moral point of view, less prone to protest the speech mentioning the “crusade” Bush’s decision to appeal to a “war against terrorism “seems to be a serious mistake, both in terms of normative pragmatic perspective. From the normative point of view, in fact, he raises these criminals to the status of enemy warriors, and the pragmatic point of view, it is impossible to wage war – if we must keep to any defined term – a “network” that has all the difficulty in identification.


G. B. – While the West must develop its relation to other civilizations greater sensitivity and should be more self-critical, how should it be done? You talk in this regard, “translation” and looking for a “common language”. What do you mean by that?

J. H. – Since September 11, I keep wondering if, in light of events of such violence, my whole conception of the activity-oriented agreement – one that I developed from the Theory of Communicative Action – is not sinking into the ridiculous. Of course, even within wealthy and corporations rather quiet of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we live also face some structural violence – which in fact we have become accustomed and which is made of social inequalities humiliating, degrading discrimination, impoverishment and marginalization. But precisely in so far as our social relationships are traversed by the violence, the strategic business and handling, we should not let slip two other facts.

There is, firstly, that the practices that make up our lives with others on a daily basis based on the solid foundation of a common belief, the things we perceive as the cultural evidence, and to reciprocal expectations. In this context, we coordinate our actions both through the use of ordinary language games, and raising each other with respect to the requirements of validity that we recognize at least implicitly – that is what constitutes public space reasons good or less good. Now this explains, on the other hand, a second fact: when communication is disrupted, when the understanding is not achieved or bad, or when the duplicity and deception are involved, conflicts arise that, if the consequences are painful enough, as they are already landed in the therapist or in the courts.

The spiral of violence begins with a spiral of distorted communication which, via a spiral of uncontrolled reciprocal mistrust, leading to the breakdown in communication. So if violence begins with disruptions in communication, once it started we can know what went wrong and what needs to be repaired.

It’s a trivial point of view, I think, however, we can adapt to conflicts you mentioned. The case is certainly more complicated because the nations, life forms and civilizations at the outset are more distant from each other and tend to remain strangers to each other. They do not meet as members of a circle, group, party or a family that can not be made strangers to each other if the communication is systematically distorted.

In international relations, in addition, the medium of law, whose function is to contain the violence, plays comparatively a minor role. And intercultural relations, it is best to create institutional frameworks to support formal research agreement – for example, the Vienna conference on human rights organized by the United Nations. These formal meetings – as important as intercultural discussion that leads to various levels about the disputed interpretation of human rights – can not alone stop making machine stereotypes.

Make an open mind is rather a matter passes through the liberalization of relations and a lifting objective of anxiety and pressure. In the daily practice of communication, must be a capital is trust. This is necessary prerequisite for the rational explanation and are widely relayed in the media, schools and families. They must also deal with the political culture of the premises concerned.

In our case, the normative representation we have of ourselves in relation to other cultures is also in this context, an important element. If the West undertook to revise the image he has of himself, he could, for example, learn what to change in its policy so that it can be seen as a power capable of shaping a civilizing process. If you do not politically tame capitalism, which no longer has any limits or boundaries, it will be impossible to have taken on the stratification of devastating the world economy.

Should at least compensate in the most destructive consequences – I think of the humiliation and impoverishment that are subject of regions and continents – the disparity caused by the dynamics of economic development. What’s behind this, not only in relation to other cultures, discrimination, humiliation and degradation. Behind the theme of “clash of civilizations,” what is hidden, it is obvious material interests of the West (for example, that of continuing to dispose of oil and to secure its energy supply).

Cite this article as: Tim, "Philosophy in a Time of Terror by Habermas, April 9, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, April 9, 2012,

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