Sociology · Third year

Critically consider how Camus and Derrida may contribute to an understanding of terrorism in modernity.

Terrorism was not explored by philosophy and social sciences until the attacks in September 2001 on the United States, the focus was then rather given to violence and rebellion. Writers from different times can develop and contribute to our understanding and analyses of nowadays’ terrorism. For example, French writers and philosophers Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida both explored the concept of terrorism, albeit from different historical points of view. Indeed, Derrida began his studies when the great controversies concerning the Soviet revolution and totalitarianism between Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were at the centre of the intellectual milieu. The first part will thus consider if Camus’ goal set with The Rebel of ‘an attempt to understand the time I live in’ (Camus, 1951, p.1) has application nowadays.

The term terrorism appeared in Derrida’s work after 9/11 as part of an interview with the philosopher Giovanna Borradori, in which Habermas’ and Derrida’s comments on the political and philosophical concept of 9/11 (Borradori, 2003) are analysed. However it should be noted that it is part of a wide framework of ethical, philosophical and political reflections. The thoughts on law and justice were at the heart of all questions (Norris, 1987) with a continuous reflection on hospitality, tolerance, forgiveness, democracy, sovereignty, etc. This is necessary so that Derrida’s specific method of deconstruction does not ‘remain enclosed in purely speculative, theoretical, academic discourses but rather [..] to change things and to intervene in an efficient and responsible, though always, of course, a mediated way’ (Derrida, 1992a, pp. 8-9). For example, the English expression to enforce the law (unlike the French ‘apply the law’) keeps a direct and literal allusion to the force at the origin of the law and thus can question links between law, violence and justice. Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction will be explored in the second and third parts, by referring first to the event dimension of 9/11 and then to the autoimmunity process.

As a 20th century man, Camus was notably involved in the French Resistance, the denunciation of Soviet state terrorism and of the Algerian War of Independence partisans. The contemporary term ‘terror’ supposes the distinction between civilian and military victims, the constant possibility of state terrorism and the vagueness of a concept such as international terrorism. Nowadays, the definition of terrorism is similar to that used in the 19th century, especially by the Russian nihilists and French anarchists, that is to say ‘the deliberate use of violence, or threat of its use, against innocent people, with the aim of intimidating some other people into a course of action they otherwise would not take’ (Primoratz, 2013, p.24). For example, the actions of the Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) between 1962 and 2011, the Red Brigades in Italy and Action Directe in France in the 1970s and 1980s, or again the Irish Republican Army (IRA) until the late 1990s all illustrate this emphasis on creating chaos within the local population. Camus’ position is that no political goal can ever justify the killing of lives not directly involved. In this respect he is similar to contemporary intellectuals like Fotion (1981).

Another characteristic of terrorism acknowledged by Camus (Sherman, 2009, p.187) is that it takes place in an asymmetric warfare and guerrilla context regarding for example national liberation movements from the colonial ideology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy, 2015). In the past, the objectives of terrorists were located at the national level, such as the fight against colonial domination, opposition to capitalist or racist regimes, struggle against the occupation, etc. Nowadays, since the phenomenon is based on claims that go beyond the national state framework, terrorism has no borders and is deterritorialized. It also combines several aims, for example, the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, while maintaining its political aim, has a strong religious foundation. Far from the metaphysical rebellion against God as argued in The Rebel (1951), nowadays’ terrorism intends to impose a reigning God, using terror. Therefore Camus, the nihilist, did not anticipate the resurgence of religious fundamentalism.

According to Camus, violence, as necessary as it is in certain circumstances, ought to remain an exception. It cannot and must not be legitimized since the end does not justify the means. When one commits an injustice to allow the emergence of justice it amounts to accepting to move from the position of victim to that of murderer. On this issue, French philosopher Merleau-Ponty draws his Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem (1947), in which he distinguishes between an acceptable violence (progressive violence) and another which would not be (retrograde violence). Camus claims that terrorism is both ‘inevitable and unjustifiable’ (Margerrison et al., 2008, p.223) and the only response to adopt is to refuse its legitimization. However, the place of violence in modern state formation and maintenance has become a crucial element because it is now used by liberal democracies to serve non-violence facilitated by discourse on cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism (Thorup, 2010, p.216). To conclude, thanks to his rejection of terrorism it is clear that Camus contributes to the debate on the global war on terror, however he never foresaw the use of technology in the terrorist phenomenon.


Against the media and intellectual hysteria of the time, Derrida questions the event dimension, or event sensation associated to 9/11. However he focuses on the effects of tele-technologies and points out that this feeling is ‘to a large extent conditioned, constituted, if not actually constructed, circulated at any rate through the media by means of a prodigious techno-socio-political machine’ (Borradori, 2003, p.86). Several discourses repeated the ‘unprecedented’ dimension of the event, the developed information device and the inability to separate the fact from the system that issued and publicized the information. Derrida recalls the need to question the unprecedented, unpredictable and major nature associated with 9/11 and the ‘make history’ dimension it intended to create.

First, the death of thousands of civilians by using technology is not ‘unprecedented’: during the global wars, mass murders often take place without becoming ‘events’. Second, it was possible to predict a terrorist attack on US territory, which would target highly symbolic buildings, and the CIA and FBI should have seen the attacks coming. Third, the definition generally given by the media and experts of any kind of major event cannot be reduced to a purely quantitative dimension (height and symbolic dimension of the towers, political and economic importance of the attacked territory, number of victims). The repercussions of these murders is not purely spontaneous or natural, but the product of a complex historical, political and especially media machinery that ‘does not count the dead in the same way from one corner of the globe to the other’ (Borradori, 2003, p.92). Similar or higher gravity killings that occurred during the 20th century outside the European or American area (Cambodia, Rwanda, Palestine etc.) did not have the same psychological, political or military impact.

Facing inadequate quantitative explanations, Derrida proposes a qualitative explanation, that is to say, looking at the role of the attacked country, here the US, at the global level, uncontested long after the end of the Cold War. However it should be noted that 9/11 is a distant effect of the Cold War because of the support given by the US to the enemies of the USSR, such as Afghanistan (Le Nouvel Observateur, 1998). Moreover the world order of the second half of the 20th century depended largely on the reliability and credit of American power. The characteristic ‘major’ attributed to 9/11 was therefore linked to the weakening effect on the US which, at the time, played the role of global superpower.

The discourses around this ‘event’, legitimized by public opinion, the media and experts which ‘make the opinion’, have conveyed an entire vocabulary and logic of violence, crime, war, national or international, state or anti-state terrorism. They did not consider that what was traumatized by the terrorist attack was not only buildings, political, military or capitalist symbols and a high number of victims, but also all the bases of the concepts that could have been used to interpret 9/11. Derrida’s explanation is based on the idea of ​​an autoimmune process and its political dimensions and implications, therefore ‘what is terrible about ‘September 11’, what remains ‘infinite’ in this wound, is that we do not know what it is and so do not know how to describe, identify, or even name it.’ (Borradori, 2003, p.94).



The concepts of immunity and autoimmunity are the heart, in the early 2000s, of Derrida’s analyses of religion, techno-science and politics. The strength of an immune system comes together with the self-destruction of the defences. The logic of auto-immunization is used to think the relationship between faith and knowledge, religion and science, which produces multiple forms of reaction and resentment, through which religion is protected in a global process that is both immune and autoimmune. The violence that accompanied the new religious conflicts of the late 20th century lies in the fundamental duplicity of sources which bases the phenomenon of autoimmunity. There is a form of violence combined with military teletechnology but there is also a paradoxical ‘new archaic violence’, especially in Algeria in the 1990s, the Iraq war, the many conflicts in west Africa, or the scandal of Abu Ghraib in 2004, which involves torture, beheadings, mutilations, sexual assault or cold steel aggression, while using all the resources of media power. Derrida argues that all these phenomena have a reactive and negative action, a form of ‘own body’ revenge against an expropriating and displacing tele-technoscience. He also shows in Faith and Knowledge (1998) how difficult it is to separate the theological aspect from ethics or politics.

Derrida interprets the suicidal autoimmunity of 9/11 and explains that the US was exposed to an assault coming also from the inside composed of trained and prepared migrants using high-tech resources, and a double suicide not only from attackers but also from those who have indirectly armed and trained them. The terror 9/11 caused is not turned towards the past but towards the fear of a likely repetition in the future: ‘Traumatism is produced by the future, by the to come, by the threat of the worst to come, rather than by an aggression that is ‘over and done with’ (Borradori, 2003, p.97). According to Derrida, the media coverage of the event expresses the desire to end this ‘never finished’ dimension associated with the attack. Efforts to attenuate the effect of the trauma also fits in the deadly autoimmune logic, by producing new forms of political, military or economic repression, reproducing the same monstrosities (for example the antiterrorism Patriot Act and the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Indeed, the war on terror declared by the Bush administration has only regenerated in the short or long term the causes of evil that it claimed to fight. Following this chain of events, a philosophical answer is, for Derrida, necessary to avoid excessive simplifications of official and media discourse that use categories of war or terrorism without deconstructing them. This so-called war is no longer territorial, as technoscience blurs the lines between war, terrorism and therefore territory: ‘the relationship between earth, terra, territory, and terror has changed, and it is necessary to know that this is because of knowledge, that is, because of technoscience.’ (Borradori, 2003, p.101). The issue of terrorism is both geopolitical and geophilosophical, a combination which requires a rethinking of the political ties to land and territory. According to Derrida, the world should stop assuming that all terrorism is always voluntary and organized. He reminds us that there are historical contexts of social, economic or national structural oppression in which terror operates as a device, whose beneficiaries never organize terrorist acts and are never treated as such (Borradori, 2003, p.108).


To conclude, both Camus’ humanist and Derrida’s post-structuralist approaches call to resist the madness in the fight against terrorism and recognise the difficulty to name it. Camus’ rejection of violence legitimization was not heard and the current governments facing the ‘Axis of Evil’ do not hesitate to give up a legal codification of violence. If today Camus is still not understood, however, this essay has tried to show that his writings are true analysis support to understand contemporary terrorism, offering in addition options to combat without breaking the law.

Moreover some possible policy outcomes must be considered. Derrida gives some suggestions for the ‘future’, first support should be provided by all means to secularization attempts within the Muslim world. Secondly, the widespread autoimmune process ought to be stop and new forms of interdependence that are not set by the abolition of all differences, identities, roots, idioms to resist the imposition of a single Latino-Americano-English model to the planet should be created. Derrida suggests that Europe has the capability of taking responsibility for the alterglobalist movement, because the new direction towards cosmopolitanism is an Enlightenment legacy (Derrida, 1992b, p.39). The creation of new subjectivities away from the Western Christian and capitalistic subjectivity could integrate traditional forms of experience that may be compatible with advanced technologies and global computerization and may lead to the creation of new political and economic models. In this perspective, the alterglobalist movement should be therefore taken very seriously, and the unlimited extension of a single political and economic model should be abandoned if we want to develop another understanding of terrorism.

Reference list


Borradori G. (2003) Philisophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. University of Chicago Press.

Camus A. (1951) The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Derrida J. (1992a) ‘Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’’ in Cornell D., Rosenfield M. and Carlson D. (eds.) Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, Routledge.

Derrida J. (1992b) The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe. Indiana University Press.

Derrida J. (1998) ‘Faith and Knowledge: the two Sources of ‘Religion‘ at the Limits of Reason Alone’ in Derrida J. and Vattimo G. (eds.) Religion. Stanford University Press.

Fotion N. (1981) ‘The Burdens of Terrorism’, in Burton M. Leiser (ed.), Values in Conflict: Life, Liberty, and the Rule of Law. New York: Macmillan, pp.463–70.

Margerrison C., Orme M. and Lincoln L. (2008) Albert Camus in the 21st Century: A Reassessment of His Thinking at the Dawn of the New Millennium. Rodopi.

Le Nouvel Observateur (1998) ‘Interview with Zbigniew Brezinski’. Available at: (Accessed: 12/01/16).

Merleau-Ponty M. (1969) Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem. Boston: Beacon Press.

Norris C. (1987) Derrida. Fontana Press.

Primoratz I. (2013) Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sherman D. (2009) Camus. John Wiley & Sons.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015) Terrorism. Available at: (Accessed: 11/01/16).

Thorup M. (2010) An Intellectual History of Terror: War, Violence and the State. Routledge.


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