The Mask of War

Jean Baudrillard

Not for or Against. Quite the contrary.[1] This is precisely the title of Cédric Klapisch's film. Neither for, nor against the war. "Quite the contrary"[2] signifies that there is no difference between the war and the non-war, and that before deciding, it is necessary to be clear about the status of the event. However, this war is a nonevent, and it is absurd to come to a conclusion about a nonevent. It is first of all necessary to know what it masks, that which it holds in place, that which it exorcises. There is no need to search for long: the event that opposes the nonevent of the war is September 11.

The analysis must start with this will of cancellation, obliteration, and laundering of the original event, which makes this war ghostly, to some extent unimaginable since it does not have a final purpose, a necessity, or even of a true enemy (Saddam is only a puppet). This war merely has the form of a conspiracy, of an event that is precisely impossible to do away with. The result is that it is already perpetual, before even having been started. In fact, it has already taken place, and the suspense itself is part of this masquerade. It opens towards an endless war that will never take place. And it is this suspense that awaits us in the future, this diffuse topicality of blackmail and terror in the form of a universal principle of prevention.

One can grasp this mechanism in Minority Report, the recent film by Steven Spielberg. On the ground of preventing future crimes, police commandos intercept criminals before they have a chance to act. It is exactly the same scenario with the war in Iraq: to nip a future criminal act in the bud (the use by Saddam of weapons of mass destruction). The question that irresistibly arises is whether the supposed crime would have taken place? One will never know since it will already have been prevented. (Saddam himself is of no importance.) But what is apparent through Saddam is an automatic deprogramming of all that could have taken place, a kind of disease prevention on a worldwide scale, not only of any crime, but also of any event that could disturb the hegemonic world order.

This is an ablation of "evil" in all its forms, an ablation of the enemy who does not exist anymore as such (one exterminates it quite simply), an ablation of death: "Zero death" [Zero Mort] becomes the leitmotiv for universal safety. A veritable principle of contraception and deterrence (dissuasion), but one without a balance of terror. This dissuasion without a cold war, this terror without a balance, and this relentless prevention placed under the sign of security will become a planetary strategy.

"Evil" is what arrives without prevention, and therefore without the possibility of prevention. It is, of course, the case with September 11. It is precisely that event that is radically opposed to the nonevent of the war. September 11 is an impossible and unimaginable event. It is carried out even before being itself possible (even disaster films did not anticipate it; on the contrary, they exhausted the imaginary possibility of such an event). It is about the extreme unforeseeable (where one finds a paradox according to which a thing does not become possible until only after it has taken place).

The difference is complete with the current war, which, by contrast, has been envisaged, programmed, and anticipated so much that it does not even need to take place. And even if it takes place in "reality," it will already have virtually taken place and thus it will not be an event. Here, reality is a virtual horizon. This take-over by the virtual is further reinforced by the fact that the announced war is like the double, the clone of the first Gulf war (just like Bush is his father's clone). The crucial event has thus been bracketed by two cloned events.

One can understand better from this perspective how this current war is a substitute event, a ghost event, and a puppet [fantoche] event bearing the image of Saddam. This is an immense mystification -- for the Americans themselves. With September 11 a gigantic task of contraception developed at the same time as a process of mourning. The idea was to ensure that September 11 had, in fact, not taken place, using the same principle of prevention, but this time retrospectively. An endeavor without hope or end.

But then, what is the final strategy or at least the objective result of this preventive blackmail? It is not to prevent the criminal act, to bring into being the Good, or to correct the irrational course of the world. Even oil and direct geostrategic considerations are not the underlying reasons. The ultimate reason is to create a securitized order, a general neutralization of peoples on the basis of a final nonevent. To some extent, the goal is the end of history, but not one that would be placed under the heading of a triumphant liberalism, or with a democratic realization as seen in Fukuyama, but rather on the basis of a preventive terror putting an end to any possible event.

Terror is distilled everywhere. The system ends up terrorizing itself under the aegis of security. This is the very point at which the victory of terrorism manifests itself. And if the virtual war is already won on the ground by the world power, it is rather terrorism that has won the symbolic victory through the instauration of a general worldwide disorder. It is, in fact, the attacks of September 11 that have completed the process of globalization -- not the globalization of the market, of the flows of capital, but of a symbolic system that is much more fundamental for world domination -- by causing a coalition of all the powers, democratic, liberal, fascistic or totalitarian, spontaneously made to be complicit and solidly in defense of the world order. All powers are geared against a single "alien."[3] And all the rationalizations are raging against the advent of "Evil." Still, it is against this world power that everyone rises, and it is against it that the eruption of the symbolic system of terrorism finds its counter-force. Terrorism will have burst the arrogance and the disproportional power that holds the whole world with respect to the imminence of an incomprehensible war.

This preventive terror, in total contempt for its own principles (humanistic and democratic), reached a dramatic extreme in the Moscow theatre incident where everything happened exactly as in the "Mad Cow" affair: one butchers the whole herd out of precaution. God will then recognize his own. Hostages and terrorists are confused in the massacre and thus virtually become accomplices. The terrorist principle is extrapolated to the whole population. It is the implicit assumption of power: populations themselves are a terrorist threat for it. Terrorism, in its action, seeks this solidarity with the people but without finding it. But here it is power itself that carries out this involuntary complicity in a brutal fashion.

We are power's virtual hostages, and we are dealing with a coalition of all the powers against all the populations. This is completely visible today with the proximity of the war that will take place in any case in total contempt for world opinion.

This global situation gives credence to Virilio when he speaks about a planetary civil war. The most dramatic political consequence of these events is the collapse of any concept of international community and, more generally, of any system of representation and legitimacy. And the recent world mass demonstrations against the war where, one believes, a rising countervailing power is emerging, are themselves only a worrying symptom of this hiatus, of this fracture of representation. Nobody wants the war, and yet it will take place no matter what, with the more or less camouflaged approval of all powers.

One deals from now on with an exercise of power in a pure state, a power without sovereignty. As long as power draws its sovereignty from the concept of representation, as long as it has a political reason, its exercise can find a balance; in any case, it can be fought and disputed. But the obliteration of this form of sovereignty leaves an unrestrained power, without an opposite number, in a state of nature (with no longer a natural brutality, but a technological one). And this power that does not have a legitimate reference any longer or even one true enemy (since it transforms it into some kind of criminal ghost) turns without compunction against its own populations.

But the integral reality of power is also its end. An integral power that is no longer one of prevention, dissuasion, security and control is a power that is symbolically vulnerable. It can no longer be brought into play and, finally, it turns on itself. It is this weakness, this internal failure of world power, which terrorism in its own way reveals, just like an unconscious angst is betrayed by a failed act. This is properly speaking "the hell of power." September 11 thus appears from the point of view of power like a gigantic challenge in which world power lost face. And this war, far from taking up the challenge, will not erase the humiliation of September 11. There is something terrifying in the fact that this virtual world order can make its entry into "reality" with such facility.

The terrorist event was strange. It was an unbearable strangeness. As for the non-war, it inaugurates the worrying familiarity of terror.

First published in Rebonds, Libération on March 10, 2003.

Translated by Alex Barder


Special thanks to FranÁois Debrix for his very helpful comments on this translation


[1] The French title of the film is Ni pour ni contre (bien au contraire) which has been translated for the English language version of the film as Not for or Against. Baudrillard's reference to bien au contraire present in the French title has been translated separately as "Quite the contrary."

[2] Quotations are used in the original text.

[3] English word used in the French text.

Jean Baudrillard is an internationally acclaimed theorist whose writings trace the rise and fall of symbollic exchange in the contemporary century. In addition to a wide range of highly influential books from Seduction to Symbollic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard's most recent publications include: The Vital Illusion, The Spirit of Terrorism, The Singular Objects of Architecture, Passwords, The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Texts, Interviews (September 2005) and The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (November 2005). He is a member of the editorial board of CTheory.

Alex Barder is pursuing graduate studies at Florida International University.