Sociological Research Online

Introduction to the Rapid Response to September 11th

This issue of Sociological Research Online contains a Rapid Response by sociologists to the September 11th attacks on the United States and the aftermath of these. Steve Fuller's piece, Looking for Sociology after 11 September, was written first and made available to potential contributors, who were then asked to address some of the issues he raised. Our intention is to initiate a process in which sociologists begin to reflect on these events as sociologists and to consider their possible implications for the development of the discipline's understanding of the contemporary world. One question we thought it appropriate to address is whether, as has often been claimed, the attacks of September 11th were world-altering events? This is of course a difficult question to answer. Weber's sociology has many examples of world-altering events, which set on course the subsequent development of whole civilisations, such as the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). But Weber wrote of such events often at a 2000 or so year distance when it is possible to hazard a 'thought experiment' as to what might have happened if things had gone differently. We are still only a few months from September 11th and it is probably too soon to say whether this was an historical watershed. It could turn out to be the prelude to something much more serious and long lasting, such as the beginning of Huntington's clash of civilizations, or the consolidation of the promised post-cold war New Order (which is unlikely) or again the escalation of a regional Middle Eastern conflict. Or something we cannot yet imagine.

While avoiding hasty predictions, we might nonetheless ask whether sociology is conceptually equipped to analyse events of this magnitude? We are perhaps hampered in undertaking such an exercise by some recent developments in sociology, especially to what Norbert Elias referred to as 'the retreat of sociologists into the present'. It is going to be difficult to assess the world-historical significance of these events if we have no sense of the historical emergence of societies, or even more, regard the notion of the social itself as anachronistic. Benet Davetian, Moral Tensions Between Western and Islamic Cultures: The Need for Additional Sociological Studies of Dissonance in the Wake of September 11, poses crucial questions about the moral tensions between Western and Islamic societies that in some ways invokes an earlier style of comparative sociology. But to take theses issues forward in ways that address these questions and those raised by Fukuyama, Huntington, Chomsky and Hitchens is difficult unless we abandon some of the theoretical and empirical presentism that characterises the subject. Likewise the notion of theodicy raised by Fuller was a central theme in Weber's comparative sociology and raises crucial questions about the ways in which world views address suffering and redemption. Unless questions about the development and fate of social orders are addressed we will have difficulty finding the conceptual means to assess these events.

One theme addressed in these articles, in different ways, is the relationship between September 11th and sociological concerns with modern organization, control and freedom. The articles by Martin Innes, Control Creep, and David Lyon, Surveillance after September 11, both reflect on the ways in which state domestic responses to the attacks on September 11th slot into the emergence of new systems of control. Innes draws attention to the process of 'control creep' where 'signal crimes' are invoked to provoke the institution of gradually extending forms of surveillance and regulation. But as Lyon argues this does not necessarily entail the kinds of centralised surveillance envisaged by Weber's iron cage or Foucault's panopticon. Creeping control may be 'rhizomic; more like a creeping plant than a central tree trunk with spreading branches'. This indicates ways in which the domestic control strategies of western states in response to September 11th connote wider themes in post- Weberian sociology to do with the electronic gaze and insinuation of controls into the fabric of everyday life. This indicates the remaining centrality of issues of rights and liberties - an issue to which we should be alerted when the current British Home Secretary describes concern with civil liberties as "airy-fairy" and "naive". Again, whilst questions of human rights are often addressed within a framework of 'global civil society', problems of the balance of security and liberty in the context of 'asymmetric threat' also need to be addressed within a sociology of national state and juridical process.

In some ways, recent events profile some key features of the modernist project in which violence and terror play a part. The notion of terror itself as an instrument of political change raises some problems for contemporary sociology. One hallmark of the modern age was the extended deployment of redemptive violence - by both states and revolutionary movements. Maximilien Robespierre expressed the justification for terror as the instrument of the revolutionary state.

Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs'. (1794) On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy Justification of the Use of Terror.
The purpose of terror is to effect rapid political changes by instilling fear (and hence virtue) into otherwise recalcitrant populations. Mass state terror was likewise justified during the twentieth century through the use of redemptive utopian language by movements like Nazism and Communism. From Rousseau onwards, modernist revolutionary discourse was grounded partially in nostalgia for a lost harmony of nature and life that existed at the origin of humanity that could be recreated through acts of heroism. This Romantic modernism moreover involved the heroic ethos of self-sacrifice for a better future and the quest for unattainable virtue which one finds in the Carbonari, anarchists, Russian Populists, who preferred suicide rather than accept the impossibility of perfection. Sacrificial death eradicates the split between good and evil. The Jacobin leader, Antoine Saint-Just expressed this when he claimed that 'circumstances are only difficult for those drawing back from the grave'. Diverse Islamist movements (often misleadingly described as 'fundamentalist') have both borrowed from and innovated these ideas. The 'art of death' (fann al-mawt) of the suicide bomber and the readiness to sacrifice oneself as a martyr for Jehad draws on a wider belief that self-sacrifice is justified since the Will can triumph over circumstances. Thus the epidemic of fear that Simon Williams, From Smart Bombs to Smart Bugs: Thinking the Unthinkable in Medical Sociology and Beyond, discusses in relation to bio-terrorism is part of the script for the use of the spectacle of terror by both state and insurgent movements. This raises wider issues about the relationship between technological progress and the potential for mass destruction, again as Williams argues, the risks here that we are only just beginning to address. These issues are raised too by Stephen Vertigans and Philip Sutton, Back to the Future: 'Islamic Terrorism' and Interpretations of Past and Present, who examine the complex articulations of modernity in Islamic movements.

These questions go to the heart of understanding the process of globalized modernity. The attack on the World Trade Centre was not only an event of global significance but was a spectacle that presupposed the presence of globalized media and instantaneous communication. This was, as many have said, the most violent event ever to be shown instantaneously on television, which evoked a world of speed, instantaneity, distance and co-presence. But it would surely be a mistake to conclude from this that the event fits (however uncomfortably) into the prevailing conceptions of globalization. Chris Rumford, Confronting 'Uncivil Society' and the 'Dark Side of Globalization': are Sociological Concepts up to the Task?, argues that sociologists need to reclaim possession of the concepts of globalization and civil society and articulate both their complexity and the possibility of alternative paths to those of the present. But this is a message that needs to be taken into sociology too. According to Tony Giddens, for example, 'in a globalized, post- cold war era no one has any enemies'[1], and new wars take place on global arena - as for example the conflict in Kosova between old-style territorial nationalism and ethically driven interventionism. We might indeed now view this claim as premature, although it does point towards increasingly fluid and post-national forms of conflict in which specific enemies are difficult to define. It would be quite premature surely to announce the 'end' or even 'decline' of territorially based state powers. The al-Qa'ida network is a global and in some ways a 'placeless organization' yet the war is a means by which national, territorial state power can be consolidated in pursuit of this placeless enemy. Ill-defined and pervasive enemies, threats to our 'way of life', have generally been more effective foci for state mobilisation than more clearly defined enemies and limited conflicts. We are seeing the consolidation of a global arena of state agents confronting (sometimes) transnational social movements, rather than a truly post-national arena.

Modernity, finally, entailed the notion of a world that could be brought under human control and yet might display a recalcitrance that eluded such control. This view had different versions, essentially grounded in the Romantic suspicion that technology would prove to be an enemy rather than friend to humanity. The figures of Frankenstein through to Dr Strangelove have been vehicles for expressing fears of the ultimate hubris of technological modernity. As Vertigans and Sutton point out, al-Qa'ida used modern technological means of communication in the service of a radical notion of Islamic praxis. The possibility of control of the world has also given rise in the modern imagination, to the notion of controllers - of cognoscenti' privy to esoteric knowledge and power. The response of some western intellectuals to September 11th (such as some cited by Fuller) has illustrated the abiding role of Jewishness as the Other of the western imagination. Those who imply that America 'had this coming' because of its support for Israel or that there is a global Jewish network linking Israel and the US, replay a conspiracy theory that is present too in the radical Islamist version of identity politics. The latter constructs Islam as the victim of a global conspiracy of the West, capitalism and the Jews (the latter epitomising the former two). This I suspect attests to the deeply ingrained figure of the Jew, as Bauman argues, as the epitome of a debased and conspiratorial modernity. How this figure has survived relatively intact into the 21st century is something on which sociologists might want to reflect.

Larry Ray
Co-editor, Sociological Research Online


1Giddens, A. (2001) 'The Runaway World Debate' at < globalisation.htm>