Let's lose the war on terror

The long shadow of 9/11From the war on terror to the war on the virus

The Islamist terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the global coronavirus pandemic can already be regarded as the two major cuts in world history in the 21st century. Eerily, there are many similarities in their slipstream: One speaks of war, only recently the New York mayor called ventilators weapons. Like the sleeper in the past, the virus is an invisible enemy; we involuntarily divide ourselves into dangerous and harmless contemporaries; in some places there are general suspicions against entire population groups.

Once again there are restrictions in public life, nationalism, border closings, turbulence in the markets - and digital surveillance is well advanced. For Stefan Weidner, all of this shows that we want to fight the pandemic like we did against Islamist terrorism. However, that was a war that went completely wrong.

A diagnosis that is far too drastic and condemns us to fatalism and apathy? Not at all, explains Stefan Weidner in an interview. Rather, it can provide clear guidelines for an alternative global coping strategy.

Stefan Weidner is an author and Islamic scholar. Most recently he published “Beyond the West. For a new cosmopolitanism ”(2018) and“ 1001 book. The Literatures of the Orient ”(2019). In 2019, Weidner's radio essay “Our freedom, seen from the outside” was broadcast on Deutschlandfunk.



Pascal Fischer: A topic that has preoccupied us all these months: the corona pandemic. Today we want to place it next to another world historical event, one from this century that had similar consequences: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Because then, as now, there was isolation, restrictions in public life, surveillance, and general suspicions , War rhetoric, yes, also to conspiracy theories. My guest Stefan Weidner says: It's no coincidence. Precisely because of 9/11, patterns developed in our societies that determine how we now react to the pandemic.

Stefan Weidner is an Islamic scholar and journalist, most recently in 2018 he published the book "Beyond the West: For a New Cosmopolitanism". And on this program slot here we broadcast an essay by him in 2019, which was entitled: "Our freedom seen from outside". Stefan Weidner is currently working on a new book in which a chapter elaborates the thesis on 9/11 and the coronavirus, and we would like to talk about that now. Welcome, Stefan Weidner!

Stefan Weidner: Good day!

Fisherman: Mr. Weidner, at the beginning of May US President Trump described the corona epidemic in his country very drastically in your sense: It was worse than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. So did President Trump open your eyes there?

Weidner: No, that wasn't necessary, these similarities, these analogies between 9/11 and the corona crisis were actually evident from the start. I sat in Istanbul, wrote my new book about the aftermath of 9/11 and actually wanted to support the thesis that a lot of what concerns us today - from the refugee crisis to the instability in the Middle East to the new right-wing populist movements , yes, even up to the white terror, which finally arose in analogy to the Islamic terror - which we cannot explain all of this without 9/11. Then there was the corona crisis and I thought: I've lost my topic - now a new era is actually beginning. A new era also begins, but as soon as you think about it, you discover very, very many similarities. Similarities that not only have to do with the fact that there are two decisive events, but also similarities that have a lot to do with our reaction. For example, practically the feeling that we are living in a state of emergency, or not just the feeling that the governments have actually declared this state of emergency; then a fundamental feeling of shock and insecurity, we need a radical political reorientation, at least that is the current mood.

And of course that is exactly what happened after 9/11. Large amounts of money are being taken in hand and shifted to completely different fields than previously thought that the money would be spent on it! The state suddenly takes on a very manifest role, there is massive interference by the state in our freedoms. In the corona crisis this is sometimes even clearer than with 9/11, but it was also obvious with 9/11 and was also much criticized. Finally, of course, there is also a mistrust and disbelief in relation to what is happening, a distrust of the state or of the official accounts of what is happening. And that in turn gives birth to conspiracy theories. And I believe that the event that actually gave birth to these modern, or let's call them post-modern and populist conspiracy theories, is of course 9/11. That is the thesis that the Americans orchestrated these attacks themselves or a group of people in the government. And that's exactly how we feel now, when many people are of the opinion that the whole thing is half as wild, that the state is puffing it up, that maybe Bill Gates or other dark forces are behind it.

Then, very interesting actually ... interrupt me if I go too far here ...

Both towers of the burning World Trade Center in New York collapse after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. (picture-alliance / dpa)

Fisherman: Yes, I have to interrupt you here again. Let's take another step back. What pictures do you use to establish that a striking comparison is made here, simply when we think of everyday life, of experience? Because that's what it's all about, everyday experience.

Weidner: So both crises have produced a fundamental iconography, a world of images. Just as eerie as the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center are the images of the large metropolises, all of which have been swept empty. New York, Madrid, no idea which cities, we suddenly see Paris without people. This is basically a nightmare vision, a post-apocalyptic vision - and that is what they all have in common. Of course, one has to say the interesting thing is that the virus practically gives birth to media withdrawal. So: We cannot see the virus ourselves like we could see the attacks, we can only see its effects and we see everything only ex negativo. That is the crucial difference, which is also very exciting.

Deserted main road in Paris in mid-March: During the lockdown, France had stricter exit restrictions than Germany. (imago images / Hans Lucas / Nathan LainŽ)

The feeling of constant alert

Fisherman: Let's go through all of these patterns in detail that we inherited from 9/11. Shutdown and lockdown for the security of the population, that sounds timelessly sensible to me at first. Why, in your eyes, does it tend to be just a fatal pattern that we specifically inherited from September 11th?

Weidner: So the shutdown itself is first of all, I would say, a justified and natural, spontaneous reaction to regain control of the virus. And of course we would do the same, and we did the same in rioting, terrorist attacks and so on. That is to some extent understandable, I wouldn't criticize anything about that. The danger is - and then we would actually repeat the pattern of 9/11 - that we will make these measures permanent, or at least some of them. So if we say now that we have to maintain this social distance for months and years, then I would say: This is a wrong reaction. There must be other ways. We must not perpetuate these measures. And the great danger and the great analogy of 9/11 and the virus is that this danger is not like a natural disaster. Imagine an earthquake, there can be aftershocks, there can also be another quake at some point. But once it has happened, in principle it is over. Or in the event of a flood disaster, something similar. That is not the case here. That was not the case with terror either. The threat of terrorism persisted.

And this practically resulted in the paranoid reaction, so to speak: We now have to keep ourselves constantly on a kind of alert.

The political scientist Ulrike Guérot researches European integration and the role of Europe in the world. (Imago / Metodi Popow) Protests against corona rules - "Implausible bans irritate a society"
The political scientist Ulrike Guérot sees the problem of the stigmatization of criticism in the corona crisis. Anyone who criticizes Corona measures is presented as unreasonable. The sense of the mask requirement is also controversial among experts.

Fisherman: But if I may interrupt you, the political scientist Ulrike Guérot recently drew attention to something similar on Deutschlandfunk. She said: We haven't had another 9/11 for decades - but we're still going through extreme security checks at the airport.

Weidner: Exactly.

Fisherman: That is this permanent state of emergency. But well, you could say, he's only there so that nothing happens. So isn't it argued exactly the wrong way round?

Weidner: It depends what you mean. I think airport security checks are inevitable. Of course there are some small details that are a bit ridiculous, like the fact that you can't take water on board. I think of deeper things like suspending the rule of law. Think of something like Guantanamo, the ability to pick up prisoners anywhere in the world, to keep them in a territory that practically does not belong to any nation, although it is of course administered by a nation such as the United States. And you can keep people there indefinitely and without trial. Until recently, the US failed to give up Guantanamo. Even Obama, who tried that, did not succeed easily. In other words, you have a state of affairs - which at first it was perhaps understandable that you had to find a camp for these people without being immediately forced to bring them to the USA and condemn them there according to the rule of law - that of Duration was asked. And what that means in each case, what that means for the corona crisis, cannot yet be clearly foreseen. But it could in fact consist of us being closely monitored with some kind of tracking app. That is, I believe, the great danger that we must face.Pandemic? Conspiracy theorists like the supporters of QAnon claim that it is only a means for the state to control citizens. (imago images / Sachelle Babbar)

Weidner: People tend to push the problem away from themselves

Fisherman: But can you compare that now if we come back to the restrictions on civil rights? Of course, what the USA did to some people was blatant, but so far in the corona crisis one has rather the feeling that this is, yes, right-wing agitation, if one suspects entire population groups to bring the virus into the country and therefore closes the borders and a bit of that mixed up with an asylum policy and a refugee issue.

Weidner: Yes, these are actually two different questions for me. So one thing is, of course you are right: there is a tendency to project this crisis onto a certain segment of the population. After 9/11 it was of course the Muslims. In the case of a virus crisis, this is less easy because the virus can really attack anyone, and any of us can be a carrier of the virus without our knowing it. So if we apply this analogy to 9/11, then any of us can be a sleeper, a potential terrorist. And this suspicion, which weighs on each of us, so to speak, and which can also weigh on us, while we ourselves feel completely rightly innocent because we may not even know that we have the virus in us, this suspicion is a great offense, of course. And I think a lot of people then tend to externalize this problem, that is, to push it off to others. They might be refugees, but it can also be that you simply say: The problem doesn't actually exist, it was exaggerated, the coronavirus is just flu. And yes, we have to learn to live with that. This has to be distinguished from the question: What measures are being taken now, which cultural practices are being implemented that we may no longer need in a year or two at the latest, but which will still be continued and which we have internalized anyway? I see more of a danger there.

Fisherman: What about digitization? It's much more advanced than 2001. Almost everyone has a smartphone. Broadband internet is available everywhere. Apps track us in a variety of ways. If I understand you correctly, you would say: We didn't really learn from the dangers at that time - now there are much more comprehensive monitoring options available and they are used and we are not defending ourselves enough?

Weidner: So, on the one hand, we of course benefit from the technical developments that we have had in recent years, and also from the monitoring options that go hand in hand with them. Because it is possible for us, with technical help, to control the virus to a certain extent and thus defeat it, for example with the tracking apps that are now available. However, there is of course a great danger there too. Take a look at the following: In Israel, for example, it was the case that the data from terrorist surveillance are now being used to trace the movement of the virus carriers and thus contain the virus. First of all, one could say, yes, that is a good use of these monitoring measures. That is superficially true. But now it could be: Imagine we have a terrorist attack: Now the same thing is used to find the terrorists. That too, we could say, is good. But now imagine doing this in a country like Turkey, where every member of the opposition is arrested almost across the board under suspicion of terrorism. In other words: the dangers are very great.

Coronavirus shows structural problems in our world

Fisherman: Speaking of which, the war against the virus - you are criticizing the wars that started in the USA in particular from 2001: At that time in the USA after 9/11, wars were considered to be winnable that could not be won at all. At least there weren't any quick wins, as history has taught us.

This is also a little hinted at with Covid-19. You think you're doing a bit of a lockdown, the virus is gone, but there can always be herds that flare up again and again, it can spread anywhere around the world, even if we are good here in Germany and adhere to all the rules of distance. So I asked myself: Are you trying to make us hopeless?

Weidner: So of course I don't want that at all! I just want to warn against hoping for solutions that are too quick and also against a policy that makes great promises from above, as Trump did, as Boris Johnson did, as it is happening in Turkey. Fortunately, that doesn't happen so easily here in Germany, but of course it's very dangerous to awaken this hope. In addition, I believe we are making a serious mistake if we really just refer to the virus as this one virus. Not only that other viruses can come - it is more a medium that shows, so to speak, certain structural problems of our world order. The virus could not have spread so quickly without a completely unleashed globalization. Even economically, the virus would not have been able to cause this damage if we had not been globally networked in this way. Or in other words: we shouldn't just strive for technical or medical solutions! It is the same again, so to speak, that one believes that all problems can be solved with new technology or new medicine. It's not like that. I think there is a structural problem and we have to solve it. And that actually has to do with globalization. Imagine the following, and this is also related to 9/11: If 9/11 hadn't happened, I'm sure, this climate discussion would have been held much earlier - it was already there in the 1990s - that we've had for the past couple of years now.Now imagine if you had succeeded in reducing emissions from flights, for example by no longer promoting air traffic as drastically as it has been in recent years, by simply making airfares more expensive by increasing them Hurdles in terms of this traffic. This also means that the virus would automatically have been transported more slowly and we would have had more time to prepare for it. This is a very simple example, but you can roughly see which way this is going.

Fisherman: In other words, 9/11 actually led us a bit on a wrong loop in history, it distracted us a bit from the great story of globalization or the climate catastrophe, and which are we coming back to now?

Weidner: Exactly, exactly. So 9/11 set a wrong frame, a wrong frame for our orientation in the years after. One was fixated on the cultural problem, on Islam, on the terror that goes with it, on extremism. It has not been seen that the world may have much bigger problems. And, so to speak, in the slipstream and behind the curtain of this fight against terrorism and the focus of constant attention on Islam, this globalization was pushed forward with even greater brutality and ruthlessness, because the attention was indeed elsewhere. And I think that this is now taking its extreme revenge, especially since 9/11 could of course have taught us that the whole problem with terrorism and Islam is perhaps something that goes back to the colonial age: global, radical global inequalities between the north and the south, on a great duplicity in the politics of the west. That is exactly the same thing that will actually concern us again now, because it is the question of global inequality, it is the question of climate protection, for example, which we can only tackle globally. And in the same way, of course, the problem of terror and extremism can only be solved by adjusting economic and social conditions in such a way that the soil is removed from extremism. While you may not be able to do that entirely, you will not be able to completely eliminate the virus either, but you will be able to mitigate the effects.

Fisherman: In your essay you draw a very interesting comparison, I think: You write: Terror crossed the cultural boundary between the West and Islam, just as the virus crossed the animal-human boundary. What is the lesson from this? That you didn't expect such a powerful terrorism as you didn't expect the virus and a pandemic?

Weidner: Well, the joke is, of course, that in the end we were not only confronted with terrorism from the Islamic cultural area, but that this terrorism also infected us and gave rise to populist, right-wing extremist terrorism in us. It started in 2011 with the Breivik assassination in Utøya, 77 dead. And it has found many other successors. The point is, I believe, that it is not possible to say about the virus that it is only a Chinese problem. Or to say in the case of terrorism: extremism, dissatisfaction with global developments, that is only a Muslim problem. That doesn't work at first. And the other point is of course this comparison with the crossing of the cultural boundaries from Islam to the West or with the virus that crosses the biological boundary from animal to human. We can think about the whole thing further. Because the virus actually crosses the line between biology and culture. Because at the latest in the time of the Anthropocene - that is, the earth age of man, when man really shaped the whole globe, the whole globe from A to Z and we can basically no longer find a piece of earth that is not influenced by man - in At this moment the virus is a part of humans and is also a part of human culture. And it eats its way into our way of life, so to speak, and in the end, even the big problem probably won't be the biological virus at all, which will actually cause a lot of death and so on. Rather, the bigger problem is probably what the virus does to us culturally, if we are not very careful, i.e. if we continue this social distancing, if we really believe that teaching, school, even universities can only be taught via computer screens, so to speak and hold sessions over Skype and Zoom, just as a very simple example. There will be deeper effects that we cannot yet foresee.

Fisherman: They are all very drastic developments and you also show that war metaphors naturally play a major role. In 2001, as today, many people like to speak in war metaphors. That is actually astonishing, because first of all it is a huge medical mission, and there are victims, but initially no real opponent like in the war. How do these war metaphors come about?

Weidner: This is of course also a great analogy to 9/11. It is clear that the first thing to do is to visualize the urgency of the situation. But in a second step, and this is where it becomes potentially dangerous again, it is of course also about empowering those responsible and politicians to take very special measures. If I'm the one calling war, then of course I'm the one in command. That can be reasonable to the extent that there is someone who tells us where to go, I would certainly admit that, de facto there is also a presumption in this. Because in the end it is not the politician who says where to go. But it is the individual people, it is all of us who have to fight the virus in reality, who have to ensure that the virus does not spread any further. Only each individual can do that, and politics can at most enact laws or measures that require us to do so. But it is not only an empowerment of politicians, it is also a disempowerment of the subject. At the moment when something is prescribed to me, when it is prescribed to me that I am not allowed to meet the others in order to limit the virus, at that moment I am no longer responsible myself. After all, I can no longer reap the moral added value, the moral credit that consists in saying that I do not do this voluntarily, I make sure that I now meet as few people as possible so that I do not spread the virus. And it is precisely this moral added value, this moral gain that accrues to me solely because I remain responsible, is of course taken from me by such presumptuous language and politics. On the other hand, I think the war rhetoric is of course symptomatic because it almost seems to me that we have no other language to express the urgency of the problem. And if we don't have another language, that means to me that we don't have any other solvents, no alternatives, either. It is therefore a lack of alternatives that is expressed in this inadequate language or language that has been reduced to war rhetoric.

Fisherman: But Mr. Weidner, when the US cities say we are at war when Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, says that ventilators are the weapons in this war, do you really mean that it leads to a kind of self- fulfilling prophecy like when you prepared a war through rhetoric, when you really prepared a real war? Can this martial rhetoric really slip away in the corona pandemic? Is that your thesis?

Weidner: I would say it can happen. The bad thing about rhetoric isn't the likelihood of it sliding off. The bad thing about rhetoric for me is that it is symptomatic, so to speak, of the fact that besides confrontational tactics, besides tactics, the virus is an adversary that we have to wipe out, just as terror was an adversary that we have to wipe out seem to have nothing. I actually fight against that. But you are right anyway. There is actually a danger that this war rhetoric will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that can stay on a metaphorical level for now. There is actually already a diplomatic war with China over the question of where the virus comes from and who is responsible for it. One can very well imagine that there may be wars of distraction if the US fails to bring the virus under control. It looks like it. What's stopping Trump from actually calling a real war to distract from this crisis? Finally, of course, there is the danger of civil war or civil war-like conditions, and there is, so to speak, the smell of burning in the air with this war metaphor.

US President Donald Trump often uses war metaphors - even in the corona crisis (AFP / MANDEL NGAN)

Corona and the war metaphor

Fisherman: It is precisely this war metaphor that comes more from the USA, which has always been known for its particularly martial or perhaps even paranoid rhetoric. How much is your theory of the long shadow of 9/11 shaped by the reactions of certain countries such as the USA or Brazil or perhaps Great Britain, at least in the initial phase? In Germany people seem to react more prudently, especially at the government level, and to be open to scientific arguments first.

Weidner: You are absolutely right, I also find that very interesting. This is, so to speak, a completely unexpected, but nonetheless positive aftermath of our fatal experiences with two world wars and perhaps also the German coming to terms with the past, which of course also promoted a greater sense of peaceful or, so to speak, civilian ways of dealing with problems. It's really interesting, too, that is again one of the striking analogies that the Germans of all people who have now abstained from this rhetoric in the corona crisis, the Germans of all people, of course, did not participate in many of the American wars or only very hesitantly. And those are very interesting analogies.

So you see, I think you can almost read from the German performance in the corona crisis, as far as you can tell up to now, that it is worth trying to cope with these problems in a civilian language. Nevertheless, of course we have to see that we are all in the same boat here. The we, of which I or whom we may be talking about, is impossible to define nationally: If the USA, Great Britain, let alone Italy, the EU countries are doing badly, we will of course be badly too. That means, even if we don't use this war rhetoric in Germany, we are of course affected when others do the same. Because we are in the same boat. And we will also get drawn into violent events if they should develop.

The head of the right-wing Italian party Lega, Matteo Salvini, at an anti-government demonstration in Rome (AFP / Alberto Pizzoli) Corona: Findings of a crisis - not the hour of the European right
Not the hour of the European right, the borders closed, the children at home with the women. To put it bluntly, the lockdown came very close to the dreams of the European right. Salvini, Le Pen, Kickl and Co. have not yet benefited from this. This is also likely to be due to their fickle Corona course.

The state and the fear of total control

Fisherman: But is this fear that we have here of a government that is too strong or of too much surveillance really realistic? The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, for example, recently said that the state of emergency would become more or less the rule, but that the state was actually just a driven one.

Weidner: It is true that many states actually suffer from not having this authority. So in Italy you could see, I think, that the state had no control over the situation at all in the beginning. In the USA it is a little different in that it is actually the Republican and, above all, Trump-driven policy to dismantle the state, to really dismantle it, to reduce its commitment. And that, I think, is now taking fatal revenge.

As far as Germany is concerned, I do not yet see this danger of an encroaching state. The German state is of course comparatively potent. We have to see very clearly, however, that it would be window dressing to claim that states cannot carry out these attacks. So the prime example is of course China, which really exercises almost total control over the population. I don't know how it is in Russia. I could imagine that it is something like that there. In other words: even if the state may not have total control, it can still demand it or try to enforce it in individual cases, and that can be fatal. In case of doubt, this can actually end in civil war. The prime example of this are the Arab revolutions, especially in Syria, where the state has simply not given in. And then there can really come a moment when you only have the choice of defending yourself against the state by force of arms or of giving way to a repressive system. In other words: the state has the potential to act in this way. In Europe it is not that far yet.

Whereby we in Hungary are already close. I know of cases where people have criticized Facebook posts that criticized the Hungarian government's policy regarding Corona, namely because the policy has relaxed the Corona measures too quickly, that these people actually picked up at six in the morning and have been taken to the police station. So there is this danger.

Overview on the subject of coronavirus (imago / Rob Engelaar / Hollandse Hoogte)

"Posthumanism does not mean that we are against humans"

Fisherman: What do we do with everything now? When we realize that maybe, to put it drastically, we have become a little paranoid due to 9/11 and are now possibly reacting to this pandemic ... Well, should we loosen up again or should we rather go in the direction of deglobalization? You go so far in your text that you say that we have to work "against modernity", so to speak. What does that mean?

Weidner: So we can't abolish globalization anyway, we can't turn it back either, we can only slow it down, we can try to make it more moderate. The fatal thing is - and that also applies to 9/11: We have built up structures, we are in a world so intertwined that we cannot solve these problems selectively, i.e. neither the problem of the virus nor the problem of terror. You can of course bomb any terrorists in Afghanistan or invade Iraq. But you will not be able to conquer Saudi Arabia that easily. But the terror problem begins in Saudi Arabia. And neither can you conquer China just because the Chinese are partly to blame for spreading the virus. What we can only do is: We can make the interdependencies more moderate, and what I would actually suggest would be to apply the principle of social distancing to states that are poorly democratic or poorly legitimized in terms of their relationship to the population. Of course, like in real social distancing, social distancing does not mean that you shouldn't have anything to do with other people, but rather that you keep a certain distance, a slowing down of contact. That you don't make yourself dependent on these regimes. Because both terror and the virus are a product of a lack of political legitimacy, we seldom realize that. But it is clear: if the Chinese had not censored the first reports about the virus from doctors in Wuhan ...! And why did they censor it? Because they were afraid, of course, that they would lose control of the population and the news. In other words: This is ultimately related to the structure of the Chinese state, which is just insufficiently legitimized, which does not trust itself to allow such a message openly. If these messages hadn't been censored, then we probably would have known earlier what the virus was called and could have fought it sooner. And the same goes for terror. Islamic terror has grown in the struggle with the despotic regimes in the region and initially had no other goals than these despotic regimes. And when these despotic regimes had repressed the terrorists so far, they had no choice but to take away any targets. And then it was first the Russians in Afghanistan and then the Americans. We have to see that.

That means we have to shape globalization. We have to shape modernity, we have to overcome modernity in the direction of posthumanism, which I like to talk about in this context.Posthumanism does not mean that we are against human beings, against humanism. But that means that we have to expand humanism, i.e. the focus on people, to what is still there on earth beyond people. And of course that is primarily the environment, nature. And only if we succeed in this will we be able to mitigate similar developments in the future, which will also occur, if they will not take us by surprise. And the moment we deal with the earth in such a way that we kill this earth because it can no longer defend itself against us, we will also die. That means: We actually have a lesson to be learned from the virus, namely that we can only survive if we preserve our host - at the moment specifically the earth - and do not kill it, as the virus kills a weakened person.

Fisherman: Stefan Weidner, thank you very much for the interview!

The long shadow of 9-11. From the war on terror to the war on the virus. That was our topic today in the essay and discourse.

Stefan Weidner's thoughts are expected to appear in January 2021 in his upcoming book "Ground Zero. A History of the Present". They are also already processed in a podcast for the Bremer literary festival Globale, there to be heard online on the debate platform of the festival with the name vitaactiva-globale.de!

Pascal Fischer says goodbye at the microphone of this program. Have a nice day!

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.