The Self-Flagellants of the Western World

Excerpt from The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner (Princeton University Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 1: Guilt Peddlers

The Self-Flagellants of the Western World

In 1947 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, still a communist fellow-traveler, tried to understand the logic of the Moscow purge trials that ten years earlier had led Stalin to eliminate his former companions, who had been renamed “enemies of the people.”[11] Even if they were innocent of the charges brought against them, these hard-core Bolsheviks confessed their sins, accusing themselves of imaginary crimes. They invented all kinds of betrayals of the proletariat and died with full confidence in the future of the revolution. Relatively speaking, the mentality of accusation still subsists in our reflex to spontaneously blame ourselves for the planet’s ills. The average European, whether male or female, is extremely sensitive, always ready to shoulder the blame for the poverty of Africa or Asia, to sorrow over the world’s problems, to assume responsibility for them, always ready to ask what Europeans can do for the South rather than asking what the South could do for itself.

By the evening of September 11, 2001, many Europeans, despite their obvious sympathy for the victims, were telling themselves that the Americans deserved what they got. The cream of the European intelligentsia immediately adopted that line with an abundance of rhetorical subtleties: the hijackers who had destroyed the World Trade Center towers were only the agents of a ruthless punishment. We saw two-bit Neros applauding this double attack and finding in it the execution of an immanent justice. Tit for tat, the re-establishment of a balance upset by an excessive dissymmetry—that was the interpretation offered by Jean Baudrillard in an utterly religious justification of this vengeance:

When the situation is monopolized in this way by the world power, when one has to deal with this enormous condensation of all functions by technocratic machinery and the dominant way of thinking, how can one proceed except by a terrorist transfer of the situation? It is the system itself that has created the objective conditions of this brutal retaliation. By taking all the cards into its own hand, it forces the other to change the rules of the game … terror against terror, there is no longer any ideology behind all that.

But the terrorist attacks on March 11, 2004, in Madrid (200 dead) proved that Europeans had also internalized the crime: the decision of Zapatero’s new left-wing government to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq (fulfilling a previous commitment) made it seem that he was yielding to the demands of the bombers and that the carnage in the Atocha train station was caused by Madrid’s involvement, in alliance with Washington, in the second Gulf War (whereas terrorist cells continued their attacks long after the withdrawal, arguing that the Muslims lost Andalusia in the fifteenth century). Let us recall that in Madrid a million citizens protested, with not a single cry of hatred against Arabs, limiting themselves to booing José Aznar, who had drawn them into Iraq against their will and had wrongly accused the Basque separatist organization ETA of having planted the bombs. Today the massacre is still attributed to the leader of the populist Right, who has been elevated to the status of a convenient scapegoat, which makes it possible to avoid looking into the real causes. The bombs that exploded in London on July 7, 2005, killing almost sixty people, have also given rise to a whole rhetoric of expiation. The following day, the headline in Le Parisien, which is not particularly known for being left-wing, read: “Al-Qaeda Punishes London” (the paper later apologized for using this phrase). The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, a committed Leftist known for his hostility to Israel, condemned the attacks but soon afterward explained that the Arab countries have to be left alone, perhaps forgetting that most of the terrorists were British subjects of Pakistani origin:

The suicide attacks would probably not have happened had Western powers left Arab nations free to decide their own affairs after World War I. I think you’ve just had 80 years of Western intervention into predominantly Arab lands because of the Western need for oil…. If at the end of the First World War we had done what we promised the Arabs, which was to let them be free and have their own governments, and kept out of Arab affairs, and just bought their oil, rather than feeling we had to control the flow of oil, I suspect this wouldn’t have arisen.[12]

Reversing the burden of proof, making civilians torn apart by steel and fire guilty in spite of themselves, is what the British writer John Le Carré also achieves. Regretting that in Great Britain, as in the United States, there is in practice “no parliamentary opposition” [sic], he sees the sources of terrorism in frustrations and humiliations, both past and present:

When communities have been exploited for a long time, this creates in them a desire for revenge, no matter how psychotic or mistaken it may be. To understand what produces this psychosis that leads people to want to “kill, kill, kill,” it suffices to observe these communities.[13]

A French sociologist, Farhad Khosrokhavar, explains the attacks as the result of the humiliation of the Arab-Muslim world in general “because of the creation of Israel, because of the feeling that Islam has become the religion of the oppressed.”[14] Interviewed by the French Press agency on July 13, 2005, another sociologist, François Burgat, confirms this analysis: without the impression of injustice felt by the Arab masses with regard to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the perception of a double standard in the way Israel and Iraq are treated politically, such events would never have occurred.

It is clear that if tomorrow terrorists should blow up the Parisian Metro, topple the Eiffel Tower, or destroy Notre Dame, we would hear the same argument. Sensitive people on both the Left and the Right would urge us to blame ourselves: we have been attacked, so we are guilty, whereas our attackers are in reality poor wretches protesting against our insolent wealth, our way of life, our predatory economy. Spontaneously, our judgment of ourselves grants that our adversaries are right. After each explosion, there is a flood of panicked efforts to explain it that invokes all the problems of the world simultaneously, so eager are we to put our motivations into the mouths of the jihadists, even if we disapprove of their methods. And to counteract their terrifying silence, we speak for them, we tell them what to say. “Who are our enemies?” Dominique de Villepin asks. “The world’s wounds are many. Out of habit, weakness, fear, it is tempting to mix everything up in a stubborn struggle against a diabolical adversary.”[15] But we don’t choose our enemies in accord with our wishes or our convictions; it is they who designate us as enemies, strike us when they wish, and seek our destruction. Whence the feeling of a certain schizophrenia in old Europe: alongside the United States, we are fighting a terrorism whose importance we never cease to deny or minimize. For some, this constitutes a kind of “intellectual fraud” that will put us under Washington’s control.[16] For others, such as the Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero, we have to push euphemism to the point of refusing to name the danger: “I never speak of Islamist terrorism, but only of international terrorism. We cannot lump together under one name hundreds of millions of people and a religion that, like all religions in the history of humanity, includes an element of religious fanaticism.”[17] Entirely committed to denial, our leaders thus ask Europe to attack the roots of the problem, which are “injustice, resentment, and frustration” (Dominique de Villepin). It is not a matter of fighting but rather of “trying to understand” the other, because “knowing is fundamental” and “the use of force leads nowhere” (Mario Soares).

But these interpretive schemes suffer from a major problem: they confuse pretexts with causes. It is true that when existing pathologies find no outlet, terrorism grafts itself onto them and overdetermines them. However, its ultimate motivation is fanatics’ hostility to the principle of an open society in which formal equality is recognized for everyone. It is our existence as such that is intolerable for them. But this observation is intolerable for us: in order to remain within the bounds of reason and to nourish the idea that “even the enemies of reason … must be, in some fashion, reasonable” (Paul Berman), we must at all costs provide arguments for the killers, even if in doing so we seem to justify their acts.

Just as there are those within radical Islamism who preach hate, so there are preachers of hate within our democracies, especially among the intellectual elites, and their proselytizing is no less intense. To hear them tell it, we are far from being innocent because we allow, through a simple effect of power relationships, hunger, AIDS, inadequate medical care to exist. Speaking of September 11, Jacques Derrida explained:

Does terrorism necessarily involve death? Can’t one terrorize without killing? And then is killing necessarily something active? Can’t “letting people die” not wanting to know that one is letting people die (hundreds of millions of people dying of hunger, AIDS, inadequate health care, etc.) be part of a “more or less” conscious and deliberate terrorist strategy? We are wrong to suppose too easily that all terrorism is voluntary, conscious, organized, deliberate, intentionally calculated: there are historical or political situations in which terror operates, so to speak, by itself, through the simple effect of an apparatus, through established power relationships, without anyone, any conscious subject, any person, being consciously aware of it or taking responsibility for it. All situations of structural social or national oppression produce a terror that is never natural (and which is therefore organized, institutional) and on which they depend without those who benefit from them ever having to organize terrorist acts or be called terrorists.[18]

You’ve read that correctly: we’re all potential terrorists; to one degree or another, we sow death the way Monsieur Jourdain spoke prose, without knowing it! To be sure, after finishing his implacable argument, Derrida ended up declaring his preference for democracy. Nonetheless, by revealing our manifold unconscious complicity with horror, he has proven that crime is our most widely shared characteristic. Moreover, certain films have popularized the image of those decent families, those peaceful little towns, that hide a terrible secret, an evil being. Suspicion gnaws at our most idyllic landscapes. Where we think we see an opposition with the fundamentalists, we must recognize an equivalence. Instead of being stupidly scandalized by explosions, let us begin by questioning ourselves, dissecting ourselves without respecting any taboo. Haven’t we, after all, been asking for it, in a way? Beneath the appearance of a complex analysis, we find here the typical evangelical posture: self-accusation, public castigation. As good heirs of the Bible, we think that a great misfortune necessarily follows a great infraction. In this respect the intellectual caste, in our world, is the penitential class par excellence, continuing the role of the clergy under the old regime. We have to call its members what they are: officials of original sin. Obsessed with their desire to dismantle appearances, they never cease to insist on our naïveté. You think there’s a radical opposition between the United States and Al-Qaeda? How childish—they’re accomplices. What is terrorism, after all? A simple settling of accounts between rogue states, including America, since there’s no real difference between them:

There seems to be a powerful rationalization going on, consciously or unconsciously calculated. It consists in accusing and campaigning against so-called Rogue States, which in fact care little about international law. This rationalization is maneuvered by hegemonic states, starting with the United States, which was early and properly shown (Chomsky was not the only one to do so) to have long behaved as “Rogue States.” Moreover, every sovereign state is virtually and a priori capable of abusing its power and transgressing international law just like a Rogue State. There is a rogue element in every state.[19]

Excerpted from The Tyranny of Guilt by Pascal Bruckner. Copyright © Princeton University Press, 2012. All rights reserved.


[11] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanisme et terreur, introduction by Claude Lefort (Paris: NRF/Gallimard, 1980).
[12] Le Monde, July 21, 2005.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Le Monde, July 17, 2005.
[15] Dominique de Villepin, Le Requin et la Mouette (Paris: Plon, 2004), p. 113.
[16] Pascal Boniface, Le Nouvel Observateur, December 18, 2005.
[17] Interview in Le Monde, June 29, 2004.
[18] Giovanna Borradori, Le Concept du 11 septembre. Dialogues avec Jacques Derrida et Jürgen Habermas (Paris: Galilée, 2004), pp. 162–63.
[19] Jacques derrida, Voyous (Paris: Galilée, 2003), pp. 214–15.

Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and intellectual and a leading critic of cultural trends in Europe. He is one of France’s most creative and original minds and the author of over 20 books. Critic Clive James has called him “one of the indispensable philosophers of our time”. Historian Richard Wolin said Bruckner “might well be the most distinguished essay writer in France today. … Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, he does the life of the mind an invaluable service.”

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism
By Pascal Bruckner
Princeton University Press; Tra edition (April 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0691154309
ISBN-13: 978-0691154305
$19.93

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