ABSTRACT

The purpose of this chapter is to return again to the question of meaning in al-Qaeda’s terrorist acts. It will focus on the “Event” of 9/11 as the paradigmatic example of such violence, but the argument is also relevant in a wider context of al-Qaeda-sponsored violence in London, Madrid, and other places.1 To put the matter simply: What sense does it make to fly planes into buildings? What possible political purpose can such an act have? This puzzle has occupied scholars for the last ten years now, and the answers vary significantly. To return to this question in this essay and to add to the list of explanations is justified by the conviction that a distinctive, so far over-looked social mechanism is at play in this act. We need, this essay argues, to recognize the role of recognition in al-Qaeda’s actions. More precisely, we need to understand alQaeda’s desire to become recognized as a political, indeed quasi-sovereign, rather than criminal actor in the global system. Indeed, as will be argued, it is the extraordinary level of violence, the sublime and horrific nature of its attacks that lead to this interpretation. In this interpretation, 9/11 was an aesthetic act; that is, an act that finished “in the explosive brilliance [éclat] of the beautiful and sublime, that doubled rivalry for sovereignty.”2 Hence, rather than making the act incomprehensible and utterly meaningless, the horrendous nature of the act in fact gives it meaning.