Baudrillard’s Spirit of Terrorism: A Generation Z Perspective

Baudrillard’s Spirit of Terrorism: A Generation Z Perspective

by James Wolf Masson

At the very beginning of his controversial essay first published in Le Monde on November 3, 2001, L’esprit du terrorisme, Jean Baudrillard cites the Argentinean writer Macedonio Fernandez’s belief that the world events of the last years of the millennium were on “strike.” Baudrillard writes, “when it comes to symbolic events on a world scale—that is to say not just events that gain worldwide coverage—but events that represent a setback for globalization itself—we had none” (2013, p.3).  With the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Baudrillard declares, as if he is relieved, “Well, the strike is over now. Events are not on strike any more” (2013, p. 3).  He suggests that the attacks represent “the absolute event, the ‘mother’ of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place” (2013, p.3).

Baudrillard goes on to argue that the unimaginable collapse of the World Trade Center towers held more symbolic power than its physical impact. He opines, “It is probable that the terrorists had not foreseen the collapse of the Twin Towers (any more than had the experts!), a collapse which – much more than the attack on the Pentagon – had the greatest symbolic impact” (2013, p. 6).  In Baudrillardian terms, the attacks were a kind of “hyperreal” act of violence that exposed the limitations and contradictions of the global order. They were a form of “counter-violence” that exposed the underlying violence and terror of the global system, and that they revealed the limitations and contradictions found within the West and its capitalist culture. Baudrillard posits: “When global power monopolizes to this extent, when there is such a formidable condensation of all functions in the technocratic machinery, and when no alternative form of thinking is allowed, what other way is there but a terroristic situational transfer?  It was the system itself which created the objective conditions for this brutal retaliation. By seizing all the cards for itself, it forced the Other to change the rules” (2013, p.7). Baudrillard is suggesting that the spirit of terrorism is a response to the hyperreal world dominated by the West where reality is presented as a series of images and simulations. For the French philosopher and sociologist, the act of terrorism cuts through the simulacra of the media making an impact on reality. The spirit of terrorism challenges the dominance of the West by employing violence to upset the established order and create fear and uncertainty. Terror is used as an effective strategy and the only means available to marginalized groups seeking to counter Western hegemony. This highly controversial analysis has caused many to stop short of accusing Baudrillard of praising the collapse of the towers and giving the terrorists a type of moral superiority (see, for example, Wolin, 2004 and Merrin, 2005).

My contemporaries, Generation Z (Gen Z for short), also colloquially known as zoomers, representing anyone born in the 1997 to 2012 time period, might be a bit more simpatico with Baudrillard. This is not to say that we would accept his philosophical ruminations as the gospel according to John. Rather, it implies that we would be better equipped to understand him than those of past generations. This understanding of Baudrillard derives in part from growing up as a generation surrounded by terror. A fellow Gen Z-er sums it up best: “My fellow Gen Z-ers are so used to war and thoughts of terrorism that it’s just second nature. Throw in domestic terrorism, gun violence and school shootings that we’ve been exposed to since grade school, and the childhood innocence that previous generations may have felt never really existed for me and most of my friends” (Yarrow, 2021). Yes, to be sure, other generations have had periods of tranquility free from traumatizing domestic events. The 1950s often call the Golden Age of America comes to mind. Zoomers, however, know only a world where the talk of nuclear conflict and impending world war (or for Baudrillard, a Fourth World War brought about by 9/11 attacks) is common occurrence and a real possibility.

Generation Z is also the first generation to have easy access to the ubiquitous Internet taking to it so to speak like a duck to water. As a result, Gen Zers are dubbed the “iGen” generation, a shortened descriptor for internet generation. The statistics on their online usage are astounding. For example, 99Firms, the website that creates marketing surveys on the digital word, reports that Gen Zers spend 74% of “their free time online and 66% report using more than one device connected to the internet at a time. … As digital natives, most of the Generation Z population spends at least one hour online every day. According to Generation Z statistics, screen time across multiple screens – smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and TVs – is estimated at 8 hours” (Vuleta, 2023).

Gone are the early morning or late night treks to the card catalogs of libraries relied upon by past generations. For Generation Z, smartphones are the new card catalogs. Ypulse, a company that specializes in youth market research and insights, states: “Their [Gen Z] digital connection began at earlier ages than Millennials, making smartphones one of their first screens and Gen Z a truly mobile-focused generation. Having grown up with these tools at hand, most have never known a time when they didn’t have a world of knowledge at their fingertips” (2022). Ypulse found that (1) 12 is the average age Gen Zers received their first smartphone compared to their parents which received theirs at 17 and (2) 79% of Gen Zers claim they can’t live without their smartphones vs. 70% for their parents (2022).

Smartphone apps like Tik Tok and Instagram enable Gen Zers to witness and learn in real time about global events oftentimes from others with contrarian viewpoints. Being weaned on the Internet makes Gen Z the most global of generations. These encounters and relationships facilitated by digital media contribute to an understanding of the concept of good and evil that differs from that of our parents. The latter’s view of morality shaped and guided their thinking of the world and all the events preceding and succeeding the destruction of the Twin Towers. Our understanding of morality might be more in line with that of Baudrillard as expressed in his Spirit of Terrorism.

 There Is No Absolute Morality

Entering the world five years after the attacks on the World Trade Center did not free me from feeling the impact of the destruction of the towers. Waiting on long airport lines, full body scans, and the occasional intrusive pat-downs were routinely experienced as our families made their way to Disneyland, the popular vacation venue that Baudrillard once described as an example of “hyperreality.”  Airline travel, with its restrictive security protocols and the actions of sometimes officious Transportation Security Officers, served as a constant reminder to our elders of the attacks and how they had changed their lives. Gone for them were the halcyon days of airline travel when a classic red Victorinox Swiss Army Knife could be safely tucked away in your pocket. Sadly these bucolic times are no longer possible. As a Gen Z put it, “I have never known what it’s like to go through airport security without taking my shoes off and my laptop out of my bag” (Yarrow, 2021).

Like all children of past generations, we zoomers were trained up to believe that there were “good guys” and “bad guys.” In the post-9/11 global landscape, we were told these good and bad guys were represented by us and Islamic terrorists, respectively. Little thought was given to trying to ferret out the actual cause of the 9/11 attacks and what might be our collective culpability. It was simply easier to conceptualize good and evil in terms of absolutes populating different ends of a moral continuum that helped us tell right from wrong. The digital media of my generation had wholeheartedly embraced and reinforced this simplistic dichotomous perspective with cartoonish portrayals of the personas of villains and heroes. The antagonist always harbored an evil plot that was often portrayed as taking over the world and capturing the rather sweet and demure damsel. The good-natured protagonist’s duty was scripted to thwart the villain’s plan and thereby save the day. Repeated exposure to this narrative reinforced our beliefs about what is morally right and wrong. Lessons learned were then applied to the world around us as we navigated our way towards maturity, but wait, there’s more. Much more!

The decade in which many of my generation entered their impressionable adolescent years also coincided with the media’s new found fascination and portrayal of the “anti-hero.” The latter being the protagonist that has clear flaws but still portrayed as the “good guy.” These key players may not act in a solely moral way, but the audience is mandated to look past their transgressions because they are fighting for a cause that we all can get behind. Consider the American TV drama series “Game of Thrones” which first aired in 2011 and seen throughout the world. This extraordinarily popular show features families that vie for control over the fictional lands set on the continents of Westeros and Essos. The show is known for its many complex and diverse male and female anti-heroes. Take, for example, the quite lovable anti-hero Bronn, a swashbuckler with a heart of gold. The latter is offset by Bronn’s smug demeanor and lack of empathy. There is also the lone wolf Arya Stark, a young girl who has fought her way through so many difficult situations where others would have crumbled. She isn’t the hero many people make her out to be. She has a deadly, vengeful streak in her capable of committing violent acts to benefit others. Bronn and Arya Stark contribute mightily to the show’s popularity and that speaks volumes about how the anti-hero is welcomed and celebrated in today’s society.

This new appreciation of nuance found throughout our expanding digital age extends to the villain as well. Villains now commit wrongdoing because the environment around them compelled them to do so rather than behavior mandated by their genetic makeup. In Jungian terms, these personas appeal to the public more because they are a better representation of reality. In a recent survey of 2,011 U.S. adults representing the different generations, more than half surveyed said they watched a television series or movie just for the villain. And a quarter of those respondents preferred the villain over the hero. By a wide majority (69%), the Gen Zers polled attributed their preference to villains’ complexity. They (i.e., 49%) also preferred villains-turned-heroes more than any other grouped surveyed (Research, 2022).

People are neither entirely good nor entirely bad and the antihero or misunderstood baddie is a true reflection of this reality. How often is it said, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” This often quoted allusion to an utterance of Jesus in John 8:7 should hold additional meaning for our generation as it is reflected subliminally throughout our media that we constantly use. Moreover, Baudrillard lectures us about this in his essay when he addresses the agathokakological nature of things: “We believe naively that the progress of Good, its advances in all fields (the sciences, technology, democracy, human rights) corresponds to a defeat of Evil. No one seems to have understood that Good and Evil advance together, as part of the same movement” (2013, p. 10). Baudrillard is telling us in somewhat ecclesiastical terms, if you will, that we are all imperfect beings and that casting stones is counterproductive.

The Gen Zers nuanced perspectives described and illustrated above gives us an antinomy of sorts that muddles a distinct continuum that moves from moral to immoral that was an important mainstay of past generations. For Gen Zers, it becomes increasingly harder to distinguish who the protagonist and antagonist are by purely viewing their separate perspectives, something Baudrillard suggests and supports when waxing philosophical on Good and Evil: “No one seems to have understood that Good and Evil advance together, as part of the same movement. The triumph of the one does not eclipse the other – far from it. In metaphysical terms, Evil is regarded as an accidental mishap, but the axiom, from which all the Manichaean forms of the struggle of Good against Evil derive, is illusory. Good does not conquer Evil, nor indeed does the reverse happen: they are at once both irreducible to each other and inextricably interrelated” (2013, pp. 10 – 11). Thus, creating a situation where we as the third party must choose a side while being cautiously sympathetic to the other’s cause. Since this new way of thinking has been thrust upon my generation from a young age, it has been our default way of viewing conflicts within and outside of fiction.

Where’s Baudrillard?

It is well known that today’s media has a tendency to editorialize tilting politically to either the left or the right. Media companies such as POLITICO and academic institutions like Florida Atlantic University have studied and documented the difference (Byers, 2013; Galoustian, 2021). Some have even created “media bias charts” to show political lean and credibility of news organizations (Sheridan, 2021). One only has to tune into the Fox News Channel and MSNBC on any given night to see the tilt in real time (Wemple, 2013). Suffice to say that no matter the extent of the tilt, a tilt does exist and its obvious.  It is well documented as well that the tilt that has existed on campuses has increased (Magness, 2019).  It should come as no surprise that Wikipedia, the most widely used source of information in the world, has a well-defined left-wing bias (Tezuka and Ashtear, 2020).

Given this state of affairs, it is somewhat puzzling why Baudrillard’s Spirit of Terrorism is not better known. After all, the political left who editorialize in the media are quick to blame society for the actions of the criminals that are plaguing are major cities. One would think that Baudrillard’s suggestion that terrorism is the only means available for marginalized groups seeking to counter Western hegemony would at the very least be in play.

Can Baudrillard’s absence within the media and the classroom be related to his works being written in French? As with all translated works, nuances and subtleties of thought may be lost. His work often alludes to specific historical and cultural contexts that better resonate with European readers. His writing style is often abstract requiring familiarity with sociological and philosophical concepts. This complexity will often deter those outside of academic circles from engaging with his work. Additionally, his work is deeply rooted in post-structuralism and continental philosophy which is better appreciated in European intellectual circles. In the Anglosphere, the philosophical tradition is more influenced by analytic philosophy which focuses on language and logical analysis. These differences will no doubt contribute to barriers to widespread dissemination of ideas across regions.

All the above aside, Baudrillard’s absence in America and prominence in Europe better relates to differences in the ways that the 9/11 attacks were viewed?  Consider, for example, that in Europe the attacks were mostly attributed to political and social factors stemming in part from American foreign policy initiatives whereas in the United States the focus was on the brutality of the event and the enormous loss of innocent lives. The ways in which citizens and politicians reacted to the attacks are also illustrative of a stark difference. Cleary, Americans demanded retribution and military action while Europeans stressed the need for international cooperation and diplomacy. These distinct differences contributed to an “intellectual gag rule” of sorts on anything Baudrillard contributing to our nescience of his writings.

Let None of His Words Fall to the Ground

My introduction to Baudrillard came at my grandfather’s home when I picked up a copy of the Spirit of Terrorism lying on a table in the living room. After thumbing through a few dog-eared pages, I was hooked. Before leaving, I asked my grandfather, “Pop Pop, can I take this book home to read.” “Sure James, and let me know what you think of Baudrillard?”  Ergo, the rai·son d’ê·tre for my thoughts in this essay.  Incidentally, you might be thinking, What was a copy of Baudrillard doing on my Pop Pop’s living room table?”  Well, he’s a university professor specializing in global terrorism studies. The bulletin board in his office is festooned with clippings and papers related to his work. Books on terrorism are found throughout his house.

Now that you know how I came to know Baudrillard, let me make some observations. To begin, even though Baudrillard did not directly engage with my generation, passing away in 2007, his ideas and concepts can still offer some valuable insight into the culture and social dynamics that characterize Generation Z. Consider, for example, his suggestion mentioned earlier in this paper concerning the spirit of terrorism. As you might recall, he suggested that it was a response to the hyperreal world dominated by the West where reality is presented as a series of images and simulations. This suggestion is certainly relevant to the digital nature of my generation and our immersion in a word shaped by social media, virtual realities, and online interactions. Baudrillard’s critique of the hyperreal world with its blurring of reality and simulation should resonate with our generation as well since we are maturing in a digital world with the distinctions between real and the virtual can be ambiguous. While Baudrillard’s work predated the existence of my generation, and his debatable reasoning for the destruction of the Twin Towers aside, his concepts and analyses can be applied to explore the culture, social, and technological dynamics that describe Gen Z.

Baudrillard’s expressions on morality as discussed earlier in this paper are very much inline with that of my contemporaries. The way he approaches and relates the agathokakological nature of things in somewhat ecclesiastical terms sheds light as to how Good and Evil advance together. In our digital world, his analysis helps us better understand todays continuum that moves from moral to immoral and is represented in how today’s media portrays its heroes and villains. The absolute morality of past generations is no longer in play and Baudrillard can help Gen Zers understand why.  In fact, not only does my generation’s view of morality differ but studies have found that Generation Z are the most likely to say morality changes over time (see, for example, Earls, 2018).

In Samuel 3:19, it is said that the LORD stood by Samuel as he matured, and protected Samuel’s words from falling to the ground. Here is my take away from the verse: It’s possible for one’s communication, one’s sayings, to be protected from destruction or being ignored. Ignoring Baudrillardian analyses in a digital world is a mistake. With this in mind, I would hope that Generation Z does not let Baudrillard’s words fall to the ground.


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