Dr Jenny Edkins

Department of International Politics

University of Wales Aberystwyth


1. Introduction

In this paper I do two things. First, I provide a brief background discussion of how trauma can be understood, and I relate trauma to specific notions of security and particular forms of sovereign power and political community.  Second, I examine four ways of responding to trauma in the aftermath of September 11.  I ask how each works in the aftermath of trauma, what each entails in practical terms, and what the problems of each might be. 


2. Background

I begin with two images from September 11:  first the image of people in New York, their hands in front of their mouths, watching the impossible turning into the real;[1]  second Francis Bacon’s “The Scream” superimposed on the landscape of the burning towers.[2]  These images demonstrate that when an event like this happens, words fail to capture the traumatic impact of what happened.  Two other things are symptomatic of trauma:  one, the constant repetition in endless flashbacks as we saw in the television coverage;  and two, the way what happened was referred to as “the events.”  The designation “events” has held for longer than expected, resisting the imposition of terms like ‘attacks’, ‘atrocities’, ‘war’.  Several weeks later, it is much easier now to put it all in a framework, or in other words to forget the trauma.   

What is trauma?  First, an event is seen as traumatic if it involves an exposure to something so shocking that our everyday expectations of how the world works are severely disrupted:  “Trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena”[3]  It brings to the surface existential questions that we prefer to keep submerged.   

Trauma is very much to do with security.  In our everyday lives, we prefer to forget our vulnerability and pretend that it is possible to be completely secure and safe.  Trauma reminds us of our vulnerability, and of the impossibility of security.  Often if there is a traumatic event, people immediately look for ways to make themselves feel secure again.  As a community, they demand that their national leaders provide security through the mechanisms of the police force and the military.   

Trauma is closely related to political community and forms of political power.  How does this work?  Sovereign or state power functions by making certain distinctions.[4]  These begin as a separation between the ‘bare’ or naked life of the domestic sphere and the politically qualified life of the Greek polis.  Certain beings (women, slaves, animals) are excluded from the political process.  Eventually all are excluded:  political life disappears and politics becomes biopolitics, the control of life itself.  We reached this threshold with the concentration camps of totalitarian Germany.  In those camps, life became something that could be used instrumentally in medical experiments or as slave labour.  Punishments were arbitrary.  There was no ‘why’.  Contemporary sovereign power continues to treat life as bare life, and this is revealed as a traumatic betrayal in events such as wars and humanitarian interventions.


3. Responding to Trauma: 9.11

On September 11 our familiar social reality and expectations of security were shattered by the traumatic appearance of the real of death and devastation in New York and Washington.  Importantly, what happened involved something more than death.  Those on board the aircraft and those in the target buildings had not just been killed.  Their lives had been totally disregarded.  They had been treated as worthless—as bare life. Deprived of their everyday way of making sense of the world, people respond in two ways.  The first involves an attempt to forget trauma and to incorporate what happened into the narrative forms we already have available.  The second involves keeping faith with the insights that trauma brings.  Responses to the events of September 11 seem to involve four broad strategies, either separately or in combination:  securitisation, criminalisation, aestheticisation or politicisation.   

Unsurprisingly, to securitise has been the most obvious and widely shared response.  The rhetoric of war appeared in the newspapers on the very first day.  This is a return to dreadfully familiar ground, and narrating what happened in terms of war has led us to story lines and images we recognise only too well from late twentieth century wars—stories of air strikes, refugee movements, humanitarian crises and night raids.  Two other familiar forms were invoked: the narrative of new terrorism, a form of terror that has no political objective but seeks to inflict maximum violence; and the narrative of network centric warfare, a new style of warfare by both terrorists and states alike that is not about territorial conquest but about the virtual spaces of networks. 


Whichever form of warfare the rhetoric embraces, the discursive space is already there, prepared in advance.  If events were not predicted nor anticipated, a place had at least been prepared for them.  The uncertainties and insecurities are resolved by a return to the language of friend and foe.  It is a form of exclusion. But the state, severely marginalised on September 11 can re-appear with renewed significance.  By taking charge of the situation, sovereign power is re-established.  

There are serious problems with the rhetoric of war.  First, to respond in this way is to return immediately to the war—state—sovereign power framework.  This framework, with its treatment of life as bare life, was implicated in the actions of September 11 in the first place.  Those responsible for these events treated lives with supreme contempt, producing life as instrumental, as bare life.  To challenge them on the same violent ground and to accept their talk of war legitimises this particular use of violence and in so doing acknowledges and accepts their claim to sovereign power.  The whole then becomes a contest for sovereignty which develops within a logic of its own.  

Second, although nationalism and revenge provide something to rally around, war is often opposed by those closest to the traumatic event for two reasons.  One, they can see only too clearly that their suffering stems from a very similar source and that this response is likely to do nothing more than visit that suffering on other people.  Two, they can see that the aim for complete security is likely to produce exactly the insecurity that we are trying to avoid.[5]  What trauma tells us is that closure is impossible.  We are mortal and vulnerable;  complete security is a fantasy, and striving for this illusory closure produces the violence and indiscriminate killing that we saw on September 11.  

An alternative to the rush to war is a strategy of criminalisation:  treating what happened simply as a crime.  What follows would be the painstaking collection of evidence and the eventual arrest and trial of suspects.  To a certain extent this track is currently being pursued in parallel with the war in Afghanistan.  Criminalisation in the end produces closure of its own.  It means little more than transferring the rhetoric of war from military to police action.  It is a form of internal exclusion.  The enemy becomes the criminal.  In both cases, political discussion is ruled out.  Criminalisation gives rise to another form of biopolitical control—control through observational techniques and disciplinary practices—which depoliticises in a different way.  It leads to a securitisation of the domestic sphere.   

To aestheticise is a third response to trauma.  There are many examples: memorial services, candlelit vigils and moments of silence.  Aestheticisation can cut two ways.  It can provide a way round the impossibility of speaking of the unspeakable, and furthermore a way that keeps open the space of the traumatic.  On the other hand, it can be used as part of a strategy of closure.  The rush to remembrance from the first moments after the initial attacks of September 11 onwards was in part a rush to closure.  Before the third plane had struck, President Bush had already called for a moment’s silence to remember the victims.  Practices of remembrance can be used to provide a sense of closure in conjunction with the strategy of securitisation and the rhetoric of war.   

Politicisation attempts to respond directly to the traumatic impact of what happened, refusing to insert it into pre-written stories but demanding that it be accepted on its own terms.  What is the relation between trauma and politicisation?  In many ways those who organised the events of September 11 can be seen as the mirror image of the modern state.  Both treat life as bare life, or in other words, as life with no political voice.  Both are so sure of the rightness of their cause that they allow no debate and no disagreement.  One way of avoiding this trap is not to securitise, nor to criminalise, however comforting and logical these options may appear, but to insist instead on a fully politicised reaction to the trauma of September 11.  Such a reaction would mean refusing to label the people who organised and carried out the hijackings as enemies or even as criminals, and refusing to respond in terms of a fight of good against evil.   

4. Conclusion

Traumatic events, moments when the world changes, shatter our previous carefully cultivated stories of durability and safety.  They demand that we re-invent the script.  But at the same time, they impose a contradictory demand.  They compel us to acknowledge the impossibility of any ‘script’. 

There are three strategies after September 11—securitisation, criminalisation and, in part, aestheticisation—that in a sense deny that anything out of the ordinary happened.  They produce a forgetting of trauma, and they reinstate the narrative that was so abruptly dislocated.  They rebuild the world in its own, familiar image: safe, secure and supposedly predictable.  The fourth response—politicising—is a way of responding which attempts to avoid a rapid return to previous forms of security and safety.  Instead it takes a more measured and more difficult approach.  It asks whether there might not be form of response which does not re-enter the same cycle of security and trauma.   

[1] “Terror Hits Home, 9.11.2001” Time Photo Essay, 4 at http://www.time.com/time /photoessays/wtc/4.html

[2] The cartoon, by Mahood, appeared in the Daily Mail (London), 12 September 2001, 2.

[3]. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience:  Trauma, Narrative, and History,  (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 11.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer:  Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen,  (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[5] For a longer discussion of these issues see Jenny Edkins, “After the subject of international security,” in Politics and Poststructuralism, ed. Alan Finlayson and Jeremy Valentine (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 87-110.


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