With what measureless naivety has the twenty-first-century democratic citizen managed to be surprised when hate breaks down his door? He has—along with his father and his father’s father—witnessed, directly or indirectly, wars, murderous revolutions, and the genocides that were the last century’s specialty. How could he believe himself immune? “Not here, not me,” he told himself. But then, on September 11, 2001, Americans saw several thousand of their own assassinated, for no reason. There they were, unsuspecting, in their usual places, at work or at a café, white, black, and yellow, housewife and banker, when they suddenly realized that they were targets of an indiscriminate, merciless will to kill.
A pitiless new day is dawning. The powers of the inhuman and the efficacy of hatreds mutate dangerously. A generation that worked diligently to tame the threat of nuclear war finds itself driven toward a horizon more frightening to contemplate than the one it dreamed of avoiding. Now it must try again to think the unthinkable, to leave the era of the H-bomb and enter the time of the human bomb.
Barely two generations separate us from the shock of Hiroshima, whose terrifying force we have tried over the decades to neutralize. At the time, overcome by the unprecedented event, Jean-Paul Sartre, along with many others, described a fundamental break in history: “The community that has made itself the custodian of the atomic bomb is above the natural realm, since it is responsible for life and death: it will now be necessary that each day, each minute, it consent to live.” Irreversibly endowed with the power to blow up the world, mankind became defined by its capacity for universal homicide, and thus for suicide. The previously unimaginable capacity to put an end to the human adventure remained the privilege first of a single nuclear power, then of two, and then of seven.
But soon, people grew used to the new condition. Coexistence on the edge of the cliff, a balance of terror, seemed more and more reasonable. The prospect of mutual annihilation for the rival powers chilled bellicose passions. Five billion vaguely concerned men and women attended to their affairs and delegated—democratically or not—the ultimate care for their survival to a small number of political leaders. For half a century, we fashioned our peace, both external and internal, according to Sartre’s fragile axiom: “The atomic bomb is not available to just anyone; the crazy person [who unleashed Armageddon] would have to be a Hitler.”
Great confusion understandably resulted when this certainty disintegrated before our eyes, exploded by human bombs in Manhattan. An annihilating power is available today, or will soon be available, to just about anyone; the destructive will of an enemy without borders, equivalent to Nazi dreams, targets civilians: this combination amounts to a do-it-yourself Hitler kit. How can one make sense of, how can one neutralize, a human bomb?
The history of our last 100 years consists of a number of unexpected ruptures, of which September 11 is the most recent. Revelations so powerful as to rob us of breath have confronted us with the scorched face of a human condition too troubling, too overwhelming, to perceive during ordinary times. Rare but decisive moments of truth have short-circuited current opinions. Respected traditions have yielded to the greater strength of a searing realization. The events broke out like lightning in a calm sky, like the storm before the shipwreck.
These poor metaphors inadequately represent the irresistible enthusiasm of August 1914, which plunged Belle Époque Europe—enlightened, unaware, and tranquil—into the abyss. The declaration of war, the unexpected zeal, the joyful mobilization on all sides—in the end, these overturned the material, economic, and social foundations of the old continent, wounding civilians in their flesh and in their spirit, shaking their convictions and their faith. But this amazing reversal of values came to light only after the fact, little by little. In 1915, Freud, among the first to describe it, unveiled the prodigious “disappointment” or “disillusion” of the war, a war that rejected “all the restrictions pledged in times of peace.” The “blind rage” that our civilizations unknowingly harbored “hurls down . . . whatever bars its way, as though there were to be no future and no peace after it is over.” The inventor of psychoanalysis detected at the heart of the human condition a “death wish,” burrowing silently beneath the pleasure principle, the musical and deceptive call of Eros.
André Glucksmann is a French philosopher. His books include The Master Thinkers and, most recently, Une Rage d’Enfant. His article was translated from the French by Ralph C. Hancock and John C. Hancock.