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Terror from the Air

Terror from the Air by Peter Sloterdijk. Semiotext(e), 2009, 128 pp.

Despite what one might expect from the title, this book does not concern itself with the attacks of 11 September 2001 or even with the specific forms of terrorism that emerged around the turn of the millennium. Nor does it focus on airpower or deal with the aerial bombing campaigns—also called terror raids—conducted during the Second World War and in other conflicts, although they are part of the larger phenomenon the author describes. Instead, the book illuminates what the author proposes as the twentieth century’s unique contribution to history, namely, “the practice of terrorism” (p. 9). It further highlights how it has served as part of “modernity’s campaign against the self-evident,” that is, against what previously existed in the background as mostly unperceived “givens” (p. 107). In the process, the author offers a rather different and more expansive definition of terrorism.

The title of the original German 2002 edition of the book, Luftbeben, or “air quake,” refers to the seminal event that, according to Sloterdijk, heralded the arrival of the twentieth century proper and which, like an earthquake, ripped away what had long been considered secure conceptual footing. This event also marked the first release of poison gas—on 22 April 1915 by the German army—along the western front at Ypres. This action marked a shift to the “post-militaristic” (p. 9) period of warfare, the “transition from classical warfare to terrorism” (p. 16), in which the enemy soldier is no longer targeted directly—either through traditional face-to-face combat or by means of projectiles (bullets, artillery)—and instead is attacked indirectly through his environment. This form of war making Sloterdijk refers to as atmoterrorism (atmo referring to atmosphere). As he puts it, “The 20th century will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body, but the enemy’s environment. This is the basic idea of terrorism in the more explicit sense” (p. 14). It is the origin or “source of terror,” as the book’s original subtitle stated. It undermined what was until 1915 taken as a given: the breathability of air, and thereby “transform[ed] the harmless into a combat zone” (p. 29).

Sloterdijk goes on to describe a direct progression from the wartime use of poison gas to the post-war development of pesticides and of Zyklon A and B, the first use of gas chambers for executions (in Nevada in 1924), and from there the Nazi death chambers used it for mass slaughter during the Second World War. He extrapolates from these related forms of terrorism—“thermo-terrorism” (the fire-bombings of Hamburg and Dresden) and “radiation-terrorism” (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) (p. 52)—and underscores that “the air force per se is a central phenomenon of the state form of atmoterrorism” (p. 51). In a footnote, he singles out the BLU 82 Commando Vault “lung-breaking bomb” as an example of the “normalization of the state-terrorist habitus” (p. 53). And, in a brief excursus on “carpet bombing,” Sloterdijk refers to “the demonstrative NATO strikes on Serbia during the Kosovo conflict between March 24 and June 10, 1999” as “examples of the “area effects associated with punctual large-scale bombing” (p. 52).

After touching momentarily on bioterrorism as yet another element in this continuum, Sloterdijk then turns to the further development of atmoterrorist tools in the form of the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), a plan of the US Department of Defense in the mid-1990s to employ “weather as a force multiplier.” In other words, the plan called for the manipulation of weather as a means of engaging an enemy, along with the additional “prospect of developing a quasi-neurotelepathic weapon capable of destabilizing the human population with long-distance attacks on their cerebral functions.” (pp. 64–68). Thus, Sloterdijk writes, “The disengagement of the Soviet Union . . . handed the sole remaining world power the monopoly over expanding the atmoterrorist continuum that had been elaborated between 1915—1990 in even more explicit and thereby more monstrous dimensions” (p. 63).

To be fair, Sloterdijk is not really interested in engaging in an explicit criticism of these developments (though he clearly does so implicitly). He remains aloof, the detached observer, describing and defining them so that they fit into his larger, primary concern: their effect of overturning former and long-held assurances about some fundamental aspects of life, the progressive undermining of established Umwelts” (environments): natural environments; educational and conceptual environments; social and political environments.

Peter Sloterdijk, a professor of philosophy and media theory and director of the State Academy of Design at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, also serves as the public intellectual in Germany through his appearances as host of the occasional television discussion program, “The Philosophical Quartet,” and his published essays and commentaries. And while he may use these forums to address topics of current interest, his approach to those issues is not directed at any particular policy proposals or concrete solutions. He instead employs them as jumping-off points for a broader, often rather esoteric and abstract consideration of related or underlying concepts. In this book (which is actually an extended essay or series of interconnected essays), this same approach leads to a less-than-satisfactory result. Real-world events are treated almost as incidental to the single-minded erection of a larger theoretical construct—not as matters worthy of consideration in themselves. Sloterdijk demonstrates no interest, for example, in the political, religious, social, or economic sources of terror but subordinates everything to the delineation of a concept of terrorism rooted in a dark view of Western society born of Nietzsche and Heidegger, both of whom Sloterdijk intellectually reveres.

While the book may work well as a mind-expanding intellectual exercise on the subject of mankind’s alienation from primordial certitudes, it is less effective as a diagnosis of the terrorist impulse.

K. Michael Prince, PhD

Muenchen, Germany

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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