Autoimmunitary Logic and the
U.S. National Security Strategy:

A Tragic Philosophy?

The date September 11 will never again simply be a day on the calendar, at least in Western contexts. It has forever been burdened with new meaning, even if we are unsure as to its exact nature. Indeed, the fact that we refer to what happened simply by its date, suggests that perhaps we “have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this 'thing' that has just happened, this supposed 'event'” (Derrida, 2003: 86). To take this a step further, what do we in fact mean by an “event”, and what makes September 11 a “major event”? Derrida himself points out the necessity of “being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating” (ibid: 87). It is important to deconstruct terms like these, which are continuously bandied back and forth by the media and other (especially political) institutions, if we are to gain a better understanding of Derrida’s concept of autoimmunity and the way that this autoimmunitary logic is generated (and regenerated) by the strategies that are presented in The National Security Strategy for the United States of America (2002) by The White House.

So let us start by asking what constitutes an “event,” and more specifically a “major event”? (In fact 9/11 is seen by many to be the “major event” of their time.) We can not use quantitative measures to make this judgement, for as tragic as the incident was, it is by no means the worst example of the loss of human lives. It is rather the feeling of horror at what took place (and the fear of not knowing exactly what that was) that makes it so singular, however “this “feeling” is actually less spontaneous than it appears: it is to a large extent conditioned, constituted, if not actually constructed, circulated at any rate through the media by means of a prodigious techno-socio-political machine” (Derrida, 2003: 86). So we can safely say that what we see and feel is rather an “impression” of a major event. This does not mean however, that we can separate one from the other, the “impression” is an event in itself, not to be divorced from its effects, nor from that which shaped it (ibid: 89). “The “impression” thus resembles “the very thing” that produced it” (ibid). Similarly, Baudrillard discusses this relationship between the “real” and the “fiction” of an event, and asks the question: “What happens then to the real event, if everywhere the image, the fiction, the virtual, infuses reality” (2001)? He states that if reality seems to prevail over the fiction, it is only because “reality has absorbed the energy of the fiction, and become the fiction itself” (ibid).

Now what about the term “terrorism”? It is such an easy word to use, yet the implications of such usage without careful analysis are vast. It is an “illusive, ambiguous, reversible concept” (De Hoop Scheffer, 2004), a social construction, or perhaps more accurately, a ‘political’ construction. Where, for instance, does one draw the line between a “freedom fighter” and a “terrorist”? When, if ever, does terrorism become legitimised as the only recourse left (Derrida, 2003: 104)? Of course, the answer will differ according to which government you listen to. Just because the term remains obscure does not mean that it can not be used effectively by those in power, in fact “the more confused the concept the more it lends itself to an opportunistic appropriation” (ibid: 103-104). The White House wants “to make clear that all acts of terrorism are illegitimate” (2002: 6), but those that are labelled terrorists are done so by Western institutions in a Western context.

The National Security Strategy, which was released one year after this “major event” took place, outlines the methods to be used in the “war on terrorism.” It explains many ways in which it will do this, in terms of politics, economics, and development, however all these seem somehow insignificant compared to its military strategy in which “America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed” (The White House, 2002: v). The justification for such pre-emptive action is stated as simply “a matter of common sense and self-defense” (ibid). It is these very acts of repression however, that will end up “producing, reproducing, and regenerating the very thing it seeks to disarm” (Derrida, 2003: 99), creating an autoimmunitary process. We can in fact see the results of this process. Take for example the London bombings, which in many peoples minds was a direct response to the invasion of Iraq by U.S. troops. By using military force in “nation-states” such as Afghanistan and Iraq (without the support of international organisations like the U.N.), the U.S. is laying the foundation for the growth of so-called “terrorist” groups, and in turn opening itself up to the kind of attacks (such as suicide bombings) that it can not hope to defend itself against, therefore destroying its own immunity. The process of autoimmunity is a double-edged sword, and in effect; “two suicides in one” (ibid: 95).

In The National Security Strategy The White House seems to pine for the ‘good old days’ of the Cold War. “None of these contemporary threats rival the sheer destructive power that was arrayed against us by the Soviet Union . However, the nature and motivations of these new adversaries … make today’s security environment more complex and dangerous” (2002: 13). Yet it was the strategies used by the U.S. during this time that has produced this autoimmunitary process, leading to the creation of such an illusive enemy. By providing funding, resources and training to certain groups during the Cold War, for no other reason than to further its own ends, the U.S. has literally and metaphorically brought about its own suicide, perhaps not exactly a deliberate one, but it can not claim to have been entirely naïve of the consequences. In fact, there in some way seems to be a welcoming of these “suicidal” tendencies, or at least the fear inspired by them. The U.S. is certainly capitalising on the “terror” that is produced by this autoimmunitary logic. And why is it so terrifying? It is terrifying because it speaks of a trauma “produced by the future, by the to come, by the threat of the worst to come” (Derrida, 2003: 97). A threat that “no longer comes from a state but from anonymous forces that are absolutely unforeseeable and incalculable” (ibid: 98). It is this threat that allows the U.S. to justify each and every action it commits, however violent and/or in violation of international law.

Although a useful tool for analysing our current geopolitical situation, it is not without its criticisms. Osuri cautions us to be careful in its use in relation to studies of nationalism and the nation-state (2006: 507). She discusses the way the concept of autoimmunity homogenises the notion of the “nation”. “The concept of autoimmunity implies that the nation is a unified living being … however, dominant discourses of nationalisms or the nation-state need to be deconstructed for their oppressive univocal and/or assimilation moves, and the concept of the nation-state as unified itself must be challenged” (ibid). Even (perhaps especially) the U.S. does not have an identity that is completely unified and stable. In fact, with the immergence of “terrorists” within its own borders, we can see that perhaps U.S. nationalism is more volatile than it has ever been.

So what does this autoimmunitary process imply for the future, the “to come” (Derrida, 2003: 97), is it a vicious cycle that will perhaps result in the “worst to come” (ibid) as Derrida suggests? “Terror, it would seem, is the perverse effect/affect of a logic that is both self protecting and self-destroying, a logic that opens us to the future for better and for worse” (Rottenberg, 2006: 13). It is easy to see why this autoimmunitary logic is terrifying, as what is put at risk is nothing less than the world itself (Derrida, 2003: 98-99). This is not an entirely tragic philosophy however, Rottenberg claims that it instead offers us a “bold thematization of a terrible predicament” (Rottenberg, 2006: 13), a predicament that might be tied to failure, but that is also “bound up with the future of life” (ibid).

Copyright Judith Stevens 2006


Baudrillard, J., 2001, “The Spirit of Terrorism”, Le Monde, November 2

De Hoop Scheffer, A., 2004, “Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida - Répondre à cet article” Sens Public, October 10,, ( 15 Oct, 2006 )

Derrida, J., 2003, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides: A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida”, in Borradori, Giovanna, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago and London , The University of Chicago Press

Osuri, G., 2006, “Imploding Singularities: For a Critique of Autoimmunity as Political Future”, Social Semiotics, Vol. 16, No. 3, September

Rottenberg, E., 2006, “The Legacy of Autoimmunity”, Mosaic, Vol. 39, Issue 3, September

The White House, 2002, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,, ( 13 July, 2005 )