The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CCADD.


A very short overview of kinds of threat


Herman De Dijn



1. Premodern threat (honour)

When, in a premodern situation, one group of people threatens another, or is perceived as threatening by the other, this can find its origin in different real or supposed motives: greed or need; will to power; retribution for past violence or humiliation, the perception of the other as wicked or evil. Whatever the motive of the threat, it is the threat of an enemy. Threatening another group with violence goes together with the positing of a difference between one’s own group and the other group, putting the other outside the circle of friends, of those who have to be respected, of the elect or the untouchables. This difference is supposed to provide justification for the (threat of) violence. The other is perceived as having characteristics (or differences) which are antagonistic, strange, incomprehensible, insignificant, disgusting, subhuman or evil. The exclusion of the other is essentially related to the effective or expected negation, in one form or another, of what is worthwhile or sacred to him: family, clan, lands, the graves of forefathers, sacred places and objects. Land, goods, bodies, lives are not just land, goods, bodies, lives. They are laden with transcendent meaning and worth, with sacred value. This is why it may be necessary to give one’s own life in the battle with the enemy; and, if he is too powerful, to resort to all possible forms of cunning.

The real enemy is not the one who is after gain or power: usually this kind of enemy is prepared to strike a bargain at some point to be able to enjoy the fruits of conquest. Power cannot really be exercised over the dead or over the totally insignificant. The real enemy is the one who is considered as a threat to all what is dear or important, or to the very existence of an individual or a group. Almost inevitably, this will mean that this individual or group in turn will perceive by the first as his (its) enemy. Enmity can lead not only to infliction of physical suffering and to the destruction of what is valuable, but to what is worse, deliberate forms of humiliation and degradation (e.g., forcing the other to perform acts which are known to be forbidden to him to do) and extreme cynicism (as in a ‘cold joke’: obliging a mother to shoot one of her children and make her pay for the bullet). Such acts of animosity will turn the enemy into the worst kind of enemy. However, even the enemy who is only after land or goods, will easily be perceived as evil or inhuman. Almost inevitably, and often unknowingly, he will perpetrate acts which can only be perceived as attacks on what is most worthwhile, honourable, sacred, untouchable. In this context, the ill or harm done to an individual is almost inevitably perceived as ill or harm done to the collectivity and to what is sacred. Certain acts are particularly inimical: harm or humiliation done to the weak (women, children, elderly people), to those who cannot defend themselves (the wounded, the prisoners), violation or abuse of holy places and objects, of graves and dead bodies. Very easily, tragic situations arise where knowingly or not, out of ostentation or of foolishness, honour is offended, or the sacred trespassed upon. What Simone Weil said about the Trojan War is characteristic of a lot of premodern wars: “to be outside a situation as violent as this is to find it inconceivable; to be inside it is to be unable to conceive its end” (quoted in Bok, p. 145).

Group identity in a premodern context is at least in part based on the relation with the (traditional) enemy. In this relation memory, stories about battles, heroes, conquests, defeats, terrible deeds, play an essential role. This makes it extremely difficult to change the relationship in a more neutral or friendly direction. One is almost unfaithful to oneself and especially to the memory of the dead, if one tries to make peace. To get out of the ‘logic’ of such a relationship, something quite new has to happen: such as the arrival on the scene of a powerful common threat from a new enemy, or even coming from nature; or, a fundamental historical change, such as the emergence of the modern state (e.g., Tito’s Yugoslavia in the Balkans).


2. Modern threat (truth)

One would have expected that with the arrival of modernity a more rational approach to the antagonism between groups would have evolved. In fact, as we all know, modernity means not at all the disappearance of the enemy and his difference. What did happen, was the transformation of the enemy into one characterized by non-traditional differences. At first, the new differences were closely related to the instruments used in the building of the nation state: language, national flag, imperial signs. In a second phase, the differences were related to antagonistic ideologies.

It is as if the transition from a premodern, traditional form of society towards a modern one, consisting of free individuals in full mastery of their own lives, could only come about via certain transformations growing ever more distant from tradition: first, the creation of nation states (each one trying for itself to define true progress), then, the predominance of secular ideologies (such as liberalism, socialism, and communism, and reactions to them like fascism and nazism). Let us consider the modern figures of threat and enemy in each phase.

In the phase of the modern nation states and their imperialistic politics, identities, differences and therefore enmities were rewritten: in terms of national character, usually intimately linked to national language and to the newly invented national history. This did of course not mean that the old identities and differences disappeared; but they were either forgotten or proscribed from the official scene, or given a new role and meaning with respect to the requirements of the new identity and enemy. The national enemy usually spoke another language, had different customs and symbols, and opposing character traits (think of the supposed difference between the French and the Germans), and history was full of strong precedents and justifications for the reciprocal antagonism.

In a second phase, or should we say following the logic of modern development, supra-national ideologies came to the fore. As I said, it was as if the transformation of premodern people into modern, free and equal individuals, could only come about by the creation of mass-movements governed by modern ideologies (which, in the process, gave rise to counter-ideological movements). This produced yet again a new figure of the enemy: the ideological enemy. Paradoxically, the ideological enemy easily resembles or blends with the figure of the evil, totally untrustworthy enemy. Of course, this enemy is no longer believed to adore false gods or make deals with the devil, but something in ideology produces similar relationships. Ideas in ideology function in a quasi-religious way, playing the role of perverted scientific insights: ideologies are supposed to yield definitive truth which only the wicked cannot or will not see; truths which, furthermore, are seen as directly normative for the organisation of human life. As we know, only the existence of the threat of nuclear retaliation helped to escape – be it sometimes only narrowly - direct, global clashes between the two remaining major ideologies. The enmity was instead worked out via third parties and their more traditional or national forms of opposition. In this phase of the Cold War (as it is called) also lies the origin of a phenomenon which we inherited and which plays an important role in the insecurity of present-day international politics: the phenomenon of fanatics, criminals and even madmen who were provided, directly or indirectly, with often sophisticated weaponry by the superpowers in the context of their Realpolitik, thereby turning whole populations into hostages of brutal force and extreme misery.


3. Postmodern threat (happiness)

What is typical of our postmodern or late modern situation? First of all, a healthy rejection of ideology, resulting however in relativism as to truth and in scepticism as to its capacity to order our lives. Science is finally understood as an indefinitely ongoing pursuit of the truth, incapable therefore of providing a stable, normative platform for living a human life. Secondly, sentimentalism as to values. This implies two things: 1) That values are inescapable: we realize that we cannot be somebody without identifying with something or other, with some difference(s) which give us significance and recognition. This is why the modern politics making citizens free and equal before the law, is no longer sufficient. This politics must be complemented or superseded by a ‘politics of recognition’ (Charles Taylor): giving people the right to be free and equal not notwithstanding all kinds of difference, but in their differences, whether these are inherited, adopted or invented. But 2) values, being products of the heart or of sensibility (and not of reason), are neither objective nor universal (except for a couple of meta-norms like tolerance or the no-harm principle). Values are important only because and insofar as they organize and give meaning to people’s lives; and in so doing, produce effects the individuals want, the agreeable feeling of being somebody, of leading a rewarding life. Sentimentalism is a kind of pragmatism with respect to values (and norms). All and only those values or differences are to be respected which fill a life with feelings of quality. The effect or feeling is the only check for what is really valuable, and this effect is inescapably subjective. So one has to be tolerant of the choice of values and differences of others. We cannot live without some value, some identification with some or other difference; but, ultimately, all of them are constructions in the service of people feeling happy.

Postmodern people finally understand that they cannot be modern in the sense of having pure identity disregarding difference(s). At the same time, they realize the contingency, complexity and changeability of the identity or differences they do have. And, above all, they know what really matters: the effects produced by the differences they adopt in order to relate to others. Differences cannot only be inherited, they can be acquired, even bought, either directly or indirectly. They are no longer transmitted only via traditional ways of upbringing, inheritance or learning. They are chosen at will, constructed, the product of training by professionals. They are all susceptible to fashion and advertising, and for sale on the market of symbolic goods. (This is true even of the differences related to sexuality, religion or the intellectual sphere). Ultimately, all differences, all values are commodities.

Postmodern culture is the seemingly perfect synthesis of tradition and modernity in its adoption of differences which, however, become the object of play, are used in the never-ending pursuit of satisfaction through recognition by the other. Therefore, postmodern culture is ‘une culture jeune’, a ‘culture of youth’, in which everybody behaves as adolescents do, engaged in an endless play with signifiers promising the satisfaction of belonging. It is the perfect synthesis of individual and group through its mass-culture stimulating individual difference in order ultimately to disappear again in the symbiosis of anonymous individuals (see the link made between postmodern culture, youth culture and the rave party in Georges Laffly). Whether recognition and belonging are real or illusory doesn’t matter, as long as the satisfaction is there. (Jean Baudrillard speaks here of the murdering of the real: there no longer is any difference between the real and the fictional or the virtual).

As a consequence, postmodern culture is – as Roger Scruton puts it – to a large extent a culture of repudiation: repudiation of what one once deeply believed in, of one’s past (only imperialism), of the inherited values (inherently racist, sexist, etc.). A good deal of postmodern political correctness and humanitarianism does have as its purpose – I quote Scruton again – “not to include the Other, but to condemn Ourselves” (p. 73).

On the political side, postmodern sentimentalism expresses itself in the idea of the citizen as a client of the state, and of the state as provider of those services which private business is incapable or unwilling to secure. Politicians are either themselves managers, or caretakers of the services the state provides for its citizens. Political society is seen not as based on loyalty to the land and to a way of living, or to a common tradition of law, but as a contract between the living to secure the cheapest and safest way for each individual to look after his own business with least interference of others. Such a contract, says Scruton, is “a contract to squander the earth’s resources for the benefit of its temporary residents” (p. 13).

Modern politics aimed at giving all citizens equal rights and equal duties notwithstanding all kinds of difference, in the belief that equality of chances would bring about a fair society. Postmodern politics is based on the experience that identity without difference is impossible. But, in combination with relativism and sentimentalism with respect to values, this awareness results in a new idea: the politics of recognition. Politics must recognize not only all citizens, but especially all differences as equal, and secure their equal recognition through the law. Not only white, male, hetero­sexual, christian values should prevail in society; any group values, whether adopted or constructed anew, should be officially recognized (as long as they imply no harm for others) and their recognition made enforceable.

Newcomers to a postmodern society quickly learn: 1) that the citizens of the land repudiate their inheritance and find its de facto predominance illegitimate; 2) that the attitude to the land and its laws is purely instrumental; 3) that values or differences are means to get what you want. So, how could they learn loyalty towards the new homeland? Is it surprising that the new land is to them just a place to earn one’s living and to dream of the promised land to which one really belongs? Is it surprising that the newcomers try to get acceptance and recognition precisely by stressing their differences, and so doing are in danger of engaging in provocation?

In a societal context in which recognition is looked for on the basis of wilfully adopted differences and in which recognition is enforceable by law, provocation is almost inevitable. Its ‘logic’ can be described as follows. The individual knows that, notwithstanding the official proclamation of the equality of differences, de facto certain differences are likely to be devalued or even rejected. Precisely in order not to remain unnoticed, one adopts or accentuates such differences as invite the likelihood of ‘discrimination’. If the other party doesn’t react, one exaggerates the difference or adopts an even more extravagant difference, with the likely result that one can effectively complain about discrimination.

Because of this postmodern attitude to differences or values, the very notion of inheritance and the responsibilities going with it, are not only difficult to grasp, but simply unacceptable. It is felt to be radically unfair that certain lotteries, whether they are genetic or social, force certain differences upon me or make it impossible or difficult to choose the ones I want. It is almost inconceivable that values are such that I am asked to die for them. Louis Dupré told the story how shocked he was to read a slogan on an American campus with this message: putting one’s life at stake for whatever value was something inconceivable since it meant risking the end of the only life one had. It belongs to the same logic to say that if there is the prospect of a life which isn’t worthwhile any more in terms of ‘quality of experience’, then it is up to us to put an end to it (and society must provide the means to do so). There seems to be one exception to this attitude: it is the diminishing group of people who still happen to have children. So, only two groups of people are left: sentimentalists (‘experience, satisfaction is all there is’) and proletarians (‘my child is my everything’). One can easily imagine what happens if a real enemy turns up: nobody is going to risk his life, let alone the life of one’s child. But what has become of the figures of threat and enemy anyway?


Postmodern society is characterized by a peculiar combination of different kinds of threat. There is first of all the internal threat, the threat emanating from those within society itself who – however incredible this may seem to their contemporaries – still seem to live under the spell of the premodern, traditional ‘logic’ of values, i.e., those who are prepared to risk their own and other people’s lives for some or other ultimate cause, and who loathe the postmodern way of life: the terrorist(s). Further, there are threats of a very different kind: the threat of the unintended side-effects or by-products of techno-science and progress itself. Threats to the very possibility-conditions of life, of experience as such: threats as to health (environment, genetically modified products, the food chain, viruses of all kind); threats as to the diffusion of all kinds of weapons, particularly ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The super-enemy, the postmodern enemy par excellence, is a combination of both kinds of threat: the individual or group who is prepared to lay down life AND who is prepared (and capable) to use weapons of mass destruction in the service of his cause (this can be a religion or sect, a nation, a way of life, or even the environment).

No compromise or deal is possible with such an enemy who, paradoxically, seems to belong to another era, yet is capable of using the most sophisticated weaponry. And, vice versa, no compromise is possible for such an enemy. In the eyes of the ‘terrorist’, his enemy is a degenerate species of human being, no longer believing in God, the good or the true, whose provocations invite punishment with the use of the very machinery devised by the enemy himself. As Scruton writes in the introduction to The West and the Rest. Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat (Scruton’s comments on September the 11th): “… freedom flaunted in the face of religious prohibitions is an act of aggression, inviting retribution from those whose piety it offends”. In the eyes of most terrorists today, the target is the ‘American way of life’ related to a complicated political, economic and military global powerstructure. Westerners do not even seem to understand what they do to the rest of mankind: how in their search for profit they destroy physical and cultural environments, turning everything, including women, children, human organs, animals, into merchandise; how they are corrupting simple people and children via their media and advertisements; how (via mass tourism for example) they spoil things which are holy and untouchable. They are incapable of honour and of defending themselves as real men in real combat; incapable of perceiving the humiliation they continually inflict upon others. The very corruption of this civilization allows for extreme means of combat, even if this involves suffering and death for the innocent.

No mutual understanding, no peaceful coexistence between the parties seems possible. What is most valuable to one side, to be free to do what one wants, to live as one wants, seems subhuman or intolerable to the other for whom life should be a life of piety. Those who fight the West and its symbols and representatives, are considered martyrs here, deluded people or monsters there. What is a war of liberation for one side, is a cynical and humiliating invasion for the other side. No international tribunal, no universal principles or decisionprocedures will solve the deadlock. How could a compromise be possible when the parties are like aliens dealing with each other, each speaking a different language: the language of a society of Nietzsche’s ‘last men without a breast’ versus the language of honour and piety.

What is particularly worrying with respect to the postmodern threat, is that it is difficult to separate internal and external threat. For whatever reasons, certain states seem to harbour or use terrorist individuals and groups. Therefore they can be called ‘rogue’ states, and it seems legitimate to attack them in pre-emptive strikes. The distinction between attack, defence and self-defence becomes blurred. However, it is clear that the terrorist threat does not necessarily or in the first place come from outside. The terrorist of today is not the traditionalist who is suddenly dropped in the middle of postmodern society. Neither is he the revolutionary indoctrinated by modern ideologies and getting orders from alien powers. The terrorist of today is the individual who knows postmodern society well, participated in its pleasures, is educated, and familiar with modern technology. But he found postmodern culture lacking in something essential: it is seen as empty of transcendent meaning and real community, full of evil. Wilful participation in postmodern pleasures, may even have left deep feelings of guilt, so that atonement is required. It is remarkable how the attitude of terrorists vis-à-vis Western civilization corresponds as it were to the insights of analysts of postmodern society.

The reaction to the terrorist threat is twofold: drastic measures with respect to internal security and ‘pre-emptive’ actions of ‘self-defence’ against ‘criminal’ groups or states externally. This may be combined with general defence strategies like the construction of a missile shield. These reactions are in great danger of being futile or even counterproductive. The deployment of a missile shield is incapable of protecting against terrorism from inside. Furthermore no shield can be perfect. Moreover, it can and will be seen by certain other states as a possible threat to them. The internal security measures almost inevitably will mean harassment of individuals, particularly the individuals in the process of integration into Western society. This may sow the seeds for new, potential terrorists.

The external measures require the resurrection of a form of rhetoric which to most citizens seems to belong to the past: the rhetoric of civil religion, of ‘our’ God, ‘our’ values and way of life as threatened by evil forces. Paradoxically, precisely the rhetoric of the enemy. Inevitably this rhetoric is perceived by friend and foe as false and self-contradictory : as incompatible with a secular society, or with the ‘godless’ way of life endorsed by it.

‘Pre-emptive’ action ‘in self-defence’, as in Iraq today, produces major hazards. It is seen by many worldwide as a cynical power game and not as a liberation. In the Arab world, it is perceived as a new humiliation of Arab soil and islamic values. Particularly in an age where media-coverage, with the sensationalism inherent in it, penetrates into the smallest hamlets even of the Third World, such invasion may breed future terrorism both outside and inside Western society. The ‘construction of peace’ after the takeover from dictator or terrorist leader, is likely to be underestimated as to its difficulty. As a Time-cover said recently: ‘Peace is hell!’. Building a more or less democratic society cannot be compared to organising a military campaign. Obsession with security seems to lead to exaggerated expectations as to what can be obtained by planning and technique.

There are those who think that globalization and international institutions are the solution to this situation. However, globalization does not mean the end pure and simple of the nation state, nor the coming about of a ‘global government for all the people on this planet’. Furthermore, as both Roger Scruton and Hans Magnus Enzensberger remark, many of the existing international institutions, in the first place the United Nations, are far from democratic; on the contrary, they often seem to be the playground of bureaucrats and of representatives of dictators and tyrants. What globalization means is the clash worldwide at the same time, of the premodern, the modern and the postmodern mentality and the structures and instruments going with them. According to the degree of penetration of the modern and the postmodern in society, this clash will be different in different territories. Whereas the Cold War between the ideological blocks of modernity was fought indirectly in fringe territories, the biggest threat in the world today – at least from a Western perspective - seems to come from a peculiar kind of terrorism: terrorism striking at the very heart of Western cities, or targeting Western symbols, interests and institutions everywhere. The terrorism we have all witnessed on IX-XI is itself the product of the clash between the postmodern West and a tradition or civilisation which feels deeply humiliated, and betrayed by its own political leaders, and which paradoxically operates through individuals capable of using very sophisticated forms of communication and technique.

The threat posed by terrorists living within or coming from without may in time even become associated with other kinds of ‘meaningless’ violence with which postmodern society is more and more confronted. I already referred to individuals and groups who resort to provocation. Provocation on the basis of well-chosen symbols or differences is of course not the prerogative of immigrants. We also find it in all kinds of hooliganism (think here of the prophetic film by Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange). In his essay Civil War, Enzensberger speaks of a huge potential for a new kind of ‘civil war’ (others would talk of ‘social rage’) present in postmodern society and comparable to the persistent threat of meaningless violence between groups of autistically acting thugs and their ‘warlords’ in many parts of the Third World.

It is highly unlikely that these kinds of violence threatening postmodern society can be mastered purely by technological means. At the same time, the pride of Western individuals and their willingness to sacrifice has never been lower; on the contrary, the mood rather seems to be one of self-relativisation and even of self-hatred. Of course, nothing is perfectly simple and straightforward. It is the irony of history that the West is momentarily represented or percieved as represented not by postmodern spokesmen, but by politicians who are ‘born again’ Christians or leaders of a quasi-religious state, Israel. Perhaps it is precisely this sort of people who, even though fiercely opposed to their enemies, can still somehow be brought to hear and understand the language of honour and piety? The problem may be that the parties and states with which they have to negotiate are not capable (even if they would be willing) to arrive at an honourable compromise: because these parties and states are themselves not strong enough to occupy the minds of their people in the building of a society with a future. And this again may have something to do with the globalization of market, media and money, but also with the persistance of a certain mentality incompatible with the building of a modern nation.

The importance of institutionalized religions in all this seems obvious. Even though they too may be in decline within the postmodern context, yet they are the heirs of traditional values and of the sacred. They can therefore be a strong voice reminding postmodern people and politicians that sentimentalism and pragmatism are wrong; that the danger does not only come from the other, but partly originates in our own souls; that there are other threats, to the environment, to the dignity of human beings (e.g., through poverty or wide spread diseases), and so on, to which we should respond as vigorously as to terrorism. The major ‘Western’ religions can and should be partners in dialogue with traditional groups within and outside Western society, showing another face of the West, discussing with these traditional groups, especially the religious ones, how to react to the terrible threats we all face in this global world, and continuing to spread their message of mutual understanding and hope.



Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion (ed. by Julia Witwer). New York, Columbia University Press, 2000.

Sissela Bok, A Strategy for Peace. Human Values and the Threat of War. NY, Pantheon Books, 1989.

Herman De Dijn, Hoe overleven we de vrijheid? Modernisme, postmodernisme en het mystiek lichaam. Kampen, Kok Agora / Kapellen, Pelckmans, 19974.

Hans Magnus ENZENSBERGER, Civil War (transl. from the German by Piers Spence, e. a.). London, Granta Books, 1994.

Georges Laffly, État des lieux. Une société entre le rêve et la peur. Le Barroux, Eds. Sainte-Madeleine, 2000.

Michel Maffesoli, Le temps des tribus. Le déclin de l’individualisme dans les sociétés de masse. Paris, Klincksieck, 1988.

Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest. Globalization and the Terrorist Threat. London / NY, Continuum, 2002.

Charles TAYLOR, Multiculturalism. Examining the Politics of Recognition ( Amy Gutmann). Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1994.