Slavoj Zizek | The Independent

The US is pursuing two contradictory strategies with North Korea and it could lead to nuclear war.


Since it opened in Berlin in 2015, Ferdinand von Schirach’s Terrorbecame a global hit, with hundreds of stagings all around the world, as well as an unending flow of ethical debates in mass media.

It is a court drama, the report of the trial against Lars Koch, a German fighter pilot who has shot down a Lufthansa plane that has been hijacked by a terrorist; the plane was heading for a stadium of 70,000 people (watching a Germany-England game), and Koch’s pragmatic decision – one in which he broke the constitutional law – was to end the lives of 164 people on the plane rather than allow the terrorist to slaughter a far greater number at the stadium.

At the end, the audience must vote: guilty or not guilty. Each spectator is provided with a small gadget with two buttons, 1 (guilty) or 2 (not guilty), and the audience learns its verdict. Predictably, the majority (at least in the Western theatres) proclaims Koch not guilty.

We are undoubtedly dealing with a genuine antinomy of moral reason (to use a Kantian turn) here: if we formulate the dilemma in this clear way, there simply is not an unambiguous solution. Any play with certainty and percentages – in the style of “If I am absolutely sure that by killing one man I will save at least 50, then…” – amounts to an obscenity.

However, our gut feeling that there is something deeply wrong and false with the choice staged by the play is fully justified: the choice is ideology at its purest, mainly because of what it leaves out in order to present a clear and simple picture.

Basically, we are addressed as individuals, confronted with a tough choice whose very clarity (shoot down the plane or not?) obfuscates all other relevant features. What about emptying the stadium (there was enough time); what about the geopolitical causes of such terrorist acts; what about our military interventions into Arab countries; what about our alliance with Saudi Arabia? Did we choose any of that, were we asked to choose any of that? Why do we feel all the pressure of the choice only when we confront a consequence of all these previous choices?

But there is another, more basic, feature of the play that we should address. Upon a closer look, it becomes clear that, when Koch chooses to shoot the plan down, he does not really make a unique existential decision but just follows the implicit social injunction.

His conversations with military superiors made it clear that they suppose he will shoot down the plane. They even implicitly put pressure on him to do it; they just don’t want to tell him to directly do it.

The situation reminds me of my recent stay in a hotel in Skopje, Macedonia: my companion inquired if smoking is permitted in our room, and the answer she got from the receptionist was unique: “Of course not, it is prohibited by the law. But you have ashtrays in the room, so this is not a problem.”

This was not the end of our surprises: when we entered the room, there was effectively a glass ashtray on the table, and on its bottom there was an image painted, a cigarette over which there was a large circle with a diagonal line across it designating prohibition. “No smoking”, written on an ashtray.

So this was not the usual game one encounters in tolerant hotels where they whisper to you discreetly that, although it is officially prohibited, you can do it carefully, standing by an open window or something like that. The contradiction (between prohibition and permission) was openly assumed and thereby cancelled, treated as inexistent – in other words, the message was: “It’s prohibited, and here is how you do it.”

Was Koch’s situation not exactly the same? The repeated message from his superiors was: “It’s prohibited by the law – and do it!”

This is how armies function. I remember a similar incident from my military service. One morning, in our first class of the day, the officer running the session mentioned that it is prohibited to shoot at parachuters while they are still in the air, i.e. before they touch ground. In a happy coincidence, our next class was about rifle shooting, and the same officer taught us how to target a parachuter in the air (how, while aiming at it, one should take into account the velocity of his descent and the direction and strength of the wind, and so on).

When one of the soldiers asked the officer about the contradiction between this lesson and what we learned just an hour before (the prohibition to shoot at parachuters), the officer just snapped back with cynical laughter: “How can you be so stupid? Don’t you understand how life works?”

Recall also the debates on torture – was the stance of the US authorities not something like: “Torture is prohibited, and here is how you do a water-boarding”?