John — A Dialogue with Jürgen Habermas

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An excerpt from
Philosophy in a Time of Terror
Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas
and Jacques Derrida
by Giovanna Borradori
A Dialogue with Jürgen Habermas
Borradori: Do you consider what we now tend to call “September 11” an unprecedented event, one that radically alters the way we see ourselves?
Habermas: Allow me to say in advance that I shall be answering your questions at a distance of three months. Therefore, it might be useful to mention my personal experience in relation to the event. At the start of October I was beginning a two-month stay in Manhattan. I must confess I somehow felt more of a stranger this time than I did on previous visits to the “capital of the twentieth century,” a city that has fascinated me for more than three decades. It was not only the flag-waving and rather defiant “United We Stand” patriotism that had changed the climate, nor was it the peculiar demand for solidarity and the accompanying susceptibility to any presumed “anti-Americanism.” The impressive American liberality toward foreigners, the charm of the eager, sometimes also self-consciously accepting embrace—this noble openhearted mentality seemed to have given way to a slight mistrust. Would we, the ones who had not been present, now also stand by them unconditionally? Even those who hold an unquestionable record, as I do among my American friends, needed to be cautious with regard to criticism. Since the intervention in Afghanistan, we suddenly began to notice when, in political discussions, we found ourselves only among Europeans (or among Israelis).
On the other hand, only there did I first feel the full magnitude of the event. The terror of this disaster, which literally came bursting out of the blue, the horrible convictions behind this treacherous assault, as well as the stifling depression that set over the city, were a completely different experience there than at home. Every friend and colleague could remember exactly what they were doing that day shortly after 9:00 A.M. In short, only there did I begin to better comprehend the foreboding atmosphere that already echoes in your question. Also among the left there is a widespread awareness of living at a turning point in history. I do not know whether the U.S. government itself was slightly paranoid or merely shunning responsibility. At any rate, the repeated and utterly nonspecific announcements of possible new terror attacks and the senseless calls to “be alert” further stirred a vague feeling of angst along with an uncertain readiness—precisely the intention of the terrorists. In New York people seemed ready for the worst. As a matter of course, the anthrax scares (even the plane crash in Queens)2 were attributed to Osama bin Laden’s diabolical machinations.
Given this background, you can understand a certain tendency toward skepticism. But is what we contemporaries think at the moment that important for a long-term diagnosis? If the September 11 terror attack is supposed to constitute a caesura in world history, as many think, then it must be able to stand comparison to other events of world historical impact. For that matter, the comparison is not to be drawn with Pearl Harbor but rather with the aftermath of August 1914. The outbreak of World War I signaled the end of a peaceful and, in retrospect, somewhat unsuspecting era, unleashing an age of warfare, totalitarian oppression, mechanistic barbarism and bureaucratic mass murder. At the time, there was something like a widespread foreboding. Only in retrospect will we be able to understand if the symbolically suffused collapse of the capitalistic citadels in lower Manhattan implies a break of that type or if this catastrophe merely confirms, in an inhuman and dramatic way, a long known vulnerability of our complex civilization. If an event is not as unambiguously important as the French Revolution once was—not long after that event Kant had spoken about a “historical sign” that pointed toward a “moral tendency of humankind”—only “effective history” can adjudicate its magnitude in retrospect.
Perhaps at a later point important developments will be traced back to September 11. But for now we do not know which of the many scenarios depicted today will actually hold in the future. The clever, albeit fragile, coalition against terrorism brought together by the U.S. government might, in the most favorable case, be able to advance the transition from classical international law to a cosmopolitan order. At all events, a hopeful signal was the Afghanistan conference in Bonn, which, under the auspices of the UN, set the agenda in the right direction.3 However, after September 11 the European governments have completely failed. They are obviously incapable of seeing beyond their own national scope of interests and lending at least their support to the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell against the hard-liners. The Bush administration seems to be continuing, more or less undisturbed, the self-centered course of a callous superpower. It is fighting now as it has in the past against the appointment of an international criminal court, relying instead on military tribunals of its own. These constitute, from the viewpoint of international law, a dubious innovation. It refuses to sign the Biological Weapons Convention. It one-sidedly terminated the ABM Treaty and absurdly sees its plan to deploy a missile defense system validated by the events of September 11. The world has grown too complex for this barely concealed unilateralism. Even if Europe does not rouse itself to play the civilizing role, as it should, the emerging power of China and the waning power of Russia do not fit into the pax Americana model so simply. Instead of the kind of international police action that we had hoped for during the war in Kosovo, there are wars again—conducted with state-of-the-art technology but still in the old style.
The misery in war-torn Afghanistan is reminiscent of images from the Thirty Years’ War. Naturally there were good reasons, even normative ones, to forcibly remove the Taliban regime, which brutally oppressed not only women but the entire population. They also refused the legitimate demand to hand over bin Laden. However, the asymmetry between the concentrated destructive power of the electronically controlled clusters of elegant and versatile missiles in the air and the archaic ferocity of the swarms of bearded warriors outfitted with Kalashnikovs on the ground remains a morally obscene sight. This feeling is more properly understood when one recalls the bloodthirsty colonial history that Afghanistan suffered, its arbitrary geographic cutting up, and its continued instrumentalization at the hands of the European power play. In any case, the Taliban regime already belongs to history.
Borradori: True, but our topic is terrorism, which seems to have taken up new meaning and definition after September 11th.
Habermas: The monstrous act itself was new. And I do not just mean the action of the suicide hijackers who transformed the fully fueled airplanes together with their hostages into living weapons, or even the unbearable number of victims and the dramatic extent of the devastation. What was new was the symbolic force of the targets struck. The attackers did not just physically cause the highest buildings in Manhattan to collapse; they also destroyed an icon in the household imagery of the American nation. Only in the surge of patriotism that followed did one begin to recognize the central importance the towers held in everyone’s imagination, with their irreplaceable imprint on the Manhattan skyline and their powerful embodiment of economic strength and projection toward the future. The presence of cameras and of the media was also new, transforming the local event simultaneously into a global one and the whole world population into a benumbed witness. Perhaps September 11 could be called the first historic world event in the strictest sense: the impact, the explosion, the slow collapse—everything that was not Hollywood anymore but, rather, a gruesome reality, literally took place in front of the “universal eyewitness” of a global public. God only knows what my friend and colleague experienced, watching the second airplane explode into the top floors of the World Trade Center only a few blocks away from the roof of his house on Duane Street. No doubt it was something completely different from what I experienced in Germany in front of the television, though we saw the same thing.
Certainly, no observation of a unique event can provide an explanation per se for why terrorism itself should have assumed a new characteristic. In this respect one factor above all seems to me to be relevant: one never really knows who one’s enemy is. Osama bin Laden, the person, more likely serves the function of a stand-in. Compare the new terrorists with partisans or conventional terrorists, for example, in Israel. These people often fight in a decentralized manner in small, autonomous units, too. Also, in these cases there is no concentration of forces or central organization, a feature that makes them difficult targets. But partisans fight on familiar territory with professed political objectives in order to conquer power. This is what distinguishes them from terrorists who are scattered around the globe and networked in the fashion of secret services. They allow their religious motives of a fundamentalist kind to be known, though they do not pursue a program that goes beyond the engineering of destruction and insecurity. The terrorism we associate for the time being with the name “al-Qaeda” makes the identification of the opponent and any realistic assessment of the danger impossible. This intangibility is what lends terrorism a new quality.
Surely the uncertainty of the danger belongs to the essence of terrorism. But the scenarios of biological or chemical warfare painted in detail by the American media during the months after September 11, the speculations over the various kinds of nuclear terrorism, only betray the inability of the government to at least determine the magnitude of the danger. One never knows if there’s anything to it. In Israel people at least know what can happen to them if they take a bus, go into a department store, discotheque, or any open area—and how frequently it happens. In the U.S.A. or Europe one cannot circumscribe the risk; there is no realistic way to estimate the type, magnitude, or probability of the risk, nor any way to narrow down the potentially affected regions.
This brings a threatened nation, which can react to such uncertain dangers solely through administrative channels, to the truly embarrassing situation of perhaps overreacting and, yet, because of the inadequate level of secret intelligence, remaining unable to know whether or not it is in fact overreacting. Because of this, the state is in danger of falling into disrepute due to the evidence of its inadequate resources: both domestically, through a militarizing of the security measures, which endanger the constitutional state, and internationally, through the mobilization of a simultaneously disproportionate and ineffective military and technological superiority. With transparent motives, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned again of unspecified terror threats at the NATO conference in Brussels in mid-December: “When we look at the destruction they caused in the U.S.A., imagine what they could do in New York, or London, or Paris, or Berlin with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.” Of a wholly different kind were the measures—necessary and prudent, but only effective in the long term—the U.S. government took after the attack: the creation of a worldwide coalition of countries against terrorism, the effective control over suspicious financial flows and international bank associations, the networking of relevant information flows among national intelligence agencies, as well as the worldwide coordination of corresponding police investigations.
Borradori: Philosophically speaking, do you consider terrorism to be a wholly political act?
Habermas: Not in the subjective sense in which Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian citizen who came from Hamburg and piloted the first of the two catastrophic airplanes, would offer you a political answer. No doubt today’s Islamic fundamentalism is also a cover for political motifs. Indeed, we should not overlook the political motifs we encounter in forms of religious fanaticism. This explains the fact that some of those drawn into the “holy war” had been secular nationalists only a few years before. If one looks at the biographies of these people, remarkable continuities are revealed. Disappointment over nationalistic authoritarian regimes may have contributed to the fact that today religion offers a new and subjectively more convincing language for old political orientations.
Borradori: How would you actually define terrorism? Can a meaningful distinction be drawn between national and international or even global terrorism?
Habermas: In one respect, Palestinian terrorism still possesses a certain outmoded characteristic in that it revolves around murder, around the indiscriminate annihilation of enemies, women, and children—life against life. This is what distinguishes it from the terror that appears in the paramilitary form of guerilla warfare. This form of warfare has characterized many national liberation movements in the second half of the twentieth century—and has left its mark today on the Chechnyan struggle for independence, for example. In contrast to this, the global terror that culminated in the September 11 attack bears the anarchistic traits of an impotent revolt directed against an enemy that cannot be defeated in any pragmatic sense. The only possible effect it can have is to shock and alarm the government and population. Technically speaking, since our complex societies are highly susceptible to interferences and accidents, they certainly offer ideal opportunities for a prompt disruption of normal activities. These disruptions can, at a minimum expense, have considerably destructive consequences. Global terrorism is extreme both in its lack of realistic goals and in its cynical exploitation of the vulnerability of complex systems.
Borradori: Should terrorism be distinguished from ordinary crimes and other types of violence?
Habermas: Yes and no. From a moral point of view, there is no excuse for terrorist acts, regardless of the motive or the situation under which they are carried out. Nothing justifies our “making allowance for” the murder or suffering of others for one’s own purposes. Each murder is one too many. Historically, however, terrorism falls in a category different from crimes that concern a criminal court judge. It differs from a private incident in that it deserves public interest and requires a different kind of analysis than murder out of jealousy, for example. Otherwise, we would not be having this interview. The difference between political terror and ordinary crime becomes clear during the change of regimes, in which former terrorists come to power and become well-regarded representatives of their country. Certainly, such a political transition can be hoped for only by terrorists who pursue political goals in a realistic manner; who are able to draw, at least retrospectively, a certain legitimation for their criminal actions, undertaken to overcome a manifestly unjust situation. However, today I cannot imagine a context that would some day, in some manner, make the monstrous crime of September 11 an understandable or comprehensible political act.
Borradori: Do you think it was good to interpret this act as a declaration of war?
Habermas: Even if the term “war” is less misleading and, morally, less controvertible than “crusade,” I consider Bush’ s decision to call for a “war against terrorism” a serious mistake, both normatively and pragmatically. Normatively, he is elevating these criminals to the status of war enemies; and pragmatically, one cannot lead a war against a “network” if the term “war” is to retain any definite meaning.
A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida
Borradori: September 11 [le 11 septembre] gave us the impression of being a major event, one of the most important historical events we will witness in our lifetime, especially for those of us who never lived through a world war. Do you agree?
Derrida: Le 11 septembre, as you say, or, since we have agreed to speak two languages, “September 11.” We will have to return later to this question of language. As well as to this act of naming: a date and nothing more. When you say “September 11” you are already citing, are you not? You are inviting me to speak here by recalling, as if in quotation marks, a date or a dating that has taken over our public space and our private lives for five weeks now. Something fait date, I would say in a French idiom, something marks a date, a date in history; that is always what’s most striking, the very impact of what is at least felt, in an apparently immediate way, to be an event that truly marks, that truly makes its mark, a singular and, as they say here, “unprecedented” event. I say “apparently immediate” because 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. “To mark a date in history” presupposes, in any case, that “something” comes or happens for the first and last time, “something” that we do not yet really know how to identify, determine, recognize, or analyze but that should remain from here on in unforgettable: an ineffaceable event in the shared archive of a universal calendar, that is, a supposedly universal calendar, for these are—and I want to insist on this at the outset—only suppositions and presuppositions. Unrefined and dogmatic, or else carefully considered, organized, calculated, strategic—or all of these at once. For the index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this “thing” that has just happened, this supposed “event.” An act of “international terrorism,” for example, and we will return to this, is anything but a rigorous concept that would help us grasp the singularity of what we will be trying to discuss. “Something” took place, we have the feeling of not having seen it coming, and certain consequences undeniably follow upon the “thing.” But this very thing, the place and meaning of this “event,” remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy—a name, a number—points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.
This is the first, indisputable effect of what occurred (whether it was calculated, well calculated, or not), precisely on September 11, not far from here: we repeat this, we must repeat it, and it is all the more necessary to repeat it insofar as we do not really know what is being named in this way, as if to exorcise two times at one go: on the one hand, to conjure away, as if by magic, the “thing” itself, the fear or the terror it inspires (for repetition always protects by neutralizing, deadening, distancing a traumatism, and this is true for the repetition of the televised images we will speak of later), and, on the other hand, to deny, as close as possible to this act of language and this enunciation, our powerlessness to name in an appropriate fashion, to characterize, to think the thing in question, to get beyond the mere deictic of the date: something terrible took place on September 11, and in the end we don’t know what. For however outraged we might be at the violence, however much we might genuinely deplore—as I do, along with everyone else—the number of dead, no one will really be convinced that this is, in the end, what it’s all about. I will come back to this later; for the moment we are simply preparing ourselves to say something about it.
I’ve been in New York for three weeks now. Not only is it impossible not to speak on this subject, but you feel or are made to feel that it is actually forbidden, that you do not have the right, to begin speaking of anything, especially in public, without ceding to this obligation, without making an always somewhat blind reference to this date (and this was already the case in China, where I was on September 11, and then in Frankfurt on September 22). I gave in regularly to this injunction, I admit; and in a certain sense I am doing so again by taking part in this friendly interview with you, though trying always, beyond the commotion and the most sincere compassion, to appeal to questions and to a “thought” (among other things, a real political thought) of what, it seems, has just taken place on September 11, just a few steps from here, in Manhattan or, not too far away, in Washington, D.C.
I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this repetition compulsion (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). To what this compulsion signifies, translates, or betrays. Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language and what is pushing us to repeat endlessly and without knowing what we are talking about, precisely there where language and the concept come up against their limits: “September 11, September 11, le 11 septembre, 9/11.”
We must try to know more, to take our time and hold onto our freedom so as to begin to think this first effect of the so-called event: From where does this menacing injunction itself come to us? How is it being forced upon us? Who or what gives us this threatening order (others would already say this terrorizing if not terrorist imperative): name, repeat, rename “September 11,” “le 11 septembre,” even when you do not yet know what you are saying and are not yet thinking what you refer to in this way. I agree with you: without any doubt, this “thing,” “September 11,” “gave us the impression of being a major event.” But what is an impression in this case? And an event? And especially a “major event”? Taking your word—or words—for it, I will underscore more than one precaution. I will do so in a seemingly “empiricist” style, though aiming beyond empiricism. It cannot be denied, as an empiricist of the eighteenth century would quite literally say, that there was an “impression” there, and the impression of what you call in English—and this is not fortuitous—a “major event.” I insist here on the English because it is the language we speak here in New York, even though it is neither your language nor mine; but I also insist because the injunction comes first of all from a place where English predominates. I am not saying this only because the United States was targeted, hit, or violated on its own soil for the first time in almost two centuries—since 1812 to be exact—but because the world order that felt itself targeted through this violence is dominated largely by the Anglo-American idiom, an idiom that is indissociably linked to the political discourse that dominates the world stage, to international law, diplomatic institutions, the media, and the greatest technoscientific, capitalist, and military power. And it is very much a question of the still enigmatic but also critical essence of this hegemony. By critical, I mean at once decisive, potentially decisionary, decision-making, and in crisis: today more vulnerable and threatened than ever.
Whether this “impression” is justified or not, it is in itself an event, let us never forget it, especially when it is, though in quite different ways, a properly global effect. The “impression” cannot be dissociated from all the affects, interpretations, and rhetoric that have at once reflected, communicated, and “globalized” it from everything that also and first of all formed, produced, and made it possible. The “impression” thus resembles “the very thing” that produced it. Even if the so-called “thing” cannot be reduced to it. Even if, therefore, the event itself cannot be reduced to it. The event is made up of the “thing” itself (that which happens or comes) and the impression (itself at once “spontaneous” and “controlled”) that is given, left, or made by the so-called “thing.” We could say that the impression is “informed,” in both senses of the word: a predominant system gave it form, and this form then gets run through an organized information machine (language, communication, rhetoric, image, media, and so on). This informational apparatus is from the very outset political, technical, economic. But we can and, I believe, must (and this duty is at once philosophical and political) distinguish between the supposedly brute fact, the “impression,” and the interpretation. It is of course just about impossible, I realize, to distinguish the “brute” fact from the system that produces the “information” about it. But it is necessary to push the analysis as far as possible. To produce a “major event,” it is, sad to say, not enough, and this has been true for some time now, to cause the deaths of some four thousand people, and especially “civilians,” in just a few seconds by means of so-called advanced technology. Many examples could be given from the world wars (for you specified that this event appears even more important to those who “have never lived through a world war”) but also from after these wars, examples of quasi-instantaneous mass murders that were not recorded, interpreted, felt, and presented as “major events.” They did not give the “impression,” at least not to everyone, of being unforgettable catastrophes.
We must thus ask why this is the case and distinguish between two “impressions.” On the one hand, compassion for the victims and indignation over the killings; our sadness and condemnation should be without limits, unconditional, unimpeachable; they are responding to an undeniable “event,” beyond all simulacra and all possible virtualization; they respond with what might be called the heart and they go straight to the heart of the event. On the other hand, the interpreted, interpretative, informed impression, the conditional evaluation that makes us believe that this is a “major event.” Belief, the phenomenon of credit and of accreditation,, constitutes an essential dimension of the evaluation, of the dating, indeed, of the compulsive inflation of which we’ve been speaking. By distinguishing impression from belief, I continue to make as if I were privileging this language of English empiricism, which we would be wrong to resist here. All the philosophical questions remain open, unless they are opening up again in a perhaps new and original way: what is an impression? What is a belief? But especially: what is an event worthy of this name? And a “major” event, that is, one that is actually more of an “event,” more actually an “event,” than ever? An event that would bear witness, in an exemplary or hyperbolic fashion, to the very essence of an event or even to an event beyond essence? For could an event that still conforms to an essence, to a law or to a truth, indeed to a concept of the event, ever be a major event? A major event should be so unforeseeable and irruptive that it disturbs even the horizon of the concept or essence on the basis of which we believe we recognize an event as such. That is why all the “philosophical” questions remain open, perhaps even beyond philosophy itself, as soon as it is a matter of thinking the event.
Borradori: Whether or not September 11 is an event of major importance, what role do you see for philosophy? Can philosophy help us to understand what has happened?
Derrida: Such an “event” surely calls for a philosophical response. Better, a response that calls into question, at their most fundamental level, the most deep-seated conceptual presuppositions in philosophical discourse. The concepts with which this “event” has most often been described, named, categorized, are the products of a “dogmatic slumber” from which only a new philosophical reflection can awaken us, a reflection on philosophy, most notably on political philosophy and its heritage. The prevailing discourse, that of the media and of the official rhetoric, relies too readily on received concepts like “war” or “terrorism” (national or international).
A critical reading of Schmitt, for example, would thus prove very useful. On the one hand, so as to follow Schmitt as far as possible in distinguishing classical war (a direct and declared confrontation between two enemy states, according to the long tradition of European law) from “civil war” and “partisan war” (in its modern forms, even though it appears, Schmitt acknowledges, as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century). But, on the other hand, we would also have to recognize, against Schmitt, that the violence that has now been unleashed is not the result of “war” (the expression “war on terrorism” thus being one of the most confused, and we must analyze this confusion and the interests such an abuse of rhetoric actually serve). Bush speaks of “war,” but he is in fact incapable of identifying the enemy against whom he declares that he has declared war. It is said over and over that neither the civilian population of Afghanistan nor its armies are the enemies of the United States. Assuming that “bin Laden” is here the sovereign decision-maker, everyone knows that he is not Afghan, that he has been disavowed by his own country (by every “country” and state, in fact, almost without exception), that his training owes much to the United States and that, of course, he is not alone. The states that help him indirectly do not do so as states. No state as such supports him publicly. As for states that “harbor” terrorist networks, it is difficult to identify them as such. The United States and Europe, London and Berlin, are also sanctuaries, places of training or formation and information for all the “terrorists” of the world. No geography, no “territorial” determination, is thus pertinent any longer for locating the seat of these new technologies of transmission or aggression. To say it all too quickly and in passing, to amplify and clarify just a bit what I said earlier about an absolute threat whose origin is anonymous and not related to any state, such “terrorist” attacks already no longer need planes, bombs, or kamikazes: it is enough to infiltrate a strategically important computer system and introduce a virus or some other disruptive element to paralyze the economic, military, and political resources of an entire country or continent. And this can be attempted from just about anywhere on earth, at very little expense and with minimal means. The relationship between earth, terra territory, and terror has changed, and it is necessary to know that this is because of knowledge, that is, because of technoscience. It is technoscience that blurs the distinction between war and terrorism. In this regard, when compared to the possibilities for destruction and chaotic disorder that are in reserve, for the future, in the computerized networks of the world, “September 11” is still part of the archaic theater of violence aimed at striking the imagination. One will be able to do even worse tomorrow, invisibly, in silence, more quickly and without any bloodshed, by attacking the computer and informational networks on which the entire life (social, economic, military, and so on) of a “great nation,” of the greatest power on earth, depends. One day it might be said: “September 11″—those were the (“good”) old days of the last war. Things were still of the order of the gigantic: visible and enormous! What size, what height! There has been worse since. Nanotechnologies of all sorts are so much more powerful and invisible, uncontrollable, capable of creeping in everywhere. They are the micrological rivals of microbes and bacteria. Yet our unconscious is already aware of this; it already knows it, and that’s what’s scary.
If this violence is not a “war” between states, it is not a “civil war” either, or a “partisan war,” in Schmitt’s sense, insofar as it does not involve, like most such wars, a national insurrection or liberation movement aimed at taking power on the ground of a nation-state (even if one of the aims, whether secondary or primary, of the “bin Laden” network is to destabilize Saudi Arabia, an ambiguous ally of the United States, and put a new state power in place). Even if one were to insist on speaking here of “terrorism,” this appellation now covers a new concept and new distinctions.