Who cries fucks who smiles
The Terrorism Virus ?
The anger is understandable, but the angrier we are, the likelier it is that the terrorists will win. Maybe not the ones with this name, but someone of their ilk, someone using similar methods and provoking us in familiar ways, making our reaction the instrument of their victory. When President Hollande talks of a ‘pitiless’ response to the horrible massacre in Paris, it is easy to understand where he is coming from, but it is a different matter entirely as to what his reaction might end up unleashing.
The argument is not rooted in a ‘soft’ reading of terrorism by placing in a larger human and political context, something many are prone to do. Those that ask for instance why does the world care so much for Paris but not at all for Beirut where a similar carnage took place a day earlier, try and make us locate the actions of the terrorist in a broader cultural and political context. Their argument blurs the neat division that exists in many minds between nations and communities that are seen as either perpetrators or victims and provides some kind of causal framework within which it locates acts of terrorism.
But in doing so, it implicitly argues that terrorism is a process that can be understood in conventional terms as a way of negotiating inequalities and oppressions, both real and constructed. The trouble with terrorism is that it increasingly difficult to make sense of in these traditional ways. Terrorism is a unique structure, which behaves in ways that run counter to most natural human instincts and this is what gives it power and resilience.
Terrorism is a contagious form of madness. It infects everything it touches, and does so with ruthless efficiency. It enacts a symbolic form of violence with spectacular theatricality, using a specific set of devices. The target selected needs to be symbolically significant for the greatest effect, but within that the victims are randomly chosen. The difference between the Charlie Hebdo attack and this one is that in the former case, a sense of cause and effect could be clearly established whereas the victims in the recent instance could have been anyone. In its purest form, terrorism renounces all apparent causality- it has no demands to make, it selects victims without any apparent reason and it kills them simply for effect.
Most importantly, in this form of terrorism, the terrorists renounce their own lives, thereby rendering null and void a fundamental premise on which civilization is founded (you will act with a modicum of rationality because you value your life as much as I do- whatever our differences, we can appreciate each other at least at this truly human level). And terrorism gains, rather than loses as a result of our attempts to tame it; its greatest asset is our determination to retaliate in a fitting manner. The more fearful, suspicious, paranoid we are, the more we lash at targets visible and invisible, the greater our investment in security, intelligence and surveillance, the more permanent the victory for terrorism.
The strength of terrorism lies in its ability to harness all that would normally weaken it. It wants to be attacked, it seeks enemies, the more powerful the better, and wants that the people it identifies as its own become objects of suspicion and hate. And since the preciousness of human life is no longer a given, it does not matter that much if individuals and even organisations are destroyed- the idea takes fresh roots.
That is exactly what happened after 9/11, and now that is the script which is being written after Paris. How does one react differently? We can argue as many do that Paris cannot be understood in isolation, and that there are no innocents when it comes to violence as a system, that the West has been guilty of excesses in a systematic way, but how does that change anything? There is simply no way that France can let this wanton carnage go unpunished. No country could, whatever writers of articles say.
Terrorism is in a conceptual sense, an idea that depends for its existence on media. What happened in Beirut was understood differently than what happened in Paris partly because the former was seen as a routine conflict in a troubled area and the latter as a terrorist strike in the heart of civilization. This transformation in meaning is a result of the effect produced by media and its consumers. And while we may legitimately rail at the unfairness of this differential reaction, perhaps it will also mean that the reactions by France will have a longer term impact. 9/11 was as a terrorist device, an extremely efficient manufacturer of fear, suspicion and divisiveness and no one has won that war yet.
The more we fear terrorism, the more terrorized we are by it, the greater the chance that we all will be infected by this virus. And this is a virus that cunningly feeds on so many of our impulses- the desire to be strong and strike down anyone threatening us, the hierarchy that exists between different grades of human lives, which allows a few lives to be so much more valuable than others, the deep need to separate people into groups and accord them valencies- the them and us, the outsiders and the belongers, the believers and the infidels. As a result, we will not win the war against terrorism, not until we have the perverse wisdom to forego some of our most natural instincts. We need to ignore what we are riveted by, forgive what we thirst to seek retribution for and embrace what we are suspicious of. We think these are signs of weakness, but in the inverted logic that drives terrorism, these are the counter-intuitive hallmarks of strength.