Watching the news is a Kubrickian nightmare. In fact, having even the mildest inclination as to what’s going on in the world is like being strapped to a chair and forced to watch as bodies are ripped apart by nails and Donald Trump continues to prove daily that there is no reality but fiction and that’s no reality at all. But most of us never enjoyed this murderous Grand Guignol, we didn’t need curing of our fascist impulses, and so we don’t scream or retch, our attempts at escape dissipate and it washes over us, reflected back on itself from the surface of once teary eyes. Susan Sontag says that the image saturated world “becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and faits divers.” With each new terror attack, each outpouring of replicated grief, we are anaesthetised a little more. Terrorism becomes mundane.
When terrorists targeted French magazine Charlie Hebdo the outpouring of online solidarity and grief was bound up in the phrase Je Suis Charlie. And in that moment, an unlikely, ugly little modern tradition was born. People who want to show the world whose side they are on run to carry the flag, but first came Je Suis Charlie.
It didn’t matter who or what Charlie Hebdo was or what they have done. All context became meaningless except for the blood on the streets; the oily outcome of death in the office carpets. People were all Charlie Hebdo. It was heresy to even dare suggest that the paper’s attitude to Islam had contributed to the attack. To look for cause, strategy, or any possible ‘reasons’ for the actions of terrorists was unethical and disrespectful. The response must be condemnation attached to unequivocal allegiance to a symbolic emblem of the victims.
But, the horrific book-end to the year of escalating terror, the Paris attacks, showed the folly in this response. The victims of the attacks in paris were killed for power. Killed in the slaughter-house of the terror industry in clearly planned attacks. The choral reaction was Je Suis Paris, and this time people actually carried the flag, and Facebook was awash with the Tricolore. Again everything was particles without connection, present atoms and past nothings.
The clamour to denounce terrorism, to play your part as the extra in this tedious episode of Homeland is becoming part of the routine. It almost doesn’t matter what’s said, only that the same patterns and cycles emerge and accelerate. It’s a trial and error of destruction and we are the test subjects. When we all rush to condemn, take our ‘little action’ against the enemy, it reduces the choice of rational response, obliterates any other routes to understanding, it satiates us with the illusion of resistance.
Just as the terrorism itself has saturated the news and culture, and has descended into the realm of simulacrum, our responses are sliding out of the real and into a symbolic automation.
When the internet rushes in condemnation, there are implicit, and so often explicit, calls for Muslim people to denounce terrorism. Every Muslim becomes tethered by Islam to the actions of the terrorist until they denounce them. With nothing but a fictional, imagined correlation between their personal religious faith and an act of terror, they are made directly complicit, a de facto collaborator, and expected to prove their innocence.
This view is insidiously myopic. Right now millions of Muslim people are either displaced or living in war zones, their priority is unlikely to be condemning whichever attack the Western Sympathy Wheel has stopped on. If they do take to social media, is it not likely it will be to talk about subjects more relevant to their immediate lives?
We are creating a ritual of condemnation. Subjecting ourselves to George ‘Dubbya’ Bush’s post-9/11 dictum-cum-threat; “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” So when millions of western people virtualise their condemnation, as unwitting as it might be, it creates an environment that unfairly makes those who don’t look unaffected or uninterested, presenting space for them to be attached to the blame of terrorism, reasserting a westernised hegemony on ethics.
The no doubt honest and kindhearted desire to be seen as ‘with us’ in the condemnation of terrorism, to be sure of broadcasting your ethical stance just to be safe, is codifying the social response to terrorism in rapidly dangerous ways. Complexity is elided completely. There is a singular temporal moment of murder and innocence. One space of victim and perpetrator.
Now I’m not suggesting anything that France or Belgium or any nation has done in the past is justification for wanton murder. But equally it’s irresponsible and dangerously ignorant to believe there is no web of causes, effects, and contexts.
If history is washed away and cleansed like blood from a river, fabricated modern fables take their place. During the Paris attacks, The Guardian, considered to be the most liberal British newspaper, called it the worst attack in Paris since World War Two. This account, repeated many times in news reports and think-pieces around the world, erases the memory of the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris, many of whom were thrown into the river Seine. That flag that people were quick to be seen carrying is the flag of the state that murdered those people. It’s the symbol of colonial France.
Most of the attackers in Paris, and more recently Brussels, have been found to be of Algerian descent. This isn’t inconsequential information, it isn’t purely coincidence that a nation with a complicated history of subjugating muslims has a significant Muslim population that might be targeted for radicalisation.
It is understanding factors like this that will be key to understanding who ISIS are likely to be recruiting, which cities they might target, and how they build their networks. History, both here and in the Middle-East, is not a disconnected relic, it’s an important clue to any real investigation of exactly who and what ISIS are and how they work.
With the attacks in Brussels, how many people writing Je Suis Bruxelles stopped to consider that more Belgians are not French speakers than are? And when putting up the Belgian flag, do you consider the untold terror and brutality inflicted on the people of the Congo under that flag?
Even more perplexing was the hashtag #JeSuisLahore, which is surely an anti-axiom, showing the western bias of sympathy in a message intended to show solidarity and empathy with the people of Pakistan. It doesn’t even bother pretending to concern itself with the culture or languages of the people it professes to be aligning to. All it does is show how rapidly the responses to terrorism have become ritualised. This is why terrorism is so effective, because its consequences don’t end in the lives and limbs destroyed in the attack, they start there. For every nail sent out in destruction from a bomb there are hundreds on fingers at work on keyboards. Each frantically adding to the hall of shattered mirrors where terrorism does most of its work.
The seemingly increasing frequency of terror attacks, the sense of encroachment into lives that before thought of them only as foreign policy issues, or middle-of-the-paper news, is making us become automated in response: ‘Je Suis [insert city]’. But this flaccid and weakened yang to the festering bile of Islamophobia’s yin, is a piston in the engine of perpetuation. It will become so wearingly cyclical, a new rhythm that quickly fades into the diminuendo of white noise, because we don’t know to react any other way than passing replicant condemnation on social media.
When we as communities, as nations, as people, turn our backs on refugees fleeing destruction and violence, and turn them away at our borders; when we denounce the terror they flee but do nothing to give them shelter from it; when we ignore the greatest humanitarian crisis of this generation and forget the lessons of history; we walk, unsighted by tweeting, straight into the trap of terrorism, with our hearts on our sleeves, and blood running down to our hands.