Wednesday, 3 August 2016

A Trivial and Insidious Step

Following the recent terrorist attacks in France, various French news outlets, including Le Monde, La Croix and BFM-TV, decided to stop publicising the identities of the perpetrators in order to avoid their "posthumous glorification". This policy is limited to terrorists who claim allegiance to Daesh/ISIS, and can be read as an act of frustrated resistance in the wake of the apparent failure of the French security services to prevent recent incidents (Le Monde starts from the Hobbesian position that la première des missions que nous déléguons à l’Etat est de nous protéger). There is no suggestion that the policy will be extended to others who seek ostensibly political ends through violence, such as Anders Breivik, or those non-ideological actors motivated by revenge against perceived slights. Not the least of the miscalculations is that this "no platforming" qualitatively distinguishes jihadi terror, which is a kind of fame.

The French media's resident idiot-philosope, Bernard Henri Levy, has tried to provide an intellectual foundation for this act of self-censorship. He gives three reasons: that publication makes the perpetrators "globally recognised characters in the showbusiness side of this terrorist war, thus fulfilling one of their keenest desires"; that by excavating their personal and social context, such as an unhappy childhood or a sudden radicalisation, "we are taking the shortest route to the banalisation of evil"; and finally that publication creates a copycat effect, "an invitation to vulnerable minds to follow their example and to commit similar acts". These are unoriginal, conservative justifications: the oxygen of publicity; understanding less and condemning more; and the manipulation of the ignorant by outside agitators. You may recall Margaret Thatcher making the same points in the 1980s, variously about the IRA and rioters in British cities.

They are also examples of bad faith. The "showbusiness" of Islamist terrorism has its roots in the sympathetic coverage by Western media of the Muhajideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which was then compounded by the "shock and awe" presentation of the two Iraq wars. A beheading is the principle of asymmetric conflict applied in the realm of video. The "banalisation of evil" is meant to evoke Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann trial, but in doing so Levy misses the point that banality does not arise from misplaced sympathy but from a lack of empathy. As Susan Neiman says about Arendt's analysis (quoted by Corey Robin), "Contemporary dangers begin with trivial and insidious steps". As for the invocation of "vulnerable minds", Levy clearly doesn't consider himself to be among their number, but he gives no clue as to how they are to be distinguished. Presumably the ban will not be extended from the popular press to academia or public policy thinktanks.

What is more interesting (for students of the BHL brand) is his attempt to provide historical context, referencing the anarchist outrages of the late nineteenth century and the urban terrorism of Italy in the 1970s (i.e. the Red Brigades rather than the neofascists). One obvious difference is that these leftwing groups aimed their attacks at the state in the form of institutions and specific office-holders, such as politicians and judges, with few deliberate attacks against "non-combatants" (that was the hallmark of deep-state provocateurs, as at Bologna). Insofar as we can be sure of the strategic objectives of jihadi attacks in Europe, these appear to be driven by a combination of revenge for civilian Sunni deaths in the Middle East and a hope that ensuing state repression might alienate local Muslims. A better parallel would have been the Provisional IRA, whose modus operandi included symbolic assaults on the state (most obviously the British Army), revenge attacks against Protestants, and bombings that killed civilians. Perhaps Levy was uncomfortable with this parallel because the subsequent political trajectory doesn't suit his call for a "total war".

He also avoids any mention of the original "terrorism" of the French Revolution, despite this being a prominent concern of revisionist French thinkers since the 70s, notably in their insistence that Robespierre and Saint-Just inevitably begat Stalin and Mao. This isn't domestic sensitivity so much as a refusal to mix categories. In this liberal view, La Terreur was the result of the state being captured by illegitimate forces, just as the Gulags were a perversion of the state's mission to protect its citizens, but it was state violence nonetheless. Daesh/ISIS is not engaged in a contest to capture the state or force concessions from it, and its claim to independent statehood remains unaccepted, hence it is easier to bracket it with stateless nihilists with whom negotiation is impossible. This partly explains the importance of religion in the Western response to Islamism: it both fills the ideological void and can be taken as evidence that there can be no compromise, even when jihadis turn up with copies of Islam for Dummies.

By focusing on religion and "the clash of civilisations" we can avoid questioning actual politics in the Middle East and North Africa. We avoid naming some things (oil, destabilisation, the suppression of democracy) by talking loudly about other things. Compare and contrast with Northern Ireland where a reluctance to cast the conflict as solely sectarian, and a willingness to discuss the other things (discrimination, resources, gerrymandering), eventually paved the way towards a resolution. This is not to suggest that there is any prospect of encouraging Daesh to the negotiating table, not least because Western policy in the Middle East is not led by France, but that greater engagement with French Muslims (rather than scolding) might make the environment more hostile to Islamist violence. To this end, identifying a terrorist as a citizen is a small contribution towards advocating the pursuit of a political course.

Suppressing a terrorist's identity will have no positive impact. There aren't that many wannabe jihadis in France who read Le Monde, let alone the Catholic paper La Croix. What this tactic does is dehumanise the terrorists, which paradoxically makes them mythical and increases their cachet among those who admire the illicit. Terrorism employs other people, its victims, as means to a propagandistic end. Treating a terrorist in a similar fashion is not a clever response. What is presented as a gesture of defiance by Le Monde looks like an act of pretentious self-importance by a newspaper grieving over the loss of its authority since the rise of the Internet. Denying people their name, reducing them to their initials as Levy suggests, is a step on the way to treating them merely as numbers, and that is ultimately a road that leads to Auschwitz.


  1. BHL reminds me of the quote relating to Michael Ignatieff, that he was a "savant idiot".

  2. Herbie Melts the Glacier6 August 2016 at 10:25

    Is anyone in France shocked that they have become targets? What amazes me is how much violence the Muslim world can take and how much the civilised can dish out and still be called civilised!

    Given the level of violence dished out by the imperialist nations against particularly the Middle East, but also other rentier or developing economies, it is incredible that so little violence makes its way back to the core.

    We should be concluding that Islam must be a really really peaceful and tolerant religion and it takes a hell of a lot to tip it over the edge.

    After all one terrorist attack and the USA set a whole region of the planet on fire.

    Whenever France receive a fraction of the violence they have dished out they get on their little imperialist platforms telling the world they are going to dish out even more violence. It never ever occurs to them that maybe they should look in the mirror first.

    Factor in domestic policies that basically make being a Muslim illegal and adding insult to injury with French chauvinist satire and you have a recipe for disaster.

    The analogy I would use is that France is a serial rapist that then decides to mock and insult its victims and the victims sometimes strike out in anger.