In thirty years, Islamist terrorism has done on average 3500 Western victims, slightly less than 120 each year. These 120 annual deaths are 120 personal and family disasters that deserve recognition. This number, however, is much lower than at least two others: 9855 (the number of deaths from fire weapons in the US in 2012) and 148 (the number of women killed by their partners in France in 2012). This necro-economy (E. Weizman) is certainly too cold. However, it teaches us that our political attitudes are fogged by our differentiated sensitivity to violence.
By Mathias Delori (translated by Arthur Catraio)
A feeling flows since the attack against Charlie Hebdo’s press: we are experiencing a ‹‹ French September 11 ››. If we leave aside the issue of quantity (about three thousand dead on one side, a dozen of the other), the parallelism between the two events is obvious. In both cases, the attacks were perpetrated by individuals claiming to be from the Islam. They also targeted civilians and symbols of Western modernity (press here, capitalism there). Finally, they implement a ‹‹ terrorist ›› strategy in the sense that it seeks to cause an emotion of fear in the affected country. This idea that we would have to deal with a ‹‹ French September 11 ›› has flourished in the newsroom. It leads commentators to question the lessons we could learn from America’s September 11 and, more generally, how to respond to this ‹‹ threat ››.
In this respect, two interpretations seem to structure the public debate. The first outrageously racist, says that Islam has declared war on the West and that the West has the right to defend itself. E. Zemmour, M. Houellebecq and some other Islamophobic will certainly take advantage in the coming days. The corollary of this worldview is the fear or hatred of Islam, fear and hatred that the above mentioned authors do not challenge. The second opposed interpretation invites us not to confuse Islam with terrorism and to make war only to terror. This second approach, dominant in official speeches and editorials of the mainstream press is more nuanced than the first in that it denounces the impropriety of the assimilation of one billion people to acts of a few. It also presents itself as ‹‹ humanist ›› in that it condemns the hateful ideologies and calls to gather peacefully in solidarity with the victims of the attacks.
Although different in the first analysis, these two interpretations have at least one thing in common: their highly emotional dimension. Indeed, they are not based only on articulated reasoning but also on a constellation of different feelings and emotions. On the one hand, coarse Islamophobic are driven by negative emotions: fear and hatred of the other, vengeful instincts, etc. On the other hand, the ‹‹ humanist ›› seem crossed, first and foremost, by positive emotions: compassion and sympathy with the victims, emotional attachment to grand values (freedom of the press, liberal democracy, the republic, etc.). The emotional dimension of these two frameworks of interpretation is seen in public space when a group of people passionately burn a Quran and when others converge their red eyes towards republican spaces for a moment of meditation. Both types of scenes have marked the American imaginary after September 11. Internet and French media present us repeatedly their French equivalent since the tragedy of January 7.
The public and collective character of these emotional reactions reminds us that emotions are anything but spontaneous reactions. Indeed, these feelings that seem so personal, so intimate, so ‹‹ psychological ›› are actually mediated by interpretive frameworks that generate, regulate and give them meaning. Behind the emotions are hidden speeches, perspectives, moral and political biases which are important to us to understand their nature to properly measure their effects. Now, what lesson can we learn from this very general comment on the socially constructed nature of emotions and of what we might call the ‹‹ American precedent ››?
The philosopher J. Butler was interested in the emotional reactions to the September 11 attacks in the United States. She has revealed that these reactions are articulated in the two dimensions mentioned above: the negative dimension generator of hatred, fear and desire for revenge and the positive dimension calling for compassion and moral indignation in face of horror. J. Butler was mainly interested in the second dimension because it has not, apparently, the belligerent and rude character of the first. Her findings will perhaps be of interest to those who make part of the humanistic framework, who say ‹‹ being Charlie ›› and want to reflect on the meaning of their own political actions.
The first observation of J. Butler addresses the extraordinarily selective nature of these feelings of compassion. She notes that the humanist discourse organized the celebration of the 2992 victims of the September 11 attacks but found no words nor affection towards the victims, incomparably more numerous, of the US war against terrorism. Without denying to have participated herself ‹‹ spontaneously ›› of these scenes of commemoration, J. Butler asks: “How is it that we have not been given the names of the dead from that war, including those that the US has killed, those whom we will never have a picture, a name, a story, never any testimony fragment of their lives, something to see, to touch, to know?”.
This rhetorical question allows her to point the finger at the fact that strong power mechanisms are camouflaged behind these seemingly anodyne scenes and (literally) sympathetic compassion with the victims of terrorist violence. These mechanisms show themselves through what might be called the paradox of modern humanist discourse. While this discourse a priori gives an equal value to every life, it actually organizes the hierarchization of suffering and the indifference of fact (or purely transient indignation) from certain death: the dead of the ‹‹ European fortress ›› (19,144 since 1988 according to the NGO Fortress Europe) and the children of Gaza – to take two examples studied by Butler – or the 37 people killed in an attack in Yemen on the same day of the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo for take a more recent example.
The practical corollary of this observation is that these commemorations are not trivial. Behind their screen of positive neutrality, they are symbolic performative acts. These ceremonies teach us which lives should we be crying, but above all whose lives remain excluded from the modern and humanistic economy of compassion.
Applied to the French actuality, the study of J. Butler sheds light on the official and dominant reaction – that is to say ‹‹ humanist ›› and ‹‹ compassionate ›› – to the drama of the Charlie Hebdo’s newsroom. This analysis invite us to decentre and interrogate ourselves on the effects of these speeches and acts of compassion. Now, it is not certain that the effects highlighted by supporters of this discourse are the most important. We are told that these sympathetic speeches and acts of compassion can help families of this tragedy to accomplish their grief. But these families (and Charlie Hebdo readers who have developed attachment bonds to these victims) would not prefer to do this work in privacy? Then it is said to us that these words and these gestures are a way to reiterate the principle of freedom of speech. But who really think that this fundamental right is now threatened in France, especially when it is to caricature the Muslim population, which is – and will likely remain in the coming times – often mocked, caricatured and stigmatized?
The work of J. Butler teaches us that these speeches and gestures certainly produce more belligerent effects. Indeed, we would be wrong to think that wars and violence sprout solely from negative emotions. Contrarily to a widespread idea, the hatred of the Boche and ‹‹ Franzmann ›› was not the prime cause of the First World War. This war was first taken root in the most positive feelings that are: compassion for national victims of past wars, the attachment to the national community or love of universalist values such as the ‹‹ civilization ›› in France and the ‹‹ Kultur ›› in Germany.
We have the right to think that the war against Islamist terrorism is a legitimate war. But it is important to be be aware of a statistical reality. In thirty years, Islamist terrorism has done on average 3500 Western victims, slightly less than 120 each year. These 120 annual deaths are 120 personal and family disasters that deserve recognition. This number, however, is much lower than at least two others: 9855 (the number of deaths from fire weapons in the US in 2012) and 148 (the number of women killed by their partners in France in 2012). This necro-economy (E. Weizman) is certainly too cold. However, it teaches us that our political attitudes are fogged by our differentiated sensitivity to violence. Indeed, no one would think to send 250 kg bombs on the houses of homicide perpetrators in the United States. Similarly, no head of government would think to declare a state of emergency after being aware of the number of gender-based and intra-family murder in France. Why such unanimity in the press this morning about the need not to give the thumbs under to the war (military and non-metaphorically) to Islamist terrorism?
This selective economy of compassion produced a second type of effect in regard to the perception of Western state violence. Communitarian or racist speeches are unique in that they loudly depict the violence that they deploy. Inversely, the modern and humanistic discourse is blind to its own violence. Who has an idea, even approximatively, of the number of deaths generated by the US war in Afghanistan in 2001, by the US and the UK in Iraq in 2003 or even by the French intervention in Mali in 2013 ? Maybe one or another of these wars were legitimate. But the fact that no one is able to estimate the number of deaths they generated must interrogate ourselves. In these times when we are overwhelmed by emotions, it might be interesting to think of all these precedents and the dead, to come, that we are not going to cry.
By Mathias Delori, CNRS researcher at the Centre Emile Durkheim Sciences Po Bordeaux. Translated by Arthur Catraio.
Original text in french: http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/mathiasdelori/080115/ces-morts-que-nous-n-allons-pas-pleurer