This is mostly a site about videogames—moreso now than when it started—but stick with me for a moment, because this is important.
Last night, terrorists attacked the city of Paris, killing at least 127 people. The rest of the details are still coming out. We don’t know exactly who did this or exactly why, but like all acts of terrorism it was an assault on the very idea of living in a free and open society, unfettered by theocracy, unencumbered by police states, and unburdened by the disastrous groupthink of xenophobia and blind nationalism.
Terrorism seeks to make that worthy way of life impossible by forcing societies into open conflict—like the white supremacist who murdered parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church because, according to investigators, he wanted “to start a race war”—or else by sending us into a death spiral of deadening, sisyphean faux-vigilance and killing us “by a thousand cuts,” as Al-Qaeda wants to do.
In that context, I’ve been kind of disturbed by the reactions I’ve seen from some of my friends here in the United States.
The most common sort of comment I’ve seen, by far, is that Paris is in our “thoughts and prayers,” and that we “stand with Paris.” That’s fine, and a lovely thought, and an entirely valid way of dealing with grief—but it is frankly also the essence of so-called slacktivism, and I do hope that people don’t stop there. If you want to help from in front of your computer screen, then you can give to Doctors Without Borders, or to any number of other organizations. You can resist the urge to retweet or otherwise repost potentially misattributed images and information, or to play Internet vigilante, like that one time We On The Internet accused innocent people of bombing the Boston Marathon. There are things you can do, and abstain from doing, to help.
The next most common sort of comment I’ve seen is the sort that makes my blood run cold. No, I’m not referring to the racist claptrap about how Syrian refugees must have perpetrated these attacks (although: yeesh). I’m talking about the comments that go something like, We must stand with France now, like they stood with us after 9/11.
Here’s the thing about that.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were an atrocity, a catastrophic failure of national security, and a horrible loss for numerous families. Sometimes it seems like we forget that, and that we just remember That Time We All Put Those Groovy “Support Our Troops” Magnets On Our Cars And It Felt Good.
Being “united” after 9/11 did not have good results. We opened prisons on foreign soil, incarcerated people there without charge or trial, held them indefinitely, and tortured them. We barreled into violent, costly foreign entanglements. We curtailed civil liberties. We formed a (para?)military army(?) of drones and spies answerable (only?) to the Executive branch.
I think we can all agree that these are not, in and of themselves, good things.
We should not, therefore, hold these things up as a model for how to react to acts of terrorism. When the President of France says that “we are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” and the President of the United States responds that “we stand together with them” in that war, and we all parrot that “we stand” with them, too—then all of our being united and standing together starts to take on an ominous tone. However noble our intentions, automatically agreeing to “a war that will be pitiless” is not in itself a good thing, and the results are unlikely to be all that noble.
Immediately after the attacks in Paris, writer and cartoonist Joann Sfar (of Charlie Hebdo fame) posted a series of notebook drawings. He framed the attacks not as part of the Global War on Terror, or as some confrontation between civilization and barbarism, but as part of a much larger confrontation with “lovers of death.”
For Sfar, this conflict is one that does not require “prayers,” or indeed “more religion” in any form. For him it’s something far more human, something humanist in a sense that long predates the term humanism: “Paris is our capital. We love music, drunkenness, joy. For centuries lovers of death have tried to make us lose life’s flavour. They never succeed.”
As translated by i100, he continues:
Terrorism is not the enemy. Terrorism is a mode of operation. Repeating ‘we are at war’ without finding the courage to name our enemies leads nowhere. Our enemies are those that love death. In various guises, they have always existed. History forgets quickly. The people who died tonight were out living, drinking, singing. They didn’t know they had declared war.
It’s a sobering (and, it must be said, fundamentally French) thought: That the people killed in Paris “had declared war” on terrorism not because they imagined themselves conscripted into a fighting force, and certainly not because they marched in cultural and rhetorical lockstep, but specifically because they weren’t in lockstep. They were living out the messier, more joyful, less “united” way of life that terrorism seeks to undermine.
We threaten that way of life when we react to acts of terror with fear and wrath and homogeneity. That reaction is endlessly useful to theocrats, police states, xenophobes, and nationalists. Fighting terrorist organizations requires cooperation and agreement, but fighting terrorist ideologies sort of requires the opposite.
We don’t have to be united. We don’t have to agree. We don’t always have to “stand together,” even. That’s precisely what makes us strong, and that’s precisely what makes our way of life worth defending.