A market in Beirut. Cafés, a concert hall, a stadium in Paris. In Tunis, a bus carrying members of the Tunisian Presidential Security guard – for the president who recently received a Nobel prize for his role in the democratic transition. In just over a week, a series of terrorist attacks orchestrated by Daesh shattered lives, ripped through the fabric of daily existence, shook our societies. Each time they occur, these exceptionally grave events become a little less exceptional – and the need to engage in a process of reflective, critical analysis about just what is at stake in their perpetration becomes a little more pressing.
But it also leads us to ask ourselves what it really means to live in democracy. A democracy is more than just a particular kind of institutional structure whose public actions are made legitimate by their basis in “popular sovereignty.” It is also – and perhaps even above all – a way of organizing communities, one that reminds us that power is a fallible construction, that the duty to protect our populations, while a major imperative, cannot protect definitively, and, finally, that the price we wish to pay for carrying our mortal condition collectively is an eminently political question – one that is open, demanding, and a source of conflict. In our current situation, we cannot allow the defense of our shared values to silence debate over the means used in that defense – to silence such a debate would contradict the very values we seek to protect. In a democracy, no political policy can ever be definitive. Because policy is crafted from the way we define what it means to live together as a community, it requires us to come together regularly to interrogate ourselves about how we choose to exercise power, and what responsibilities, limitations, and weaknesses go with it. Indeed, that is the very question that the terrorists – as well as all brutal and totalitarian regimes – wish to silence. We cannot give it to them.
But what price are we prepared to pay, in France, Belgium, and in Europe today, to continue grappling with these questions? In the past few days, the words “we are at war” have mushroomed in political discourse, and not merely in the mouths of the hawkish among us. That phrase often goes hand in hand with the adjective “barbaric,” which is used to qualify the perpetrators of these atrocious crimes. Crimes designed to chill us to the core… and to sweep us up in the same irrational logic that drives them. For researchers who have worked in countries scarred by structural violence – which combines military and paramilitary actions with social inequality and brutal political structures, for instance in Latin America –, these events are an urgent opportunity to take stock of our own work, which is crucial to the public debate that must now take place.
Solidarity stronger than death
In the face of such violence, our first temptation is to perceive something “monstrous,” with no relationship to even the idea of humanity – to see something totally irrational. There is no doubt that terror is what drives such actions: they deny the humanity not only of their victims, but of an entire political community. Their macabre goal is both physical and social death. But does this make them irrational? No: to the contrary, forms of rationality, destructive though they may be, are being employed. Daesh and other terrorist organizations currently at work across the globe are composed of experienced, trained, highly conditioned members; they possess tremendous planning capabilities; and they have highly specific strategic and combat goals. If we do wish to protect our populations, and, more broadly, our civilian societies from their deadly strikes, we must begin by taking stock of this geostrategic situation.
Taking stock in this way has practical consequences. If divorced from a broader context of action and conceived as vengeance, military strikes alone will not change the situation. To the contrary, they will give these terrorist organizations further justification for behaving as they do. It will reinforce their self-centered logic, also known as “self-referential rationality.” Military retaliation makes sense only when paired with a reorganization of diplomatic practice, support to civilian populations in the Middle and Near East – which, it bears repeating, are the main victims of these events – as well as solidarity with the already highly stigmatized Muslim communities in Europe, and medium-term thinking about codevelopment strategies. With this in mind, the European Union must massively reinforce its refugee policy and stop allowing these merchants of death to sap the life from the Mediterranean basin. As Jean-Claude Juncker recently reminded us, the asylum-seeking populations we observe now are living proof of Daesh’s violence, and of the bloody powers that paved the way for them. We are aware of how difficult it is to maintain this kind of viewpoint in the times we now face. We believed ourselves safe from such violence; the disastrous events of the past weeks have proven us wrong. But we must vanquish our anxiety. Terror seeks to shake us at our moral core. Fighting it requires moral courage. Without this courage, we risk going up in flames.
Avoiding the terrorism trap
We in Europe have woken up to a shocking question: are we at war? It is shocking, in part, because we do not know who that “we” describes: is “we” the international community? Is it a group of allied nations? Or is it “we” the people? That these crimes are acts of war is indisputable. They are designed to spark war within our societies – to sweep up our democracies, little by little, into to a movement that is beyond their control. The political scientist Gilles Kepel has described Daesh’s desire to provoke European populations to civil war; legal scholar Dominique Rousseau has explained their intent to sow chaos in the very heart of democratic society. That is why we must resist falling in such a trap with all we have. In many armed conflicts throughout the world, the same deadly, vicious cycle may be identified: a shift from a contained number of targeted military acts, subject to various democratic controls – at the national and international levels – to a war mentality that grips an entire society. When this happens, war becomes the normal state of things, as do the special powers, prolonged states of emergency, and weakened democratic controls that follow. There is a very thin line separating those two situations. And that is exactly why we cannot allow ourselves to fall into the terrorism trap. The rule of law exists to protect populations sustainably, in the long term. To do that effectively, we as nations must monitor and interrogate the limits of “legitimate violence” – must constantly recall that war, while sometimes inevitable, is never fully just, and that its end goal must be its own end.
But over the past years, as David Revault d’Allonnes has pointed out, France has continuously deployed its army in new theaters of operation without offering any socio-political strategy – and this in a ceaselessly changing world confronted by repeated and systematic crises. War, in this context, has been made to appear the only viable response. Without even really realizing it, we have been re-habituated to military action. It is not too late to halt this spiral – but the French president’s announcement of his intent to prolong the state of emergency and to change the constitution in response to this tragedy is extremely worrisome. Both symbolically and practically, if democracies are responding to Daesh’s tactics by modifying the cornerstones of their legal and political structures to “adapt to the threat,” then the terrorists’ deadly desire to spread a “state of war” is succeeding. The same is true in Belgium. The indisputable necessity of protecting its population has plunged the Belgian capital into an atmosphere of unease. The government has done nothing to help citizens to understand what is happening, nor to locate themselves culturally and politically beyond the threat. The “threat” is invisible, known only to the state’s security forces, but it permeates the public sphere with silent but pervasive pessimism. Under such conditions, expertise can be no substitute for policy, just as the State cannot bring society to a halt – even in the name of safety. It is urgently necessary to restore culture, education, debate, and exchange to their rightful places in our societies. Urgent that we reopen spaces in which collective debate can take place and citizen’s voices can be heard again. Urgent that we once again begin asking the question of what it means to live together. These are not easy tasks. We are being called upon to learn to live and work in profoundly vulnerable democracies confronted with a tragic fate against which they thought they had been inoculated. Without everyday political vitality, we risk collective paralysis.
Asking hard questions
Let us address one last question, even more demanding than the ones that preceded it. Are we certain, as we hear quite often, that nothing must change, that our lifestyles are irreproachable, that there is no reason to alter our political and economic structures? Do we really have no questions to ask ourselves? Starting from the premise that society does not rely on any transcendental foundations – and vigorously rejecting any form of theocracy – brings us immediately to the observation that our democratic societies are built on principles and values that are intended to be authentic vectors for human freedom. But are we certain that they have been deployed peacefully? Are we certain that we have not, at times, stifled the very ideals we espouse? From the various forms of martial law they imposed in the past to their numerous friendships with states that systematically violate basic human rights today, can Europe’s nations truly assert that they have never done wrong? In recent history, we have stood by as America chose to invade Iraq in violation of international law, have been too timid and too tardy in our support of democratic opposition in Syria to the mass murders carried out by Bashar El-Assad, have played an ambiguous game of chess with Turkey while failing to draw it into true community with the EU, and have intensified trade relations with the Gulf powers that finance terrorist networks and oppress women.
At the same time, other forms of violence have fed our political and economic structures, generating deeper and deeper zones of inequality while advocating the pursuit of easy wealth. This observation is not made with the intent to reduce the complexity of current geostrategic conditions, but rather to point out that the situation in Europe today fosters a climate that facilitates the recruitment of pawns of international terrorism, that leaves many youth in a state of complete alienation from society, at a loss for why and how live that leaves them ready to embrace nihilism. It would be too simplistic to focus on sociology alone; there is no single social malady virulent to cause such grievous harm. But it would be just as simplistic to see no links between the chronic under-development of certain areas and regions, the repeated and systematic discrimination faced by the youths from Maghrebian backgrounds drawn to Islamist rhetoric that help them find meaning in their empty lives, and the near total absence of opportunities for a large portion of Europe’s unskilled youth. This is fertile ground for the powerful indoctrination of Daesh. And the base polemic of France and Belgium with regard to this issue has been completely powerless to stop it. If there are forces to be called upon, they are not merely those of the police and the secret service. They must also include the forces that work in favor of the young people waiting at the bottom rungs of our democratic societies, which so far have failed to make good on the promises upon which they were built.
“How long?” was the headline of the Brussels newspaper Le Soir on November 25. How long indeed, until we marshal our forces to help Europe’s youth out of the shadows of a dead end in which radical Islamism grows so well? As Olivier Roy reminds us, terrorist radicalization affects only a minor segment of the population and represents a nihilist vision of reality with no simple link to the “level of social integration” of the families from which its members emerge. At the same time, our democracies cannot hold out much longer against the vacuum threatening them from within. Young people are departing for Syria to follow the deadly path. But the vast majority of our youth is here, staring at an absence of options, sorely tempted to discredit the political process entirely and sink into the relativism of indifference. Do we really have no message for them? This question is even more demanding, because it brings to light the ways in which we have come to an impasse in our collective path. Without offering any answers, we risk the withering away of democracy itself.
Crisis situations are jolts to the system – and as such, opportunities to regroup. If there is a resistance to organize, it is first and foremost a resistance to the insidious transformation slowly taking place among us. We must resist becoming a society that no longer trusts itself, that perceives “others” as a threat and fundamental freedoms as illusory, or even as illusions. With a few variations, that is the basic project of Europe’s extreme right. We cannot allow them to use the pressing questions of security to distract us from the questions that will keep us safe in the long term, such as addressing climate change or coming to the aid of populations in crisis, for example. And we must not cede to the temptation to view these terrorists – these young Europeans – as monstrosities, the evil product of foreign forces with no relation to the features of our own societies. Our research has taught us time and again that even the most radical violence and the most extreme cruelties take place in context – which means that they cannot be eradicated if we do not examine that context. This is true in Colombia, in Mexico, in the Congo, in the Middle and Near East. Will Europe, yet again, stand on the sidelines of such questions?
“Europe is not at war,” Federica Mogherini affirmed in Le Soir on November 21, in response to the martial discourse of the French authorities. Europe has long been able to offer a horizon of possibility to a younger generation that grows less political with every passing election. The year 2015 was the year in which that Europe was snuffed out, caught up in a tangle of tensions among states under pressure from refugees and budgetary constraints. The idea of European solidarity is bleeding away. The year is closing with a stark reminder of our newfound vulnerability – and we should take it as a call to rebuild, to diligently re-stitch our social fabric and invest in our political futures. There is work to be done in France, in Belgium, in Europe. Promoting true democratic equality, returning solidarity to the core of our social structures, remembering the quieter but more lasting power of non-violent speech and action: these tragic times are a trial to our democracies. Now, more than ever, they must prove their mettle.
Brussels, November/December 2015
Belgium - An Ansoms (University of Louvain), Mylène Botbol-Baum (University of Louvain), Eva Brems (University of Ghent), Tom De Herdt (University of Anvers), Matthieu de Nanteuil (University of Louvain), Isabelle Ferreras (University of Louvain), Mark Hunyadi (University of Louvain), Jean-Louis Genard (Free University of Brussels), Justine Lacroix (Free University of Brussels), Mohamed Nachi (University of Liège), Jean-Pascal Van Ypersele (University of Louvain et IPCC)
Canada - Philippe Barré (University of Montréal)
Denmark - Lars Hulgard (Roskilde University)
Equateur - Alberto Acosta (FLACSO, Quito), Ramon Torres Galarza (FLACSO, Quito)
France - Olivier Abel (Faculté de Théologie protestante, Montpellier), Fethi Benslama (University Paris VII), Florence Jany-Catrice (University of Lille), Jean-Louis Laville (CNAM), Dominique Méda (University Paris-Dauphine), Claire Nouvian (Bloom, director), Miranda Richmond-Mouillot (writer), Anne Salmon (University of Lorraine), Michel Serres (Académie française), Etienne Tassin (University Paris VII), Hélène Thiollet (Sciences Po Paris)
Germany - Patrizia Nanz (Kulturwissenschaftlisches Institute Essen KWI)
Japan - Yoshihiro Nakano (Christian University, Tokyo)
Morocco - Youssef Sadik (University of Rabat)
Portugal - Boaventura Sousa Santos (University of Coimbra, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Spain - Juan Carlos Monedero (University of Madrid)
Tunisia - Houda Laroussi (University of Tunis), Youssef Seddik (University of Tunis)
USA - Fred Block (University of California, Davis), Arturo Escobar (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Nancy Fraser (New School for Social Research), Eli Zaretski (New School for Social Research), Joan Wallach Scott (Princeton University)