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 » […] totalitarianism, in its « minimum », is not necessarily terrorist.  »

Marc Weinstein

On March 9, the War Museum of Bastogne and the association Tempora organized the conference « Terrorism: are we at war? Given the capacity of modern societies to be reflexive within certain limits! ‑It is not surprising that this crucial topic ended up on the agenda. This is a crucial subject, but it also has the disadvantage of capturing the attention of voters/consumers to the detriment of other public affairs, due to its strong media presence and its high level of emotion and sensationalism. What we call terrorism today is both a scarecrow and a real scare, which makes it a sociological object to be handled with care. It cannot be denied, nor can it be relativized too much, let alone absolutized.

That day, the John XXIII hall was full of about 500 participants under good police surveillance. To the accompaniment of breathless music, a short, nervously edited film showing an avalanche of shots of various attacks since September 11, 2001 served as an appetizer (and psychological conditioning?), before one of the organizers of the event, Elie Barnavi, appeared to introduce the history of the concept of terrorism, whether physical, psychological or diplomatic, left or right, state or revolutionary, secular or religious. Terrorism always has innocent and random victims, so targeted political assassination does not fall under this definition*. Régis Debray succeeded him for the inaugural lecture, a highlight of the day. « What drives an individual to randomly kill innocent people who have done nothing to him, in the name of God, and to find this salutary for himself? » is the question he developed from the perspective of religious anthropology. In other words, he explored the question of meaning. Among jihadists, Eros and Thanatos merge, as the sacrifice of their earthly life is the best way to prolong it in the afterlife. They are therefore not « nihilists », as is often heard. This sense of the sacred, coupled with a messianic and millenarian impatience, will not disappear through the virtues (sic) of economic globalization, and the anomic tendency of current politics can only fuel it. The « war on terrorism », even with its technological superiority, will not be able to overcome a conviction. The question of the future, according to Debray, must be asked again in the secular West, avoiding the past errors of the reactionary flight backwards of theocracies and the progressive flight forward of communism. But aren’t we wrong to take refuge in presentism today? We are no longer able to relate what happens to us to what should happen; we know what should be avoided but do not know what should be accomplished, a new phenomenon in human history. Is not a world without a future substantially different from the present a world without a spirit, concludes Debray.

The following speakers were mainly geopolitologists Gérard Chaliand, Alexandre Defay, Frédéric Encel and Didier Leroy, who tried to position the notion as well as possible in the global context. Chaliand recounts the history of modern terrorism from a key date, 1979, which saw the Iranian revolution and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army, insisting on the determining role of religion, in this case radical Islamism. The latter exploits the propensity of the Western media, fond of ratings, to constantly relay its multiple exactions, thus obtaining the expected psychological effect on the now terrorized populations. Chaliand ended on a false note by mentioning China, whose economic growth would represent a good diversion to avoid the terrorist temptation, an example to be followed by the Muslim world, he said! Media education specialist Yves Collard analyzed the role of social networks in the era of big data, the end of the centralized information model, and the « radicalization » or rather the engagement of young people. In the end, the Web alone is not the driving force behind violent acts, as a stay in prison or paramilitary training can be. A specialist in international relations, Frédéric Encel contested the notion of state terrorism, a formula that is outdated today, according to him, even though it is used by the terrorists themselves. His ethnocentric presentation rolled out the red carpet for so-called democratic states that have been hit by terrorism, although he acknowledges that some democracies may have legally practiced policies of terror outside their territories during the period of colonization. Emblematically, the reference to the State has now disappeared from dictionaries in the definition of terrorism, to be applied only to « groups ». Alexandre Defay dissected the phenomenon of cyber-terrorism, a term coined in 1996. Cyberspace continues to develop by creating immaterial spaces of stakes and rivalry, having however effects in the real. The legitimate fear of the power of new technologies is added to this. Cyberspace can be used « in the old way » for propaganda, recruitment and financing, or in a new way, on the one hand with cyber destabilization, which spreads viruses or spyware or malware, saturates servers and destroys computers; and on the other hand with cyber sabotage, which can cause various damages remotely in dams, pipelines, power or nuclear plants, pharmaceutical firms, banks, etc. Russian, Chinese and North Korean hackers seem to be particularly active in this area.

Psychoanalyst Tobie Nathan opened the afternoon by seeking to identify the profile of terrorist candidates on a clinical level. His work aims to « de-radicalize » them, in a proactive and empathetic way. Most of them are second generation migrants, often of Muslim faith, with complex issues of belonging (i.e. lack of ancestry) and parentage. Nathan is betting on their intelligence to score points. Young people are not interested in religion as such, but in God, with whom they want to have a direct relationship. Didier Leroy, a specialist in political Islam, explained the intentions and ideology of the Islamic State (EI). What all jihadist factions have in common is a Manichean view of the world: the oppressor West versus the oppressed East. Wahhabism is the most rigorous and literalist version of Muslim law, which is the source of inspiration for the EI. In Salafism, only its jihadist version takes violent action. Their goal is to change the order of the world, after terrorizing Western enemies and inducing a rift between the immigrant Muslim community and the godless natives. The key to the success of the AR is its global modernity, both in its Mad Max-like media violence and in its relationship to immediate time. The teenage terrorist candidate can thus easily get in touch with Daesh via the Internet. André Vandoren and Christiane Hoehn represented the Belgian-state and European technocracy respectively. Their respective interventions were intended to justify the strengthening of anti-terrorist legislation. Much more interestingly, journalist Paul Taylor explained how the media’s treatment of terrorism has changed the ethics of the profession. Dilemmas, real time, unknowns and hazards complicate the practice, can hinder neutrality. There is a contradiction between the desire for objectivity for distant facts and subjectivity for crimes committed on national soil, a double standard! We need to put the events in a broader context. In order not to endanger lives, withholding information is sometimes necessary, whether or not the authorities request it. It is also necessary to take into account the sensitivity of the citizen by not showing certain images, such as beheadings. Taylor reminded us that critical examination is the basis of freedom, that explaining is not excusing and that the media should avoid demonization and emotionalism. « You can’t put terrorism into perspective! » he is often told. He then pointed out that one is more likely to die from a traffic accident than from a terrorist attack. Finally, journalists must protect their sources of information, against all possibilities of surveillance. The last speaker, the former French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, came to hammer home the point, as expected, that we are indeed at war, a war that will intensify in a « major terrorist threat » that will last. His political discourse of smoke and mirrors, anxiety-provoking, mind-numbing, is semantically hollow but ideologically dangerous. A very poor way to close a globally interesting conference.

Bernard Legros

* Thus, the media which, in the 1980s, qualified Action Directe and, even worse, the Cellules Communistes Combattants, as terrorist groups, were seriously mistaken, but on purpose!

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