On "our" terrorists
Two weeks ago, I was in the centre of Oslo, very close to the government district where last July Breivik’s bomb killed 8 people and injured 92, following the news of another terrorist killing children in a different corner of Europe – Mohamed Merah in Toulouse – and reflecting about our perception of terrorism. Last summer, a barbarian act was originally blamed on Al Qaida, and the perception changed when it occurred it was a white supremacist. In France, the opposite happened.
I grew up in Milan in the 1970s and 1980s, infested by the terrorism from extreme Left and extreme Right. Some of the worst terrorist killings happened in my central neighbourhood , and I sometimes heard the shots and the ambulances and the screams. A lesson I learned very early when starting political activism in the 1980s was that there is a sentence you cannot say: “I disagree with the methods of the terrorists, but...”. By saying that, you give them the oxygen they need to grow. Terrorists NEVER have a political point, you cannot extrapolate any of their sentences to say that they make sense. Saying that they have a point when they write, say, that “workers are exploited” is as unacceptable as saying that Hitler had a point when he wrote that World War I was atrocious. Because in terrorism (like in genocide) you cannot split the meaning from the means, the words from the context: the means are the total denial of the democratic process and of humanity, and therefore the words have to stay outside.
The way Breivik was treated highlighted initially a strident difference in the way terrorists are perceived. When the nature and motive of the crime emerged, some populist politicians (e.g. from the Northern League in Italy) said exactly the unspeakable: that they disagreed with the means, but “he had a point”. Imagine saying that of 9/11 or of the Red Brigades. But OPK, these may be just people outside democratic civilisation. More striking was the immediate humanisation of the terrorist: we learned that he had a difficult relationship with his father and various other problems, and soon he was diagnosed with psychosis, which might avoid him a sentence. When young men set bombs or blow themselves up in Israel, Iraq, Madrid, London, we never hear that they had difficult relations with their fathers or that they suffer from psychosis: they are just “the evil”, “the enemy”, completely dehumanised. When however the terrorist comes from among ourselves, we immediately feel the need to medicalise him, to treat him, not to take him seriously. Soon rightwingers from all countries started explaining that Breivik had nothing to do with the Right, with anti-immigrant discourse, with Christian integralism, that he was just a nutter, that it would be instrumental to qualify him politically. Strangely enough, Islamic terrorists keep being called Islamic terrorists. The whole of Islam, the whole of Palestine may be associated to the crimes of a handful terrorists – but western civilisation cannot. Oklahoma and Utøya are just criminal events, but 9/11 and 7/7 are the product of certain cultures. Double standards of the worst kind.
Now, with Merah, a symmetric thing happened. As soon as the identity of the killer emerged, the humanisation happened from the Left, although I have not heard anybody saying that “he had a point”. We learnt that he grew up in demonised communities and reacted to exclusion from French society...
This attitude, rightly, upset many, and a good example is writer Olivier Rolin in Le Monde des livres of the 31st March, expressing his outrage at the “banaliser derrière des prêts-à-porter sociologiques”: yes, Merah was a young misfit – but then so were many of the Einsatzgruppen massacring Jews during the war: would we extend this kind of humanisation to them?
Quite strikingly, le monde published Rolin’s angry piece to the side of one by writer Salim Bachi titled ““Moi, Mophamed Merah”: a literary attempt to enter the mind of Merah (Bachi had written a book titled “Moi, Khaled Kelkal”, on the terrorist whose bombs terrorised Paris in September 1995, and “Tuez-les tous!” on 9/11). What a mess.
Is it too much to ask for a bit of clarity, for the sake of human coexistence? There are three very distinguished levels of judgement here. One is at the level of psychology and criminology: in that context, “humanisation” is the obvious thing. At the other opposite, there is the study of the context, and again there is nothing inherently wrong with historical and political studies of factors that tend to promote terrorism (just like, to use again the extreme comparator, one can study the context of Nazi rise and of the Shoah). Yet the specific remits of these levels of analysis should be always made clear. Because the third and most important level is the political and moral judgment of terrorism: and at that level, if we are to be human, there can be no “I am against terrorism, but...”