Coming back home from Montparnasse today, the large hall with the long walk-ways leading to line 4 and 12 was closed down, with police guarding the barrier: four soldiers in camouflage, rifles across their chests were doing that fast walk, not quite running, as they made their way through the empty tunnels, in the far distance to whatever the threat was.
‘Is line 4 closed?’
‘For the moment, yes,’the SNCF attendant said, in his understated French way.
At Liège I got off, one stop before my destination, as a rangy man with slicked-down black hair and a tracksuit jerkily looked around, reached down for something in his pockets, looked around the carriage once more. He started talking to another man sitting down, a man whose eyes were red; he then quickly left the carriage to go to the next.
The newspaper headline, following the Berlin attack in another passenger's newspaper: ‘Terrorism knows no borders.’
Paris is empty now, one week before Christmas. Now this may mean very little - ‘French people’ often leave the capital en masse, most notably in August where the boulevards are so wide, and so hot and dry, swept free of a human presence, you can walk and walk and walk and feel like you are the only person alive in this barren metropolis, with all these fine, well-preserved buildings looking down on you.
Perhaps it is simply that the Parisians have left to spend time with their families in the countryside. (As my little one told me: ‘Christmas is important for French people’).
Or maybe they have left to avoid the tense atmosphere of a city bracing itself for the possibility of further terrorist violence during the holiday period. In November, police disrupted a Daesh-affiliated group that was planning an attack at Disneyland and the Christmas markets on the Champs-Élysées. The police said that they had stopped 17 planned terrorist attacks this year in France, with Paris as the preferred target.
(Now after what has happened in Berlin, should we cancel his train journey – with Junior & Cie - I can go with him to Tours like last year … I think it will be okay, after November they have increased security. Try not to worry).
Trauma upsets notions of distance, in that after being hurt, or experiencing violence you feel like you can become a victim at any time, you have no protection and since potential danger is everywhere; you need to be alert, all the time. But being constantly alert damages you, makes you tired from the diffuse nature of the threat that is ever-present, but at the same time not real, or immediate. Sometimes I feel like my skin is similar to a wafer, or parchment.
Living in a city that is coming to terms with terrorism, there is a further point of tension, as we are ‘taught’ via posters found everywhere, in libraries, in doctor’s offices, in schools what to do in the event of an attack. We hear repeated advisories about levels of risk put out by foreign governments, by the French state and an ongoing State of Emergency, but what is confusing is that amidst all of this we continue to lead ordinary lives, as if nothing has happened.
All this might also reflect my current work: I have been reading, endlessly (and writing) about the perpetrators of the terrorist violence in Paris in November and elsewhere, for the book I’m developing. And reading the same story over and over again of ordinary men, leading banal lives that revolved around petty crime (drug-dealing, trafficking false documents, with some more serious charges, such as armed robbery) PlayStation, ‘beer,-hash-girls’ with the call to jihad as part of the mix.
There is nothing heroic here, and no logic behind it, even though this is something that victims and the perpetrators crave more than anything else; an argument, a cause, a logic behind the violence. We and they want it to have meant something.
But as Marianne Faithfull perceptively understood in ‘Broken English’ from 1979 – just listen to the way the bass-line overwhelms her vocals - terrorism, and perhaps all violence, is not about the brain, it operates on the level of the gut.
It is all about the machinery and currency of fear. And no matter what people like to believe (the victim, or the perpetrator) terrorist violence reflects the desire to dominate others, the pleasure of sadistic control that comes from slitting somebody’s throat as he cowers beneath you, no more than an animal.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this research has been discovering how shallow the nature of the men’s commitment is. They are not highly politicised intellectuals, or angry men avenging some profound slight, or feeling of humiliation. Of course they speak of their motivation, often using the same words or same ideas, they speak of their desire to inflict pain and suffering – and indeed ‘terror’ - on the crusaders, those living in the lands of the unbelievers, but more often than not it sounds like they are reading from a script. There is no depth there.
I'm writing this because I know many want terrorist violence to mean something to operate as an extension of racialised injustice, the shame some might feel growing up Black or North African in France, or Belgium, even if vast numbers of recruits to the jihadist cause are white converts; or that they are fighting old wars ...
This is background noise, providing a context and justification. One of the first things you notice is how international the contemporary terrorist violence is, operating across borders with multi-national perpetrators (the 'masterminds' of the November 13 atrocity in Paris were Belgian, as were many of the assailants, alongside Iraqis).
Despite the rhetoric and staged videos, these men act like gang members, or ‘soldiers for hire’ inflicting cruelty in the same way as thugs brutalising populations after a vote in some half-forgotten country; or suicide bombers exploding in a market, at a wedding, a school, or religious service do. Only this time they are speaking in French …
To change the mood: I liked this extract from a 2011 interview from AV Club - AVC - with Faithfull where she talks about Broken English, the record that marked an extraordinary return and reinvention of her career and musical style.
(The album includes the phenomenal 'Why'd ya do it?' - lyrics by Heathcote Williams, who had originally hoped that Tina Turner might record it. An amazing song that, as others have noticed, Grace Jones must have been inspired by, as it provides the template for her signature style; the soft reggae-inflected lilt and snarl).
AVC: Speaking of your more atmospheric, Broken English was a huge break from what you’d done before.
MF: It was a wonderful record.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine the impact that sound would have had at the time.
MF: Straight from the streets. Straight from being a drug addict. It was pretty radical. And it was true. That’s always interesting. It couldn’t go on like that. I didn’t want to be angry, twisted and bitter all my life, so I had to change. And I did. Maybe it wasn’t quite as exciting and knife-edge.
AVC: What drew you to writing about the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof on the title track?
MF: I read a book about it, so that interested me. Before Broken English, even, I was touring with that band, and we’d gone to look at the [Berlin] Wall, me and Barry [Reynolds], and it made a deep impression on me. I think I understood it, actually, the repressed Protestant thing, and very cold, and very lonely. So I read this book about the Baader-Meinhof gang, and then I was watching something on the television. I don’t remember really what it was about, but it had subtitles, and they came on and they said, “Broken English, spoken English.” I immediately wrote that down, and then I wrote the song.
AVC: There’s a degree of empathy in the song, but you’re also addressing her: “What are you fighting for?”
MF: Yeah, it was like that in the beginning. Of course now, “Broken English,” the whole thing has widened, and it’s different. I even say, “What are we fighting for?” now. I take it more personally.
AVC: The title could almost have referred to you at the time: broken, English.
MF: What I’m really doing, I can tell you exactly—what I recognized is that there are a certain kind of neurosis that could express itself in terrorism, and anger out. One thing is sure, to be a drug addict, the anger is all going in. You’re hurting yourself. But with a terrorist like Ulrike Meinhof, she’s hurting other people, and that interested me. I could feel “There but for the grace of God….” I was very glad I wasn’t a terrorist. I wasn’t that happy to be a drug addict, but anyway, I got over it.