Thoughts on terrorism and campaigns against police violence

Unsurprisingly the most persistent question following the series of terrorist attacks in France that killed 234 people over an 18-month period up until the Bastille Day assault in Nice last year, has been, ‘Why France?’ All kinds of answers have been put forward, most often with the answer given reflecting the political perspective of the person responding.

Social oppression, racism; the country’s policy of secularism (that banned the veil and all forms of religious identification in public schools), the country’s colonial past that continues to inform, or infect, policy in former colonies in West Africa, where France is fighting Islamist forces; its involvement in bombing campaigns in Syria.

Problem with this, though, is that the above suggests that there is a logically coherent argument motivating the mostly European-born jihadists committing these crimes. Knowledge of the men’s chaotic personal lives, shifting allegiances, and often sudden conversion to the cause undermines this premise. Family ties, for example having a close family member already involved in the jihad, alongside a criminal background seem to matter more. European-based jihadist groups closely resemble gangs, where men often with a history of crime or violence are recruited to the cause that is put forward as a path to salvation and renewal.  

Still, the question remains: why France? Those organising the attacks appear to believe that France (out of all the European countries) is vulnerable to the chaos it wants to unleash through its campaign of terror; the idea being that the country’s three million Muslims might be potential recruits, if/when the French State enacts repressive policies against them, and that the country is weak because of its sentimental self-image as the bastion of human rights.

Of interest, here, is the way the jihadists chose their target based on its perceived weaknesses. This is basic psychology writ large: the conman targets the vulnerable person based on how they think that person will react, while twisting the victim’s sense of a positive self-identity (the opportunist says that he loves a woman’s ‘sweet nature’ to get her to give him more, complimenting her and flattering her ego to exploit her).

Yesterday, a white police officer – Betty Shelby – was acquitted of a manslaughter charge of an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher who was shot when standing with his hands above his head in Oklahoma last September. The reactions as you would expect were furious, often focussing on the fact that the officer was a ‘white woman’. But despite all the political actions, the street marches and opinion pieces written, this is just another case where a police officer has avoided jail time (or avoided being charged, or having a case brought against them).

From an outsider’s perspective, despite all the activity – and media coverage – little seems to be changing in the US regarding police violence. There are strong community-based campaigns, calling for police to wear body cameras, for the institution of accountable civilian reviews and independent police liability insurance (see this national campaign that started in Minneapolis, Insure the Police), but people are still getting shot and police officers allowed to go free, or not even be charged.

Without sounding too extreme, I wonder, though if it might be time to think like the organisers of the European-based terrorist campaigns, not in terms of using violence, of course, but focussing more on the weaknesses/motivators of white racism that allows the cycle of police violence in the United States to continue unchecked.

For starters, to think of campaigns that could upset the dominant desire of the majority population to have a positive self-image (see the way various forms of historic forms of race-based oppression, most obvious in colonial/post-colonial contexts sought the veneer of respectability and benevolence, as they would say in Australia, the policies of protection and assimilation were ‘for their own good’). And secondly, to start thinking about money.

Could boycotts, for example, be enacted that targeted cities with high-levels of police violence – allowing for some protections, or financial support for citizens living there who might be affected? Might international campaigns be set up to ‘shame’ cities in the United States - including a ban on tourism, just like the divestment campaigns against South Africa - until they guarantee basic levels of safety to the people living there?

Everything in politics comes back to financial interests; that’s all that matters. Groups are heard because they have financial interests that intersect with those who govern. For this reason, the current activism against police violence, with its emphasis on educating the wider community and peaceful marches, seems to be too reactive – and just a little too nice.

It is true that the police officers could be motivated by racism or commit these crimes because of poor training, but it’s more than likely that they are killing people because they know that there will be no significant consequences, personal/professional … or financial. As any journalist knows, you have got to follow the money: I wonder how things might change, if a similar kind of logic was applied to the activism trying to stop police violence; to cut off the income - so to speak - that allows the current status quo to continue as is, unimpeded.  

Paris Récit: 'The Oath of the Horatii'

‘So, what can you see in this painting?’

The guide at the Louvre bends her body at a slight incline to speak to the primary-school children sitting on the floor in disordered rows in front of her. My son is one of the group; we’re visiting the Louvre as part of a school excursion.   

‘The men are standing up straight, the ladies are sitting in the corner,’ one child says.

‘What about the colours?’

‘The ladies are in darker colours to show they are sad. The men are wearing brighter colours – red, because they are going off to fight a war.’

We are sitting in front of Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Oath of the Horatii’ (Le serment les Horaces) painted five years before the Revolution in 1784, which is part of the collection on display at the Louvre.

This is one of those moments when Paris in all its wonder opens itself up to me. My son is blasé, they have studied these masterpieces at his public school before coming to the museum. He has memorised an extract from Corneille’s 1640 play, Horace – his sweet little mouth changing shape, as he pronounces ‘Albe, Albe …’ (stressing the final vowel to allow for the essential poetry of the text). I studied the same paintings in my final year of secondary school, poring over the slides in another hemisphere, in another country where sudden dust storms coloured the sky red or orange in the middle of summer (sometimes).

In the painting, the three brothers express their loyalty and solidarity, with Rome before battle, wholly supported by their father. These are men willing to lay down their lives out of patriotic duty. With their resolute gaze and taut, outstretched limbs, they are citadels of patriotism. They are symbols of the highest virtues of Rome. Their clarity of purpose, mirrored by David’s simple yet powerful use of tonal contrasts, lends the painting, and its message about the nobility of patriotic sacrifice, an electric intensity. This is all in contrast to the tender-hearted women who lie weeping and mourning, awaiting the results of the fighting.

'The mother and sisters are shown clothed in silken garments seemingly melting into tender expressions of sorrow,' a description of the painting continues in the internet's free encyclopaedia. David invented this moment, when three men took their swords and vowed to defend Rome, to defend their beloved Republic, against their rivals from Alba Longa.     

‘What do you think about the building?’

‘In the background, there are arches. I think it’s a big house like in the old days, in Roman times,’ one child says.

According to one critic, the painting represents the virtue of patriotism that included self-sacrifice for one's country, while also reflecting the political tensions in pre-revolutionary France. It was a huge success after its public exhibition and led to David being allowed to study at the Louvrewhich was considered to be a great honour for artists in this period.  

On Friday morning, as I was collecting my phone from a repair shop in my neighbourhood, a man was shot by soldiers after lunging at police and soldiers guarding the entrance to the underground shopping complex at the Louvre. He was armed with a machete, and apparently called out Allahu Akbar.

‘Is he French?’ I asked the man who was organising the paperwork for me to sign so I could take the phone with me.


‘This is unbelievable, it’s going to affect the political scene here so much, again - just before the election.’

‘Not just that,' the man replied, 'But tourism, as well. I mean, the Louvre.’   

The Memorial for Peace and Justice (National lynching memorial) Montgomery, Alabama

Yesterday I learnt about a proposed memorial, where the more than 4,000 Black Americans who were lynched in the United States, from 1877 to 1950 will be remembered in a striking space that will represent the bodies of those murdered, but also the horror of the experience, via the claustrophobic, disorienting display. Watch the video to see what I'm trying to express here, it's extremely powerful.

I was particularly moved by the idea of having duplicates of the stones in a 'temporary' graveyard beside the memorial that, it is hoped, will be emptied as the various counties place the marker in the site where the lynching took place. As you will see from the video, it is as if the stones are taken up into the heavens and somehow given release.

Here is some information on the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based in Montgomery Alabama that provides legal services, advice and also conducts research. The description of the organisation reads: Racial Justice; Children in Prisons; Mass Incarceration; Death Penalty and Just Mercy (the book by Bryan Stevenson, EJI founder and executive director, a book that Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu said was 'as if America's soul has been put on trial').   

And have a look at this recent interview on CBS with Stevenson where Stevenson likens the mass lynchings across the South as a form of terrorism that is frequently overlooked within the standard histories of the era. This violence, he says, was a key driver behind The Great Migration, where 5 million Black Americans left the South between 1915-1960. People were often fleeing, scared for their lives.   

Here is some more information on the project that will include a museum; you can donate to the Memorial for Peace and Justice via the EJI website.

After Berlin, December 2016 (& Marianne Faithfull)

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.’

Could have come through anytime
Cold lonely, puritan
What are you fighting for?
It’s not my security …

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 …

It’ just an old war
Not even a cold war
Don’t say it in Russian
Don’t say it in German
Say it in broken English
Say it in broken English

Lose your father, your husband
Your mother, your children
What are you dying for?
It’s not my reality

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.

Zero Hour: France after Terrorism


The time at which a planned operation, typically a military one, is set to begin.

  • as zero hour approached, thirty ships swung into position

    the appointed time, the appointed hour, the crucial moment, the vital moment, the critical moment, the moment of truth, the point/moment of decision, the Rubicon, the critical point, the crux


  • Denoting or relating to a contract of employment that does not include a guarantee of regular work for the employee, who is paid only for the hours they actually work: their survey suggested that one million people are employed on low-security zero hour contracts.

Here is the first section from the book that I'm writing on Paris and France after the terrorist attacks last year, called Zero Hour. In this chapter I evoke how it feels to be in Paris now, while also describing the 'psychology of poverty' and what it is like to live on an unstable income in France.