I was aboard the Eurostar on my way home from Brussels when I first heard about the tragic events in Paris. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. Travelling around Europe in recent years, I have become increasingly aware that some very troubling passions and sentiments are bubbling beneath the surface. Since 9/11, Europe has become an increasingly divided, fractured and culturally polarised continent. And national governments have been unwilling and unable to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
It is highly likely that the Paris attackers were operating in a land that was not entirely foreign to them. They knew that they could rely on the help of other like-minded people. They also knew their actions would enjoy the passive support of a significant section of society, which is estranged from, and hostile to, the way of life of European societies. By now they must also know they are holding their own in a battle of ideas with European governments.
As was the case with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Boston marathon bombing or the Mumbai attacks, the Paris attacks were meant to intensify the public’s sense of insecurity and powerlessness. Yes, the immediate targets of this callous act of terror were diners, football fans and concertgoers. But the ultimate targets were the millions of people watching the events unfold on TV and social media. In this sense, the motivation behind the Paris attacks was far from new. The attackers wanted to inflict fear on the target population. By killing and maiming so many, they wanted to make society feel defensive and anxious. And the more defensive, anxious and fearful we become, the more the attackers’ power and prestige is enhanced
But there’s something different about this type of terrorism, too. Such acts are not simply about unsettling the public and creating a climate of fear – they also aim to encourage others to take up the fight against the purported enemy. They seek to provide an example for others to follow in the fight against European or Western culture. In a sense, the Paris attacks represent an act of cultural war, but carried out in the form of classical acts of random terror.
The post-Charlie Hebdo reality
Cultural terrorism came into its own with the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Outwardly, it appeared that the revulsion provoked by the massacre led to an unprecedented display of solidarity. Everybody claimed, ‘Je suis Charlie’. But, in the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that despite the mass show of support for the victims of the attack, many Europeans were ambivalent about Charlie Hebdo itself. Sections of the media criticised the Charlie journalists for taking free speech too far – a move that lent credence to the idea that Charlie Hebdo had brought the massacre on itself.
On a more ominous note, it soon became clear that not everyone was upset about the Charlie Hebdo massacre or the killing of Jewish people in a related incident at a supermarket. In many of Paris’s banlieues, there was little mourning for the victims. Numerous teachers in France reported that some immigrant children expressed deeply hostile sentiments towards the terrorists’ victims. Others said that some children refused to believe the official version of events. And many French teachers were at a loss to know how to react and respond when many Muslim children refused to respect the minute’s silence for the dead.
If young children acted in this manner, it was clear that many members of their community were anything but ‘Je suis Charlie’. What this showed was that alongside the media display of solidarity with the victims, there lurked unreserved hatred for both Charlie Hebdo and the cultural attitudes that permitted its publication. The polarised reaction to Charlie Hebdo shows that a shared, common response to a tragic loss of life can no longer be taken for granted in European societies.