Can Europe Make It?

Paris attacks November 13: ending the cycle of vengeance?

After the worst attacks in their history, the Spanish and Norwegian governments had the courage to respond differently from the Anglo-American mimetic knee-jerk response - an example France should follow.

Didier Bigo
10 December 2015
Tributes paying homage to victims of the Bataclan concert hall.

Tributes paying homage to victims of the Bataclan concert hall. Demotix/ Slavish Hosseini. All right reserved. ‘You who killed them. Tell yourself that your violent stupidity will not lead me towards the stupidity of violence.”  “I don’t want the love that you destroyed to turn into hate and war. That would give you too much satisfaction”: Bataclan samizdat papers in homage to the victims of Päris, November 13

The political sociology of conflict teaches us that the first element of reflexivity necessary to commence an analysis beyond an emotional reaction, is to perceive how adversaries who incessantly swear to their radical difference, pushing the Other into inhumanity and promising his total and definitive eradication, mimic each other. Despite any differences in terms of community representativeness, electoral processes, or normative systems, the practises of the actors who engage in extreme violence end up homogenizing themselves bit by bit through their struggles, by engaging in a reciprocity of violent acts. The monotony and stupidity of these acts are their most obvious feature.

Bombings follow bombs, or is it the other way around? Bombings follow bombs, or is it the other way around? As in Edward Albee’s famous play “Who‘s afraid of Virginia Woolf?”(Albee 1966), each adversary tends to justify his or her violence with a childlike: “they started it”, in an effort to attribute the blame for the original act of violence to the opposing group. This process of accusation was explored by François Tricaut many years ago. It rests on an almost magical element whereby the location of the origin of the violence on the side of the adversary serves not only to accuse them of being a trouble-maker who must be destroyed, but also provokes, above all, a ‘purification’ of the so-called ‘answer’ in reciprocal violence – that which is used for vengeance, and to which we apply the law of an eye for an eye (lex talionis). This vengeance is no longer seen as violence, as it has been turned into ‘security’ (Tricaut 1977).

Yet, this violence results in politically significant effects. It allows the masses to be rallied against the designated enemy, even if the enemy is undefined or blurry. It enables those to be brought together who are usually opposed, by playing on the need for “unanimism”, through which individual differences and oppositions are suppressed to ensure a display of unanimity. In doing so, this violence scrambles ordinary benchmarks. It justifies the accumulation of means that permit not only the return of blow for blow, but also the intensification of violence through an escalation aimed at shattering the enemy. It also permits us to stimulate a response towards any leader who can be taken to embody the will to retaliate, capitalising politically from this move, as bombings do not so much generate the terror and paralysis of a population and a government, as they create a sense of sorrow for the victims and hatred against the communities behind the perpetrators themselves.

This ”Eye for an eye” law is founded on the idea that the necessary response to violence is an equal degree of violence – or a higher one – in an attempt to regulate total violence. It is founded on a game of reciprocal accusation where everyone thinks of themselves as the victim of the other, and therefore justified in their combat. The law of retaliation is, as René Girard pointed out, the motor of vengeance-violence, which can end only with the resolution of the crisis through the creation of scapegoats, i.e. victims different from those who perpetrated the violence but who are – or spend time – in their proximity.

It is this mechanism that even enables, in some cases, the targeting of ‘enemies’ that aren’t at all those who are supposed to have dealt the first blow, but who are ‘convenient’. These are easier to attack because they lack arms or social cohesion, and because they are often closer and more perceptible – virtually ‘on hand’.

This sort of violence can call itself military, police or judiciary. Institutions can obscure this process through numerous methods of justification, stretching from the preservation of the regime to the protection of citizens, or the moral condemnation of the inferior values of the Other. But this form of violence is not ‘war’, or part of the fight against crime. It is not the recognition of enemy status and engagement into ‘rules of war’. It is not the internationalisation of criminal investigations either. It is blurring deliberately the lines of different forms of law to rise to the deliberate strategy of killing the civilians of a country as if they were not third parties, but fully responsible for the policies of their governments.

On both sides it is using a less codified violence to polarise around a camp and a leader, a group ready to fight, and denying the rights of third party positions (Bigo-Hermant 1984). It may be done by coercion directly or through the politics of ‘unanimism’ and rallying of troops, but it works only when the rule of law and the checks and balances on judges or moral authorities have been ‘suspended’. In this, is a form of vengeance which becomes cold-blooded anger and leads to the prolongation of acts of coercion, when the more powerful entity has been attacked and now considers itself to be “acting properly”.

This form of vengeance which is often untethered from the trappings of everyday justice, claims nevertheless to be justice for a time of exception, and a necessity if an Armageddon to come is to be avoided. The geographic and temporal limits and the objectives that frame it are often stretched, and the tendency is to transform what has been considered an exception or an emergency, into a more permanent, stable procedure justifying the increase of power of the leadership.

Are domestic coercion and aerial warfare a response to the violence of bombings by clandestine organisations?But it very rarely brings about an end to the conflict. This violence often becomes the conflict’s driving force, as it leads to indiscriminate action and the enlarging of the suspected targets. It polarises groups until actors who were initially not involved are determined to fight to the death, for either camp. In some cases, particularly when the regime is a strong one that manages to get its justification seemingly heard and accepted, and when the horror of the enemy’s spectacular violence repulses all, this vengeance can mobilise up to 90% of a population of any given territory. Yet, if at the same time, this vengeance counter-mobilises 5-10% of individuals, who are now ready to take (violent) action, it has ultimately failed.

Therefore, when the vengeance of the strongest actor moves away from the ordinary justice procedures which must include evidence, the presumption of innocence, and a severe but extremely precise, calibrated, and proportionate criminal justice, it does not solve long term conflicts. It only momentarily stops the conflict and sets it back for a few months, a few years, or a generation. Some may think that this solution is already good enough, but the way of life in a society obliged to close its borders, to live in a permanent emergency and to fear everyday life is not a pleasant society to live in.

If we take the campaigns of illegal organisations such as ETA (Euskadi (e)Ta Askatasuna, Basque country and Freedom) in Spain, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Northern Ireland or the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the measures that governments initially took against them, we see that it is only by turning our backs on this first moment of horror and anger, by turning our backs on the intensified patriotic darkness which tends to exclude the many marginalised groups which make up the community in its diversity, that we can develop an effective counter-terror politics. The Good Friday Agreement is certainly difficult, and not really the ‘today’ agenda on any global scale. But it might foster – at the very least – a reflection on the need to recognise political challenges, as well as the short-sightedness of solutions claiming that technological violence will destroy barbarism and eliminate its re-emergence in other forms (Bigo-Guittet 2011).

Are domestic coercion and aerial warfare a response to the violence of bombings by clandestine organisations? For some, this goes without saying: the only way to stop violence is by imposing a more forceful violence, so forceful that it will put an end to the first, and will dissuade others from doing it again. Claiming that war is necessary often goes back to this initial moment, to this belief in the efficiency of armed violence as a means of achieving security.

And yet, amongst the homages to the victims of the Paris bombings there were no demands for war, no cries for vengeance, no massive applause for declarations of combative and warlike unanimism. Instead, we witnessed a celebration of youth and the values of friendship, accompanied by a kind of resignation, as if these events were unavoidable. We are far removed here from the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the unanimism that followed them; a unanimism that ultimately divided the population and left a bitter taste in the mouths of the many who were pressured to publicly join in its rallying call.

In the aftermath of 13 November, only the official unanimity of the heads of states on display, as if it represented that of civil societies. Under this guise, leaders can pretend that their societies have agreed to more coercion, more surveillance, more reinforcement of so-called ‘anti-terrorist measures’. These measures provoke an inflation of terrorism legislation, and in the end, far from being a response to the attacks, they have little to do with what happened. Instead of presenting a direct solution to the violence, they risk becoming an ‘ultra solution’, one which creates more problems than it resolves.

This ultra solution becomes itself the source of a momentum towards an increase in transnational violence, following the Watzlawick formula: ‘how to fail most successfully’ - as we stubbornly reinforce measures that are spectacular but inappropriate (Watzlawick, 1988).

Can we do anything apart from intensifying violence there and control here? Can we do anything apart from intensifying violence there and control here? Isn’t increased surveillance the solution, and isn’t our renewed freedom of tomorrow, after our victory, worth some restrictions on our freedoms today? Unless… Unless violence there exacerbates violence here even further. Unless control here creates the conditions of discrimination and asymmetric polarisation that lead to the appearance of hatred and violence.

What is excess? Can there be excess in the context of such adverse cruelty? For me, the answer is yes, even if it is difficult to hear it in times of emotion. The question of what constitutes an excessive response is a legitimate one – and the first act of detachment and of reflexivity of a democratic society – because it is easier to act on oneself than on another. At the minimum, this question ensures that we don’t let ourselves be trapped in a spiral of practices that would destroy the very values that we are meant to defend.

The question is, therefore, how to avoid maximalism, security one-upmanship. Security discourses can become a harsh torrent, which contain indeed a protection and shield, but also chauvinist nationalism, egoism, discrimination, putrid ideologies and racial superiority. We must reflect together, beyond the electoral games, on the necessity of control, on the proportionality of violence, and refuse conflations and pretexts which multiply targets outside the initial perimeter, just because they are available. This is the only way to ward off the implications of the state of emergency, which is reconfiguring the concrete practises of justice and liberty that are at the heart of the lightness of being. The very lightness which was destroyed in the assassinations on the terraces.

Consequently, reflections on security, its limits and its possible excesses, presume that we keep the ideas of justice and innocence until proven guilty close to our hearts, rather than the ideas of vengeance, prevention and suspicion. An excess of ‘response’ can plunge the world into as many problems as a total absence of response: the two reunite with each other in inefficiency and in the absence of legitimacy. Many do not like to hear this, particularly those who seek to oppose the two, and propose a technical solution for maximum securitisation through control and global preventive and predictive surveillance.

We know since 14 September 2001 and the decision to wage a war on terror that this ‘solution’ has resulted in as many bodies as its claimed starting point, the 9/11 attacks. We know that Madrid showed the path to another solution – more judiciary – by not declaring war on the Maghreb. We also know at which point London reintroduced the image of an enemy, no longer an infiltrator, but the enemy within, and transformed the attitude of many countries by developing a political paranoia which wins over all institutions bit by bit, avoiding planetary McCarthyism only by a hair’s breadth. We see how the rhetoric which associates terrorism with migrants and refugees is infiltrating the debate.

Finally, we know that the illiberal practises of liberal regimes do not restore peace (Bigo-Tsoukala 2008). They help politicians with extremist views on security to rise up in the polls. They move politics not towards security but towards securitiarian ideologies that finish by engulfing the full spectrum of political parties, whether from the right wing or even from the left. These politicians always demand more and are never content with the mechanisms put in place, however extreme, as long as the checks and balance of democratic counterweights limit the “speed” of their reaction or claims to act. The illiberal practises also give a pretext to those who remove themselves from the rights and the values that liberal regimes defend, turning instead in favour of those who recruit to attack these rights and values. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, extrajudicial assassinations by drones, are all there in order to remind us that this circularity of violence is not a figment of the imagination, but a social and political mechanism of prime importance.

Each and every time, securitisation has led to insecurity and given a new propulsion to the phenomenon, instead of stopping it. When Spain and Norway were confronted by the worst attacks in their history, their governments had the courage to respond differently, by reinforcing the judicial path. We would be well advised to follow their example, instead of borrowing from the Anglo-American experiences. But, here, for the moment, French leaders are doing the contrary. They are engaged in this easy and repetitive slope of violence-vengeance that they’d like to call ‘war’, but that they can’t, or don't want to declare officially or actually lead.

The acceleration of bombings and the alliance with Russia in some Syrian regions contributes to the influx of refugees which we are at the same time trying to block at our borders, by putting a narrow focus on the sovereign right to control borders. This reveals some major contradictions. We begin to forget international obligations – under the pretext that two of the terrorist actors may have carried Syrian passports. We see how the rhetoric which associates terrorism with migrants and refugees is infiltrating the debate. This puts the free circulation in the Schengen Area of the European Union at peril, ultimately endangering the conviviality of the Parisian terraces and their cosmopolitanism.

We see also an enlargement of the targets of police raids, authorised outside all judicial mandate by the law of November 20. This law has started to be applied to all those seen in the undesirable category, whom we flood with categorical suspicions. The police stations have carried out their raids, not to seek potential jihadists, but much more extensively, to find drugs or illegal housing or workplaces, when they are not targeting environmental activists.

Cazeneuve, the Minister of the Interior, felt obliged to make a call to order which, in this case, is a reminder of the rule of law, and we can thank him for this. The commission of law has declared that they will transform themselves into a permanent inquiry commission to check in real time any practices enacted under the state of emergency, so that we clearly see that it is still possible to escape the path to mimetic violence, and maintain the central distinctions sustained by the rule of law. But the authoritarian rhetoric of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in its competition with right and far right leaders favours by contrast administrative prerogatives creating margins of arbitrariness as a “normal” cost of antiterrorist policies, in addition to the diminution of freedom. As a result, we see the beginning of a mimetic unravelling which must be stopped before the tit-for-tat mimicry of the adversaries becomes all too real, and obliges us to engage in an accelerating exchange of violent blows.

This article was first published in the original French in Mediapart on November 30, and is translated by Asher Korner and David Krivanek.  


René Girard: Violence and the sacred, John Hopkins University, Baltimore 1977 (french version 1972 Grasset)

Edward Albee: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Play 1962

François Tricaud. L'accusation. Recherche Sur Les Figures De L'agression Éthique. Paris: Dalloz 1977.

Didier Bigo, Daniel Hermant « La Relation Terroriste ». Etudes polémologiques 3-1988- 191p.

Didier Bigo, Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet : Northern Ireland as Metaphor: Exception, Suspicion and Radicalization in the ‘War on Terror’. Security Dialogue 42 -2011 :483-98p.

Didier Bigo, Anastasia Tsoukala (ed) : Terror, Insecurity and Liberty. Illiberal Practices of Liberal Regimes after 9/11. Liberty and Security. Oxoan and New York: Routledge 2008.

Paul Watzlawick : Ultra-solutions : how to fail most successfully, Norton & Cy, London, 1988

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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