After 9/11, French President Jacques Chirac rejected the “war on terror” proposed by George W. Bush, urging the United States to treat terrorism as a form of criminality. His refusal to go along with Bush adviser Karl Rove’s Orwellian use of language is perhaps the only thing that Chirac will be remembered for, but in some ways it’s legacy enough. In contrast, after the November terrorist attacks on Paris, President François Hollande, a Socialist, made the grave error of announcing that France is now at war. Actual states should not grant such legitimacy to small bands of violent criminals, and the deployment of the language and techniques of war is the best way to lose a campaign against them.
The language of war elevates terrorists to the very status to which they aspire: that of legitimate combatants. The fevered hothouses of extremism, whether in Belgian slums or Saudi Wahhabi mosques, generate a narrative that serves as the pretext for violent action. A country like France is depicted as engaging in monstrous acts, killing defenseless children and women from the air. Gullible teenagers are challenged by a jihadi recruiter with the need to do something to halt the atrocities. They are groomed as heroes, as soldiers saving their people. War is, after all, the one social context in which heinous actions are permitted. The innocent civilians whom these recruits will murder are depicted as enemy combatants: Did these people not vote for the government committing the atrocities? Do they not support it? And even if they’re actually innocent, isn’t it necessary that they be sacrificed so as to produce a public backlash, pushing the government to overreact in a direction favorable to the terrorists?
The young men recruited by the late petty thief Abdelhamid Abaaoud were, it should go without saying, not soldiers; they were delinquents outfitted with bombs and machine guns instead of stilettos. They were marginalized people, the people discarded by the sluggish capitalism of Belgium or France, given no purpose in life by their squalid environs, humiliated by quotidian racism, denied the dignity of productive labor, and, in the case of Belgium, poorly educated by a mediocre state-run school system. Others from their milieu, however, made respectable lives for themselves (Abaaoud’s own family, filled with shame, hoped last year that he was dead), and saw their circumstances as a challenge, not an excuse for crime. Abaaoud and his partners in crime deserve no military stripes.
Talk of fighting a war against these criminals bestows on them a dignity that their despicable life choices should not warrant and inadvertently covers them with glory. They plotted out a spectacle in a soccer stadium in which they would blow themselves up, along with other spectators in the stands, before TV cameras beaming the events to the world. But only one of them was able to scalp a ticket, and French police were not so stupid as to admit someone with an explosive vest under his coat. The panicked killers had to detonate their payloads uselessly outside the stadium, and some of their bombs malfunctioned, killing only the wearer. The others shot up restaurants, cafés, and a concert hall off-camera, and thus were denied a televised horror-movie production. Nevertheless, American TV provided us with so-called counterterrorism experts who declared that this sad-sack carnage was superbly planned and executed.