A History of Violence: Understanding Narratives of Terror

by Dr Andrew W.M. Smith (UCL)


The violence which marred French streets last week cannot be understood without historical context. Its very horror lies in its spontaneity, in its mundane settings, and in the obscurity of its perpetrators. The shootings that occurred in Paris were not counter-hegemonic violence. They were not coherent political messages. They were the violent and barbaric outburst of a small criminal minority. To credit the headline ideological message they grasp at is to benevolently grant coherence to the guttural defences of thieves and murderers.

In part, the shock of such narratives stems not only from their violence, but their suddenness. They are unpredictable and seem only broadly related to grander narratives, so that we struggle to contextualise and rationalise the horror of attacks like those in Paris. Yet not only is the combat assymetric, between the state and members of these small cadres, so too is the perception of the conflict. Narratives of ongoing warfare constructed by small groups rely on internal validation, and the delusion that their actions address a broader cause. For these obsessives, attacks are ongoing battles in a continuing struggle. Yet for their victims and wider society, they represent percussive and episodic assaults on ordinary life.

The ‘war on terror’ has long been criticised for its flexibility, a subtly shifting gallery of villainy founded on the false promise of pre-emptive justice. It has also validated the concept of an ongoing war for loosely connected groupuscules of obsessives and assassins. As Martin Evans commented on The Battle of Algiers, the conflict was not a fixed fight, but rather “the confrontation took the form of short bursts of fighting at close quarters, interspersed with the bombing of civilians on the FLN side and mass round-ups and torture on the French side”.[1] So could one choose to narrate the undeclared and imaginary war in service of which these men committed their crimes. Indeed, references to the Algerian War have not been lacking, given the heritage of the original gunmen.

As Evans outlines, the narrative of Pontecorvo’s masterpiece writes out many of the complexities and infighting that plagued the FLN (and in particular the jostling between Abbane Ramdane and Messali Hadj). Many of these debates would never fully be resolved, and became characteristic of the divide that plunged Algeria back into civil war nearly 30 years after its independence. The most extreme scions of that conflict were inextricably bound to the narrative of international terror that emerged in the early 2000s.

In particular, the hardening of these tiny minorities, whittled by the process of disaggregation, has created a core of violence within the movement. In reality, the word core is perhaps misplaced, as they represent not a concentration of these values, but their perversion. Another historical allegory that bears comparison is with the 1970s, and the spate of hard-left terrorism enacted by the disillusioned, criminal shards of movements born in les années 68.

Speaking with students yesterday in a class on ‘Europe Since 1945,’ we discussed the legacy of political terror in the 1970s: the methods and messages of shocking acts of violence. Looking at the targets of this violence, we identified the state and the economy (in a personal and structural sense) as the targets with the longest historical precedence. Attacking symbols of the state (be they tax office, railways, or phone-lines) has been a persistent weapon of a nation’s malcontents. Attacking heads of state or prominent politicians is likewise not a new phenomenon (whether that be the 1894 assassination of Sadi Carnot, or the murder of Aldo Moro nearly a century later). The same is true of the economy – business leaders, wealthy individuals and the sites of commerce have often been targeted (in the 1970s-1980s, the fate of Hanns Martin Schleyer or George Besse at the hands of the Red Army Faction and Action Directe respectively) .

What we saw as new in the 1970s was the targeting of American military bases and personnel. This expansion of the potential targets spoke to new concerns, and the emergence of counter-hegemonic violence. This witnessed the construction of a loosely defined narrative of struggle against the creation of ‘The West’ (with the inferences that capitalisation entails). Interesting work by the Transnational Terrorism, Security, and the Rule of Law project (funded by the European Commission)[2], has looked at the role of networks of support between terrorist groups during the 1970s. These groups entered into a network of internal validation in which operational support and ideological coherence were not mutually dependant. They bonded over common obsessions such as the writing of Carlos Marighella, who spoke specifically about “dictatorships” and “atrocities”, outlining violence that was the model for today’s ultra-violent political criminals. They bonded over hazy interpretations of where they could find their own “dictatorships” to attack.

So too, today, do loosely connected groups exchange ideological and operational succour, even as their messages clash, contradict and obfuscate. The sectarian conflicts which tear at the militant wings of political extremism (broadly clothed in the exploited garb of Islam) are muted in the West where they hinder the fickle and fluid interpretation of exhortations to violence.

A key historical lesson lies in the example of this transnational terror. Crediting the message, the ideology, or the creed that purports to excuse this violence is a means of providing validation. The attacks in Paris do not represent some clash of civilizations, nor do they necessitate the vilification of a particular religion nor the blind defence of the status quo.

As Mitterrand’s ‘droit à la difference’ has faded, assimilation has been more overtly demanded. As secularism has been more stridently defended, lightning rods like the Burqa debate have gained a divisive and symbolic quality. Division and disputes that play upon social difference have gained more prominent voices in both Britain and France, since the economic downturn that began in 2008. Old problems of social exclusion and cultural assimilation have seemed more acute in an atmosphere of austerity and against the backdrop of wars in the Middle East. The Imam that presided over the Mosque attended by the notional figurehead of the Paris shootings said that the gunmen were of a ‘generation that felt excluded, discriminated against, and most of all, humiliated. They spoke and felt French, but were regarded as Arabic; they were culturally confused.’[3] This rhetoric seems to locate the shooters not as Mujahedeen, but rather as disaffected boys from the banlieue seeking refuge in the guise of petty criminals.

The violence of France’s suburbs has been a prominent recent phenomenon, with a wide-ranging historiography. Universalism has wrought the dangers of blindness to France’s inequalities. Kenan Malik has written cogently about the difficulties of clashing approaches to assimilation and celebrating difference, highlighting the crucial recognition of both people and values as independent targets of good policy.[4] Economic downturns fuel social fragmentation, and often it is the most jagged shards at society’s edges that find a home in seductive messages of revolutionary or millenarian narratives.

The response to these attacks has been heartening. There has been soul-searching amongst media outlets and commentators, yet despite any of the quandaries expressed about the rights and responsibilities of free expression, any restatement of secular enlightenment values can only be positive. Yet it must also be understood that the purpose of attacks like those in Paris is to draw out extreme reactions. The dearest wish of those who would commit violent acts of terror is to create the monsters against which they purport to fight: eliciting crackdowns, provoking backlashes and drawing out petty fears, abiding hatred and state-led Terror. The groupuscules formed by those seduced by the radical message of the day need validation and recognition to thrive.

For me, the examples of past violence give us a blueprint for our response: recognising that the headline messages of the attacks do not reflect their reality nor their source, isolating the tiny minority of those committed to violence, and recognising the identity of those criminal few. From here, discussions of what is to be protected need happen alongside a recognition that the chauvinistic trumpeting of values can lend succour to those opposed. The solidarity rally that filled the streets of Paris was stirring and meaningful, representing a bullish yet peaceful defiance of the temptation to lash out. Yet the debates which have followed it also show how difficult it can be to defend virtue by word and by deed without muddying one’s hands in the process. The message of a now-famous and gloriously French placard held aloft at the march was telling: ‘I’m marching but I’m conscious of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation’.


[1] Martin Evans, ‘The Battle of Algiers: historical truth and filmic representation’, Open Democracy, December 2012. [https://www.opendemocracy.net/martin-evans/battle-of-algiers-historical-truth-and-filmic-representation]

[2] Transnational Terrorism, Security and the Rule of Law Project ‘Euroterrorism’, July 2008. [http://www.transnationalterrorism.eu/tekst/publications/Euroterrorism.pdf]

[3] Kenan Malik, ‘Assimilationism v Multi-culturalism’, 12 January 2014. [https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/assimilationism-vs-multiculturalism/]

[4] Kenan Malik, ‘Assimilationism v Multi-culturalism’, 12 January 2014. [https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/assimilationism-vs-multiculturalism/]


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