Paris Massacres: Terror, Grief and Political Analysis

Frank Bruni published an excellent article in the New York Times only a few hours after the terror attacks in Paris in which he denounced "The Exploitation of Paris". His targets were mostly the pro-gun lobby and the reactionaries such as Ann Coulter or Newt Gingrich who tried to hijack the emotions caused by the attacks to promote their own agenda whether it be promoting guns or bashing Obama or student activists. In France the right and far right, at times vying with each other, also immediately tried to ride the feelings of horror and the fear in order to sell their tough stands on immigration, refugees and bash the government for its supposed laxness in fighting terrorism. These ugly manipulations are to be expected.

On the left, which basically means the radical left, things are quite different but there is something which I find a bit disquieting as well. David Swanson wrote a paper titled "Don't Forget Non-French War Deaths". The writer is quite right to mention that France is partly responsible for the chaos in the Middle East, and therefore for deaths and injustice, he is also right to point out that there are double if not triple standards when it comes to deaths and victims of war or terrorism.

Yet macabre comparisons just after the terror attacks run the risk of obliterating the horrific nature of the latest terror attacks. The Paris attacks were horrific. So while I feel totally at odds with the critiques from the right and agree with many points made by the radical left I still find the comparative rush problematic.

Just after 9/11 Americans were, of course, focused on their pain, fear and search for answers. People in Madrid (2004) or London (2005) experienced something similar. The time for grieving always comes first and the collective emotion of pain and solidarity has to occupy the whole emotional and public space for a while. Grieving and making sense of the horror mix emotions with intellectual activity but it is unrealistic to expect traumatized people to immediately function as political analysts. Americans, British, Spanish or French people must overcome their trauma before they can analyze the complex reasons for terror attacks.

Feelings of despair, defiance and hatred for those who committed atrocious acts take center stage. Anyone who is involved in traumatic accidents, natural catastrophes or violent crimes is too dazed and hurt to think about the larger context immediately. Thinking about the state of repair of roads and the cutting down of public expenditures cannot take place when the blood of the accident is still flowing or the wounded are in a critical situation in hospital. The victims of Fukushima had to work out their trauma, or at least start the process, before they could turn to accusing their government of lies and negligence.

The fear, anger and self-absorption are quite legitimate right after a terror attack. Then analysis about the chain of responsibilities, and comparisons with the deaths and havoc of other situations can happen. The fact that the US is responsible for many deaths and many crimes does not in any way legitimate the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which Noam Chomsky, the fierce critic of US foreign policy, called "a crime against humanity". In French there is an expression which runs like this "comparaison n'est pas raison" (a play upon words which roughly means that comparing is not the same as rational analysis).

It is easy to see the bad faith and ugly implementation of the emotions caused by terror attacks that reactionaries are famous for. It is harder to deal with radical left analyses immediately after terror attacks. I do not disagree with Swanson, nor did I disagree with Chomsky on 9/11 after his denunciation of a crime against humanity. Yet the rush to compare and remind also erases the specific case of a specific terror attack.

With terrorism as with ideological warfare the crimes of others are often used as legitimation for one's crimes. Soviet crimes, numerous and undeniable, were used by the West, notably the US, to legitimate or obscure Western crimes. So there was the Prague coup vs. the US coup in Guatemala as we now have Crimea vs. Iraq. ISIS, the murderous terrorist organization, the one now targeting France, plays this game too: "you kill us, we kill you". Assad and ISIS, the French vs. ISIS, the US and its drones vs. al Qaeda, Israel and the Palestinians and so on. In this an eye for an eye kind of rhetoric, not all the forces are equal and sometimes it is rather a hundred eyes for an eye.

Naturally political analysis taking all the factors into account is important. France was wrong to decide to bomb groups in Syria; this applies to the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and others. Diplomacy with all the actors on the pattern of the Iran nuclear deal is the way forward. Phyllis Bennis is right to argue that "After Paris Attacks" what is needed is "a Call for Justice--Not Vengeance".

France's foreign policy, like US foreign policy, is indeed part of the problem, not the solution. Attacking Libya (2011) or demolishing Iraq (2003) were not only dumb geopolitical mistakes, they were also ethical disasters. Political analysis must tackle these issues yet space for grieving and processing the horror of a specific act of terror must be granted.

Otherwise the horror and the responsibilities are just diluted in comparisons and reminders of historical similarities. The terrible crimes committed by terrorists in Paris cannot and must not be exonerated or minimized on account of other crimes committed by the French the Americans, the Israelis, the British or who knows whom.

"The exploitation of Paris" refers to a phenomenon which happens with every historical situation. Yet just as judges do not minimize a crime because other crimes were committed before, just as police investigations into accidents do not minimize responsibilities because other worse accidents happened, we should not dilute or ridicule the horror and revulsion caused by one terror attack.

9/11, Madrid, London, Paris were crimes against humanity, as were attacks in Beirut the day before, the kind of crimes which are also committed by others, notably in the West but also by Russia. Today, in France, grieving is legitimate. It happens in the same way as it did in the many countries where terror attacks have taken place, from the Middle East to India or Europe. After grieving and working out the inner terror and anger caused by the terrorists, political analysis will resume. Let us not forget the victims nor instrumentalize them in any way.