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The Dangers of Clarity: Don't Let Terrorism Define Us

This is the age of terror only if we are terrorized, which is not a fact but a state of mind. Terrorists are not nihilists. They are meaning-builders. Their whole strategy depends on controlling the meaning of the death of innocents.
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France is at war, Prime Minster Manuel Valls declared after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, against terrorism and radical Islamism. Millions of people marched in Paris and elsewhere two days later to affirm the values Valls's war is meant to defend: liberty and solidarity. These are stirring responses to terrible acts. If we are afraid, the phrase went after September 11, then the terrorists have won. France does not look afraid.

But these admirable responses, solidarity and resolution, moral clarity and decisiveness, can be treacherous. Terrorism, like an auto-immune disorder, hijacks society's self-defense mechanisms to terribly destructive ends. I don't mean the familiar observation that terrorists take advantage of an open society's mobility, privacy, and anonymity -- qualities that have, in fact, been significantly curtailed in the last thirteen-plus years. No, terror's more basic and ironic ally is the compulsion to sense-making, the appetite for meaning, that has been on display in the moving responses to the Paris massacre.

Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition that the meaning of an age comes from the rare and exemplary acts that defined it. It is a charismatic idea. But nothing has done more harm in this young millennium than seeing the time in the Arendtian light of its most dramatic acts. These are the terrible spectacles of terror attacks, from the collapsing World Trade Center towers to the metro bombings in Madrid and London to the massacres in Mumbai and, now, Paris. These crimes present themselves as pure eruptions of human will onto the stage of history. They demand interpretation. They propose to christen this the age of terror, and to give the age its mission, the global war on terror.

And so the solidarity, the resolution. So the futile and destructive invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Patriot Act and global surveillance, and the abstract yet grinding permanence of the CIA's drone warfare. So France's consideration of Patriot-style legislation and new military commitments in Iraq. So the struggle between Hollande's socialists and Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front to control the meaning of the war that the socialist Valls has announced -- with terrible consequences looming if Le Pen grabs the tiller.

As we are often reminded, the Paris attacks may be steps in a concerted political strategy to shred the West, undermine its liberal values, and drag it into wasteful wars. Even if the Charlie Hebdo murders turn out to be on the merely depraved end of the spectrum, like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the strategy exists, and other attacks will be part of it. The usual lesson is that quietism is not an option: our resolution, solidarity, and decisiveness are what the occasion requires.

The irony is that, even at its most visionary (and, as in the Cold War, imagining one's opponent has a visionary strategy is usually a distorting act of projection), the strategy of Islamist terrorism depends entirely on the meaning the victims consent to give the events. As Arendt insisted, acts require an audience. Otherwise they remain obscure -- like the many deaths and crimes that go unmourned and uncondemned. The way we interpret terror represents an unspoken decision to elevate it from banality to sublime evil.

Here is a proposal. Even when we are the victims, we should refuse to be the audience. We should receive the terrible news with the dull horror we feel at school shootings, overdoses, traffic catastrophes: human life gone haywire, run off the rails, horribly destructive and, past some point, senseless. Meaninglessness is terrible, which is why the recourse to meaning-making is automatic, even addictive. But in this case, meaning may be the only worse thing. Let us mourn; let us work to prevent it; let us punish it; but do not let terror define the spirit of the age, in laws that undermine privacy and free society, in heady talk of war, or in war itself.

A comparison to more uncharismatic kinds of horror may be helpful here. We know that, with people hurtling around in high-speed metal boxes and storing deadly weapons in their homes, a certain number of disasters will happen. We do not, typically, feel tempted to call traffic accidents or accidental shootings the meaning of the age.

Similarly, with a certain number of terrorists trying to kill innocents out of ideology and their own grandiosity, sense of injury, or psychopathy, there will continue to be disasters. As traffic requires the most boring but life-preserving regulation, this bacillus demands police work, social work, military work, and intellectual and diplomatic work, all of a high order of objectivity and rationality.

What does the reminder that killing civilians is wrong, that all decent and viable societies reject it, add to this? Very little, compared to the danger it brings of playing into terrorism's auto-immune strategy. It is natural to address a horrid and intentional act with meaning, interpretation, and condemnation; but this is where it is most important to pause and ask whether we are helping or hurting freedom and peace -- the things we say we most prize.

Above all, do not speak of war: on terror, on crime, on radical Islam, on drugs. That word is now a name for the fantasy that initial moral clarity can turn an ugly, slogging struggle with human depravity into a decisive victory. In fact, it can only distract us from the reality that this is impossible.

This is the age of terror only if we are terrorized, which is not a fact but a state of mind. Terrorists are not nihilists. They are meaning-builders. Their whole strategy depends on controlling the meaning of the death of innocents. Denying them that power by withholding epochal meaning from their crimes would be a stronger response than countries have managed so far. Instead, by treating murderous assholes as portents of the age, we make the history they want.

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