There are at least three reasons why we should stop publicizing the names of violent jihadists who commit acts of terror. The first is that by doing so – by publishing and republishing their faces, living or (especially) dead – they become globally recognized characters in the show-business side of this terrorist war, thus fulfilling one of their keenest desires. Consider how during the Bataclan siege in Paris the killers demanded that their hostages call news channels in the moments before the massacre. And is it by chance that the mass murderer in Nice left his identity card in his truck for all to see?
The second is that by going into detail, as we are wont to do, about these zombie lives, by following the trail from a childhood that is invariably “unhappy” to a “sudden” radicalization, by dwelling on the putative “mystery” of a monster who also happened to be a good father, a normal husband, a friendly neighbor always willing to lend a hand, we are taking the shortest route to the banalization of evil, which we have long known to be a grave danger. Why do we need to be told, for example, that the man who slit the throat of a priest in Normandy had a “brilliant personality”? What useful information are we getting when we are shown, over and over, the widow of one of the Charlie Hebdo killers telling us that even now, a year on, she still hasn’t uncovered the slightest warning of her husband’s radicalization?
Was it really necessary to have spent so many years fighting the culture of excuses to now hand the stage over to the “best friend” of the Nice killer so that he can tell us that the latter was a “fantastic,” “almond eyed” guy who once had proclaimed “Je suis Charlie” but who, alas, was so “frustrated” that he mockmurdered stuffed animals and that his “borderline” personality pushed him over the edge? There is in this unending, often pathetic chronicle of horror a way of neutralizing the conscience and, on the pretext of showing us the face of the crime, blinding us to what makes it so revolting.
The third fundamental reason that should convince the media not to focus on names whose hypnotic repetition has become the rhythm of our time (or perhaps to refer to them only by first names or initials and so deny them the limelight) is that the present unstable mixture of trivialization and glorification—in which we are told that these are ordinary people who happen to have hitched their fate to unforgettable acts—will have one final and worst possible consequence: a copycat effect; an invitation to vulnerable minds to follow their example and commit similar acts; a taste of the global glory that their role model gained after his death.
The mechanism is well known. It is what French philosopher René Girard was describing when he emphasized the mimetic aspect of violence in general and terrorism in particular.
It is what Marshall McLuhan condemned at the height of the terror in Italy, when people were wondering whether it was appropriate to publish the statements issued by the Red Brigades. The author of War and Peace in the Global Village was so thoroughly convinced that the war would ultimately play out in the theatre of the media that he proposed a news blackout on the acts of armed groups—an overly radical proposal that was nevertheless partly implemented by the Italian press.
But even earlier—at the end of the nineteenth century—witnesses to the first great wave of attacks that shook modern France had reached the same conclusion. A president had been stabbed to death and bombs were being set off in the National Assembly and in cafés. For nightmarish months readers of Le Temps, Le Journal, and Le Petit Illustré awoke each morning dreading the sight on the front pages of the name and picture of a new Ravachol or another imitator of Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry, to name just three prominent figures in what was then called “anarchism.” France was petrified.
Terrorism, in the age of radical Islam, has obviously reached new peaks in the refinement of horror. But what has not changed is the principle of morbid contagion, the apparently endless viral transmission from body to body, the chain reaction of names which inspire and are inspired by other names.
Of course no one would claim that refraining from mentioning terrorists’ names is enough to break the chain of imitation.
First because the reign of the supposedly social networks has greatly limited the power of traditional newspapers.
Second because jihadism has many other roots, deep roots, not in communication, but in forms of religion and fascism.
And were terrorist X to be deprived of the dizzying pleasure of associating his name with that of terrorist Y in the new dark phalanx, he would still have that other, just as great, pleasure: imagining himself absorbed into the chanted name of an immutable God. Or yet another pleasure, no less delectable, of seeing two names, his own and that of the Almighty, cast in the same lead of the same nihilism.
Still, disarming one trigger among three, four, or even more—is that not worth doing? In this total war that has been declared against us, should each of us not resist as best we can, where we can, where we have responsibility, where life and our occupation have placed us?
And would it not be something to see the engineers of opinion, by refusing to serialize infamy, try to jam at least one of the engines of a machine that is now hurtling along at full tilt? We have to make the best of where we are.
We need a broad agreement within the media to limit descriptions of terrorist criminals to no more than the bare essentials.
Against all the mock-heroic and copy-cat productions that draw us into unwitting complicity with violent jihadism, we need to relegate the terrorists to the deserved obscurity of infamous men.
This essay first appeared in The Guardian on August 1. It was translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.