Thinking about terrorism

The emotion aroused by terrorist attacks is all too often an obstacle to the perception of their origins and effects. Public discourse too often sticks to schematizations that do not take into account the contributions of research, in France and abroad.

The persistence of terrorism on the European continent and mainly in France is astounding and prevents us from thinking, as Jérôme Ferret first pointed out after the attacks of January 2015. The question is ultimately quite simple: can we think about terrorism under the shock it produces? There is very rich academic research on terrorism, both quantitative and qualitative. It is based in particular on databases, starting with the most widely used, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) created and maintained by the University of Maryland. It collects data on the 180,000 terrorist attacks that have occurred worldwide since 1970. The terrorism research can also rely on three specialized academic journals: Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism And Critical Studies on Terrorism mixing qualitative and quantitative approaches. This research follows two directions: it seeks to explain the causes or it attempts to measure the social effects. These two directions are quite clearly separated in the academic sphere; in the Anglosphere the main effort is focused on the first, while in Europe the production is more oriented towards the second direction, quantitative work being little developed. It remains that in Europe the main production of works on the subject is the work of essayists rather than academic authors. However, in terms of security, the latter should play an important role in disseminating knowledge to the general public, but they make little use of the contributions of academic knowledge and favor mobilizing discourses.

Radicalization under accusation

In this context Homo terrorismus stands out completely by combining in six short chapters, solid academic information, clarity of argument and theoretical ambition. F. Thuillier and P.-E. Guittet have succeeded in the tour de force of proposing an international state of the art of the social phenomenon that is the origins of terrorism, but also of its effects in the West. The work is a synthesis that thus takes into account its political effects – the forms taken by public policies to fight terrorism – and social effects, by emphasizing in particular the stakes represented by the victims, an issue that is increasingly valued on the judicial level, but also societal.

It took the alliance, too rare not to be underlined, of the experience of a police officer and an academic, both specialists in the phenomenon, to obtain such a bracing result. The work also assumes a part of subjectivity: it is an essay in the full sense of the term, with sometimes a certain freedom of tone, but a very solidly informed essay. F. Guittet and P.-E. Thuillier nevertheless go beyond the framework of the essay by carrying out an authentic demonstration that passes through a series of observations. We will limit ourselves to noting here only the most salient, those that call into question the most ordinary and shared knowledge. The authors underline two erroneous conceptions that are at the origins of the poor analysis of terrorism. Firstly, the Islamic referent in terrorism is incidental and it is not mobilizing in violence per se. The authors emphasize the much stronger role of socio-economic origins and the effects of cultural marginalization. They note the effect of an important French characteristic, secularism. While emphasizing its contributions, they note that secularism allows religions to be taken into account, but not what relates to religious faith. This is significant, according to them, for the authorities, but also for part of the social sciences, as we saw during the debate launched in 2015 on “the Islamization of radicalism” and the “radicalization of Islam”. But above all, their argument underlines the crucial role of what can be called a “strategic concept”, that is to say a category used by public actors to analyze a social reality and implement public action in response to the objectified situation. Prior to the terrorist act, the British thus created the strategic concept of “radicalization” in the early 2000s. It was quickly generalized within the European Union, constituting the fundamental professional reference for all anti-terrorist public policies. For F. Guittet and P.-E. Thuillier, “radicalization” is a dead end based on a caricatured vision of the violence it leads to: according to them, the indicators constituting the stages of radicalization are artifacts and it must be acknowledged that “acting out” may not be explicable. Furthermore, the approach against “radicalization” is implicitly teleological: it assumes from the outset that the potential end result is terrorist violence. According to them, this amplifies the latent Islamophobia of societies and public authorities in Europe. Thus, to read Homo terrorismusone might think that the outcome of radicalization might be self-fulfilling.

Homo terrorismus continues the investigation into terrorism by looking at what the fight against terrorism in France (very strongly criticized last year by one of the two authors) has done to the security forces. The observation is clear for them: the judicial component, starting with magistrates, has been marginalized by the intelligence services and more and more components of the civil service have been enlisted in the fight against radicalization. The fight against radicalization and therefore against terrorism would thus become a sort of global paradigm for increasingly transversal public action. The work does not, however, lead to an indictment of the State, because it also emphasizes the autonomous social dynamics that contribute to distorting the realities at the origin of terrorism. The social phenomenon that is terrorism is indeed the object of a very strong investment by various social actors who make it an instrument of social mobilization and mainly the “experts” on continuous television channels and on social networks who play an important and deleterious role in the crucial moment of emotional crystallization of the immediate post-attacks. All this is the subject of fairly broad consensus today in the academic world and we will be grateful to the two authors for having gathered these observations, thus making their essay an educational work.

The social ordinary behind the extraordinary terrorist act

The two authors achieve a result that one might consider difficult when reading the subtitle of their work: making the terrorist phenomenon ordinary when everything is done to make us believe that it is exceptional, as if at the origin of the shock produced by the attack there should only be great causes, as if at the origin of the macabre spectacularization of violence there would each time be what Pierre Nora once called a “monster event” or Jacques Derrida “a major event”. Because they argue solidly and dismantle the apparent exceptionality of the so-called “Islamist” attack, they manage to convince us that the origins of the attacks are only a tangle of ordinary causes. Those who perpetrated the attacks and those who repress them transform a posteriori the significance of the event through claims for the former and condemnations for the latter, the two adversaries joining together to make the attacks acts with a simple meaning, with a solely religious motivation. The mechanism here is indeed that of the “coalitions of fear” brilliantly brought to light by Corey Robin for the United States almost 15 years ago. In this case, religion is purely instrumental.

F. Guittet and E.-P. Thuillier conclude by insisting, after others, on the weight of contingency (the “context”) in entering into a process that may or may not lead to violence. In doing so, they recall what too many people ignore, starting with public authorities, that the actions of social agents are multivariate, that is to say of a complex nature. Unlike theoretical work in the social sciences, action research work, particularly that undertaken within the framework of the specific call for CNRS in 2015, in their desire to convince of their practical “usefulness” for public policies, perhaps did not insist enough on the complexity of the social world which cannot be reduced to any formula. In writing these lines, just after the terrorist attacks that occurred in October 2020 in Paris, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and Nice, we can be less optimistic about the main message of Guittet and Thuillier which is to consider the ordinary nature of terrorism. Because our societies chronically produce homicidal violence, some of which is put on show by the media echo chamber for the greater benefit of activists who advance their ideas and their political causes: terrorism is indeed, as Habermas declared to Giovanna Borradori in 2004, a “pathology of communication”. To understand it, everything is in Homo terrorismus which allows us to think under terrorism without submitting to it, neither emotionally nor intellectually.