Headlines make the terrorist massacre in Paris a monumental “clash of civilizations.” Play by play, the police kill the killers. World leaders link arms for the cameras while the “greatest crowd in French history” masses in the background. The effort to grasp the terrorists’ attack on cartoonists becomes a cartoon.
The 17 terrorist murders are painfully vivid, though dwarfed by traffic fatalities.  The meaning of the atrocity is less clear. The adversaries shout threats at each other, but their grievances and principles are slogans. The killers claimed they massacred cartoonists to avenge the prophet Mohammed. “Al Qaeda in Yemen” (!) claimed to be punishing French policies. Members of a historic crowd supporting “free speech” each proclaimed “I am Charlie Hebdo.”
Terrorists and victims both have incentives to make terrorism look uniquely momentous. It’s easy to overlook familiar motives that make this picture tragically human. The clash over religion and free speech is also a clash over identity. There is the obvious conflict between outsiders and established society over values and rewards, but also something deeper: a struggle to feel real. This is worth a closer look.
As unemployed men from a marginalized, segregated immigrant minority, the three Paris terrorists were “losers” and outsiders. Like everyone else, immigrants want a secure identity. As a Muslim trucker put it, “we want to be respected according to our worth. The message, quite simply, is to be regarded as truly French.” To be valued, they want to be “truly French,” citizens not outsiders. Self-esteem, the man implies, needs confirmation from other people, the “truly” French. If we’re only on the edge of society, we’re less significant—less meaningful, less real—than those around us. In the extreme this is social death.
Islamic immigrants are in a stressful position, caught between a traditional society “back home” that they had reason to leave, and French society increasingly unwilling to “truly” admit them. The terrorists used jihad from the world “back home” to seize an identity superior to the “truly French.” In reality of course, their “jihad” destroyed 17 victims and the terrorists as well.
Even if Jihad has little effect on government policy, a sensational massacre can pump up morale among insurgents and wannabe fighters. Unless it fails.
Regarded this way, the attack and responses to the attack are competing rituals or even ads trying to inspire adherents. Each side is trying to pump up ecstatic belief and belonging that can overcome death-anxiety.
To appreciate the competing rituals, it helps to remember that the self is an event, not a thing. During sleep, for instance, the self vanishes, which is why sleep is associated with death, as anxious kids show us at bedtime. The sense of self depends on confirmation by others, from Mum’s attention at birth to the throwaway greeting “How are you?” Facebook is wildly popular in part because it makes people feel more substantial. More real.
Alpha animals—heroes—get quality attention, whereas folks at the bottom get social death. Like blacks in the US, Muslims in France face discrimination and poverty. Like blacks, they’re only a fraction of the population (7-10%) but 50% of those imprisoned. By commanding the world’s attention, terrorism and rampage killing promise to make nobodies into infamous heroes. Add “hero-worship” to the role, and you begin to see religious psychology, as in jihad, coming into play.
The Kouachi brothers were orphans and, like Amedy Coulibaly, one of them was an ex-con. Prison exposed them to jihadist recruiting. Jihadists profess to be selfless, but in claiming to avenge Mohammed and God, they were identifying with the supreme hero and Islam’s promise of eternal life. Allied with superhuman powers, they wanted not merely to be “truly French,” but to outdo the French by demonstrating their power over life and death.
This fury makes sense as a drive to feel alive after the oppressive emotions of social death. Of course they targeted Charlie Hebdo, since the cartoons were deflating the convictions the jihadists’ new life depended on. As immigrants, half-legitimate, they were themselves caricatures of “true” French men. Since they were trapped in social death, it’s no surprise that they chose to inflict death on others as a remedy. If I have to suffer the torment of deadness, you will too.
To give themselves legitimacy and fortify their resolve, the trio tried to act as soldiers in the service of God, making a point of sparing women. In reality, they were rampage killers slaughtering defenseless victims in a sneak attack, and psychiatry would call them “pseudocommandos.”
In killing to make a fantasy identity real, the terrorists resemble Ismaayil Brinsley, who murdered two New York City police officers (December 20, 2014). Brinsley too was unemployed and failing, from an economically and racially marginalized group. Brinsley thought he was avenging police killings of unarmed blacks, and like many rampage killers took his own life afterward. Although the terrorists knew that their plan had a suicidal quality, the prospect of suicide—martyrdom—insured that if cornered, they could evade reality-testing and a return to prison as nobodies. The tragic paradox is that killing to be real is nightmarishly unreal.
Yet the paradox doesn’t stop there. The survivors of terrorism reacted in ways that mirror the terrorists’ experience. They too reacted to injustice and death with defiance and a determination to show the world they could “be somebody.” Like jihadists, the “greatest crowd in French history” banded together to enjoy heightened solidarity. They too felt avenged and vindicated when police killed the killers. Wittingly or not, they too strove for global, heroic importance to counter death.
This doesn’t equate the two sides, but recognizes that the terror of death can set in motion a cycle of retaliation based on the same creaturely dread. Americans illustrated the reflex by reacting to 9/11 with the brutal and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, which expanded a cycle of violence that’s still underway.
For both sides, in different ways, terrorism fortifies identity by pumping up an ecstatic conviction of being right. People fight to the death over what’s right because on a gut level, as Otto Rank said, if you win an argument—if you’re right—you feel more alive, whereas if you’re wrong, uh-oh. As I use it, the sense of what’s right is foundational. It’s the understanding of the world that parents and culture start instilling in you at birth. It becomes what you believe, what works, what makes you feel at home in the world. At bottom, your sense of what’s right is you, as real and natural as “your” name—the name that in fact somebody gave you long before you can remember. Cultures around the world associate the experience of rightness with ideas of honor and reputation as well as law and religion.
Jihad gives what’s right religious authority. And since the word “jihad” usually refers to the soul’s struggle against evil, jihad is a way of thinking about identity too. Survivors also fortify what’s right by demonizing enemies. References to America as “the great Satan” had its counterpart in the fantasy that saw in photos of the smoke above the twin towers on 9/11 an image of Satan’s face.
It’s tempting to see tension between immigrants from traditional cultures and Europe’s modernity, but in fact nobody has a pure outlook. At one time or another we’re all given to magical thinking. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, for example, can be seen as ironic, reminding you to stay open to multiple perspectives because sooner or later everything in life reveals some limits. But satire is also a critique, and presumably Parisians enjoy the witty exposure of foibles. And lest we forget, satire originated in the curse: the use of words and images to wound or kill. More complicated still: whether or not you’re really offended, hurt feelings can make inflammatory propaganda.
There are some advantages to thinking about terrorists struggling with creaturely limits as the rest of us do. For one thing, it exposes the folly of overreacting. Terrorism only works because it triggers panic and quixotic retaliation. Like the 9/11 attacks, the Paris massacre is better understood as a problem for police and forensic psychiatry than for invisible demonic armies. A glance back at the Americans and Iraqis killed, mutilated, or made homeless by the futile “war on terror” tells you that to overreact is to invite tragedy. Policing panic is as much a moral issue as terrorism.
Thinking about terrorists in terms of creaturely motives also reminds you how blind we can be to the inner lives of others. Official France and the alienated trio saw each other in terms of stereotypes. Like the US, France is a class society with sophisticated hypocrisy and doublethink. Prime minister Valls has defied taboo by acknowledging the reality of ghettos and apartheid. But sometimes generalizations aren’t enough. For their part, the terrorists demonstrate that one of the evils of their indoctrination is its substitution of political and religious stereotypes for imaginative sympathy. Their fixation made them incurious about the inner lives around them.
We are tricky creatures, and terrifically vulnerable, which makes it risky to moralize. France has offered citizenship to a grocery store employee from Mali who saved some shoppers from terrorist gunfire. You can praise that gesture as a sign of generous recognition or take it as an oppressive taunt that says to immigrants: You can be one of us when you save my life. It’s worth noting that the Romans freed slaves who saved their master’s life, and sometimes put a whole household to death if they didn’t.
Humans have been migrating with happy and horrific consequences since we hiked out of Africa way back when. The fear of scarcity and being overpowered can make population shifts nerve-wracking, as immigration is in some quarters of Europe and the US today. Love thy neighbor, says the book. Or as that Greek guy would put it, Know thy neighbor as thyself.
Resources used in this essay:
Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power
G. R.Elliott, The Power of Satire
Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon
1. Tom Engelhardt, “(Over)bearing Arms in America” (1.11.15). Americans are “statistically in less danger of dying from a terrorist attack than from a toddler shooting you.” You’re 2,059 times more likely to shoot yourself than die in a terrorist attack anywhere on Earth. “You’re also more than nine times as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a terrorist.”