For the last five years, I have been writing a thesis related to the phenomenon of terrorism. I feel very fortunate that I have not, until now, felt personally affected by it. Although Australia has been and continues to be complicit in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria, we have luckily not yet suffered a large-scale attack.
I do, however, have family in Paris, in particular, a cousin that works in the 11th arrondissement. It was him that I worried about when I awoke to the news on Saturday morning. Although I knew it was highly unlikely that he would have been in that vicinity at the time, I could not shake the feeling of anxiety.
It was not just him that I worried about; it was all the people that I know in the area. When I have the chance to visit my family in Paris, I normally stay in a small room my mother owns, which is just off Avenue Phillipe Auguste in the 11th. Rue de Charonne is a short walk away, and as such, I have walked past the Belle Equipe many times. Since Friday night, I have tried to imagine myself there again, hearing the sounds of gunfire and the screams and cries of the wounded. The thought is too much to bear.
It is thus that the fear of terrorism has finally reached me. I worry now not just about the safety of the people that I know there, but also about them worrying about it. I don’t like to think that my cousin will worry about his safety on a daily basis.
I feel worried despite what I know about terrorism. I know, for example, that it is not as dangerous a phenomenon as it appears. Basque anthropologist Joseba Zulaika asks, for example:
“What is the mystique of something that, while statistically less fatal than choking to death on one’s lunch, has been perceived as one of the greatest public threats? What are the cultural premises and discursive strategies that provide terrorism with its rhetorical power?” – Terror and Taboo
The simple answer is that terrorist attacks are more exciting than choking on a hotdog. The latter is mundane, while the former is the stuff of Hollywood thrillers. Nothing glues people to their seats more than a hostage crisis or suicide bombing.
This is not, however, true of all acts of terrorism. For us to watch, it has to happen in the ‘right place’. Many people have pointed out that it is only terrorist attacks in Western nations that attract the type of blanket media coverage we saw last weekend.
For example, on December 14th 2014, militants from the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) killed 141 people, including 132 children at the Army Public School in Peshawar. It was an attack that should have deserved more attention, but it was in and out of the media cycle within 24 hours. There was no around the clock coverage, no custom animated news backdrops.
Why does one event get so much coverage and the other so little? There are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, we all have a naturally egocentric perspective on the world (for the simple reason that we are each ourselves): France is more like Australia than Pakistan, and this similarity may lead us to think, “well, if it can happen in France, it can happen in Australia”.
Secondly, there are the generalisations we make about places like Pakistan compared to places like France – “An attack in Peshawar, well, that happens all the time, but Paris! Things like that don’t happen there!” The fact that terrorist attacks are more frequent in Pakistan should result in us thinking about events there more, but instead it has the opposite effect.
We should have been thinking about Iraq and Syria more. We should have been thinking about Pakistan more. Perhaps it is too difficult, too painful, to look at what is happening in these places, what has been happening for years, and see the part our own countries have played.
Joseba Zulaika, Terror and Taboo, Routledge, New York, 1996.