Violence and terror: Take a closer look at the 'us v them' rhetoric

A French flag, flowers and a "Peace for Paris" drawing are seen at the 9/11 memorial in New York during a vigil for the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks.
A French flag, flowers and a "Peace for Paris" drawing are seen at the 9/11 memorial in New York during a vigil for the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks.PHOTO: AFP

The acts of violence on the streets of Paris depict the ongoing role of religious extremism as a site for terror.

As my Facebook wall is inundated with shows of support for the people of Paris, I am struck by an all-too-familiar narrative mediated through new communication technologies. The tricolour backdrops of Facebook profile pictures declare with resolve, "We are Paris".

At the heart of this network of emotions is the framing of the world into a binary, parsing out "freedom-loving" spaces and spaces that "threaten freedom". The freedom-loving spaces are white, cultured, and democratic, juxtaposed against the brownness of the primitive bodies that inhabit the freedom-threatening spaces. The narrative frames the attacks as the violence of the savage ways of life on Western civilisation.

The Facebook narrative of 13/11 invokes the 9/11 archetype. When French President Francois Hollande promises us a "pitiless response", I am eerily reminded of US President George Bush's promise: "America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism."

The sentiments on Facebook bring back uncomfortable memories of sitting in a faculty meeting right after the 9/11 attack when a US colleague promised to deliver a hole in the place of Afghanistan.

This narrative of "us" versus "them" quickly took hold in the post-9/11 US, and rapidly anchored itself as a global pivot for framing 9/11. This narrative juxtaposes "our" freedom against "their" barbarianism. Declaring the resilience of freedom as a trope, the narrative quickly anchors itself in a war cry. Attacking the Middle East will bring justice and teach the barbarians a lesson.

The simplicity of this story, the primitive Middle East calling for a Western invasion, ignores the lessons that emerge from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What had unfolded into the Iraq war, opening in 2003, is a spatial-temporal enactment of the "freedom" narrative. Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched on the pretext of fighting Iraq's supposed support for terrorism, a premise that was cooked up by the US propaganda machine.

The everyday terrors experienced by Iraqi families and families in Afghanistan in the hands of the imperial military remain unaccounted for in the mainstream media. The large-scale violence and the large numbers of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan unleashed by the US remain unaccounted for, written off ironically as collateral damage in an operation of bringing freedom to the Middle East.

The attack on Paris is similarly being portrayed as the backdrop for the mobilisation of an attack on Syria. The simplicity of this story, the primitive Middle East calling for a Western invasion, ignores the lessons that emerge from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US attack on Iraq that killed over a half million Iraqi civilians created the structure for the emergence of the Islamic State, often offering training to specific groups and supplying weapons to these groups that would later emerge as members of the ISIS.

That many of the ISIS members were trained by Western military and were supplied weapons by the US and Britain is a key point that remains missing from the symbolic representations of the attacks. In Libya, Egypt and Syria, the US and Britain offered, at various points, vital resources to actors that would coalesce around the structure of ISIS.

The US and Britain funded and trained religious sectarian groups with the broader goal of toppling the Assad regime in Syria. ISIS thus is very much a product of the imperial strategy of divide-and-rule perpetuated by Western imperialism, couched in the language of freedom.

Further connecting the dots points towards the role of Saudi Arabia, a key Western ally, in supporting ISIS. In spite of evidence that point towards the implicit role of the House of Saud in disseminating and funding the violent strands of Wahaabism, the Western apostles of freedom continue to support the Saudi structure to safeguard imperial interests in the Middle East.

Even as media narratives rally around the terrorist attacks on France, they remain mostly silent about ISIS attacks on Beirut and Iraq. This selective representation becomes the basis for reproducing narratives of terror and violence, circulating binaries that see the world in black and white.

To really address the questions of violence and terror globally, the rhetoric of freedom needs to be examined closely. Each of us must critically examine simplistic frames that depict the Paris attacks as attacks on fundamental freedoms.

Finally, a fundamental transformation is needed in the global narrative of geo-security, shifting the discourse from imperial invasions to protect freedom to a global discourse of peace and dialogue that challenges the terror implicit in acts of violence.


•The writer, a United States citizen, is Provost's Chair professor of communications and new media, and director of the Centre for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation at the National University of Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Violence and terror: Take a closer look at the 'us v them' rhetoric'. Print Edition | Subscribe