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We belong to a generation that has never known war.
Or at least, we have never fought a war ourselves, we were never drafted, never ordered to don a uniform and pick up a weapon – not even for the “service militaire”.
Today I find myself reflecting on that, and how it may have made us more vulnerable, even in spite of ourselves, to the myth of the end of history. End of the Cold War, end of the war tout court. As in the Gulf in 1991, war could no longer exist except as an anomaly, the (always avoidable) result of the actions of a mad man. As with the fall of the Wall in 1989, or the Maastricht Treaty referendum in 1992, history in the making was no longer about anything but unity and peace. Or so we were told.
And yet, this generation was 20 years old on September 11, 2001. (On April 21, 2002 as well, by the way, but that’s another story). What was so powerful about such events was that, coming from where many of us were from, they almost seemed unimaginable. In order to really understand them, we had to discover how sheltered we had been, how easy it had been to be at least somewhat forgetful of the wars going on beyond the walls of this shelter. For only war (be it military, social, economic) begets such atrocities, at the other end of the world or just around the corner.
Still, some among us clung to the idea that all of it was nothing but madness. But what do you do when the moment of madness never ends? When such attacks risk becoming the defining moments in the present life of the country? Then you can no longer make it go away as a “senseless” mess, you must work to make sense of it, to explain what’s going on.
That work will not be done in one text, let alone this one. It does not start with this text either; the situation, if extremely alarming, is not absolutely new. But for that work to make any further progress, we need to get past some of the immediate responses which tended (perhaps inevitably or even healthily, at some level) to silence any political approach. Ultimately, the only way out of this mess is through attempts to analyze the facts and to act, and this analysis and this action are bound to be political in nature.
Many commentators who do want to analyze the facts politically, and resist the thesis of isolated moments of madness, only end up blaming a “culture of madness”. Depending on their mood or persuasion, they take arms more or less metaphorically, more or less explicitly, more or less graphically, against “the madness of a religion”, “a people”, “a race”… or, of course, of “a civilization”.
And so, by the strike of a thousand pens that are mightier with the sword, millions, billions of innocent people will once again be indicted, convicted, either in absentia or through summary trials (after all, comparution immédiate is so hip, in this joyfully free country of ours), and at the mercy of whoever might fancy themselves as judge, jury and executioner. Even without a full list of victims of the November 13 attacks, we already know that some of the “presumed guilty” are among them. Oh well. Collateral damage. It is necessary to forget about them yet again, in order to declare war in the name of our civilized Republic. No, for us, they are not forgotten; neither are their loved ones and their peers, who already were prime targets of state racism, and remain so under the brave new police “state of emergency”.
Other commentators maintain that “the fight against the barbarians is anything but political”, that “saying otherwise is giving them too much credit” – “honoring them”, even.
But all wars, almost without exception, have tried to pass for wars of commonsensical justice, wars waged in legitimate self-defence, wars of victims against senseless killers… Should that fact fade from our memory, the second death of oblivion would fall once and for all on those who died a hundred years ago in a war that they vainly hoped would be one “to end all wars” – “la der’ des der’ ”.
There is no getting around it: all this is and has always been about power and politics. About the actions of powerful individuals, political movements, and states. This is basic good sense, and thankfully, it does not seem to have escaped too many of us. But even then the talk of “civilization” sometimes sneaks its way back into the argument: “Is it a coincidence that ‘those people’ have always been governed by dictators? And all those Syrian asylum seekers, why didn’t they stay there and fight for the freedom of their country, just like us French people did before them?”
It shouldn’t be a secret for anybody, particularly in the last few years, that there has been a lot of fighting for freedom, from Syria to Egypt by way of Palestine. Yet today, in Syria, the people are once again being bombed by the government… and by other states (together or separately); states whose territory is safe from any actual warfare. Today, in Egypt, the people are once more subjected to dictatorship, with the support of other states which are also sheltered from war. And in Palestine… and… and…
Each event like those of November 13 leaves us with an even greater responsibility: we no longer have the right to ignore that what brings us peace here, makes war there… and that as long as it is the case, we will never be safe from all fallout here.
When all is said and done, it should come as no surprise that the “War on Terror” has not been won. It’s the old case of the pyromaniac firefighter. The old story of war and empire. Those who committed those attacks did commit horrendous acts of madness. But not just any madness. Imperialist competition (for markets, for military bases, for oil), that permanent war in all its forms (including the cold war of “free trade”, or the “peace” of the fortress), engenders such madness “just as the rain cloud brings the storm”.
Never, and today least of all, can we afford to forget this truth; we cannot absolve this system whose “values” of peace and democracy have never amounted to much security except for the small ruling minority: the rest of us out here can never take peace for granted, and today, once again, we are mourning our dead. If we forget all that, whatever we do, we will end up (at best) with a semblance of peace – only here, only for some of us, and only through the eternal return of war for most, out there and even back here.