From Napoleon to Bin Laden: France and Modern Terrorism

From Napoleon to Bin Laden: France and Modern Terrorism January 13, 2015

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100)
Knocking ’em down. We mistakenly stare at Liberty’s chest rather than what’s at her feet. (Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100)

Like amber national anthems preserve monstrosities from the past. Frequently this past humbles the clean self-image of an age.

For example, read the following words from the French national anthem:

To arms, citizens / Form your battalions/ Let’s march, let’s march! /  Let an impure blood / Water our furrows!

How odd is it that the Westerners who, according to Steven Pinker, are supposedly getting progressively less violent by listening to their better angels should still sing this in public. Aren’t they in the least bit embarrassed of their violent recent past? You know what’s even odder? That they should sing La Marseillaise in response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy:
France has a long and bloody history with Muslims.
France has a long and bloody history with Muslims.

The anthem is controversial enough to produce long debates on whether the lyrics I’ve cite above are racist. It is easy to forget how until very recently France had a fraught and violent relationship with its former colonies, nearly all Muslim majority regions like Algeria. The war continues on another front in the ghettoization of its Muslim population. This makes for terrorist breeding grounds.

These are important historical facts, however the connections with extremism roots go deeper and closer.

For example, Simon Schama in his canonical account Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution demonstrates why French Revolutionary Terror did not develop in a vacuum:

If the intention of the riots and mass arming was not revolutionary, its consequences certainly were. Peasants and townsmen alike were vividly aware that some sort of boundary had been crossed when they burned manorial titles or took their knives to the pigeon coop. They reassured themselves that they were enacting a kind of primitive moral law authorized by the National Assembly and the King and which wholly superseded the institutions by which they had been held captive. But not far from the exhilaration of release was the apprehension of punishment. What if they had been led astray? Or what if the ministers who had separated the King from his loving people for so long should prevail again? In that case a terrible fate might yet befall them.

Chronicle of a death foretold.
Chronicle of a death foretold.

One response to this kind of graphically imagined fear of death, as René Girard has seen in the case of antiquity, is to externalize the terror and project it onto some third party on whom the fear of death may be sacrificially concentrated. Put another way, individuals or groups held responsible for the danger in which communities find themselves are first separated from the host in which they are said to have grown powerful and then destroyed in acts that are simultaneously defiance and propitiation. France in 1789 supplied all kinds of scapegoats in this way – some imaginary, some real.

The scapegoating escalated  during The Terror when upwards of 40,000 mostly innocent people were executed (of that about 40% by guillotine). In Battling to the End René Girard puts these events in historical perspective. According to him, they were a major historical break:

It's big, REAL BIG.
It’s big, REAL BIG.

The French Revolution was thus such a huge event that some of its consequences are still being played out in the escalation to the extremes, of which Clausewitz was one of the first great military analysts. Thus, terrorism would have its roots in the Revolutionary Wars, of which Napoleon’s ‘regular’ army was the ultimate transformation.

Girard then goes on to make an uncomfortable connection between the French Terror and Islamist Terrorism:

Robespierre reveals too much: " "For the country's good we must be ruthless. We can't afford to be just. We'd have to rule by terror. You know what that is? Terror is nothing but despair."
Robespierre reveals too much.

Humans are thus always immersed in order and disorder, in war and peace. It is becoming more and more difficult to draw a line between the two realities that, until the French Revolution, were codified and ritualized. There are no differences anymore. Reciprocal action is so amplified by globalization, the planetary reciprocity in which the slightest event can have repercussions on the other side of the globe, that violence is always a length ahead of our movements. Violence steals a march on politics, and technology escapes our control, as Heidegger showed. Therefore we have to study the conditions for this escalation to extremes from Napoleon to Bin Laden, in which attacking and defending have been promoted to the rank of the unique engine of history.

If this French connection seems unlikely take a look at the following Robespierre speech from Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton (based upon two remarkable plays by Stanislawa Przybyszewska that Herbert Blau made us read). Here’s what she has Robespierre say, although these could be his own historically recorded words, because the founding facts of modern history are actually this bloody:

For the country’s good we must be ruthless. We can’t afford to be just. We’d have to rule by terror. You know what that is? Terror is nothing but despair.

Like in Delacroix’s famous painting slogans of freedom usually have corpses at their feet, or, as they say, freedom isn’t free. Terrorism lies barely concealed at the foundations of the West’s great secular nations. Neither the Muslim world in particular, nor religious people in general, have a monopoly on violence.

If you’d like to explore more of the issues surrounding what I’ve written about here, check out my TOP10 Religion and World Politics List and my post on French philosophy.



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