As my colleagues at Zeteo, William and Steve, have already pointed out, the sorrow we feel for those who lost their lives or loved ones during the attacks in Paris and Beirut this week is unfortunately accompanied by fear that the violence will only escalate from here. That is, after all, the point of terrorism, to take the middle ground out from under people’s feet and make them choose sides. If we refuse to choose sides, however, we combat terrorism better than any aircraft carrier could.
A perfect example of people refusing to engage in violent reprisals along the battle lines of Islamic fundamentalism and Western neocolonialism comes to us in the above video from Lille, France. A massive demonstration chases away a tiny clique of right-wing Islamophobes. The police initially support the Islamophobes’ right to free speech, but eventually help shoo them away before the crowd can get to them.
In the United States, meanwhile, a more convenient form of activism rules the roost. At the click of a button, any Facebook user can drape a French flag over his or her profile picture. What started as a grassroots movement of Facebook users overlaying their profile pictures with a rainbow flag in support of legalizing gay marriage has become an official prompt by the Facebook establishment to adopt le Tricolore to support… what exactly?
The French flag represents some of the very worst aspects of French society. It represents the Republican government that executed Parisian citizens en masse after they had helped the Republicans take power from the Bourbon dynasty. Le Tricolore represents the imperial French state that sent tens-of-thousands of working-class French citizens to their deaths in Haiti in order to suppress the most successful slave rebellion in world history. It was under le Tricolore that France formally colonized Syria in the 1920s, killing thousands in the ensuing rebellion in Damascus. And it is the French government today that continues meddling in Syrian politics by providing military, organizational, and diplomatic support to the Free Syrian Army, one of three main rebel groups involved in the ongoing Syrian civil war that has claimed the lives of a quarter million, has left millions homeless, has sparked an international refugee crisis, and which has directly led to the terror attacks against French citizens this week.
So, instead of le Tricolore, perhaps Facebook users could express solidarity with the people of Paris by posting pictures of barricades. It is, after all, not terrorists who have repeatedly overthrown oppressive French governments, but ordinary Parisians themselves. Or if that’s too militant at a time like this, why not post “bonjour,” to celebrate that lovely language that spread so much farther than the borders of imperial France ever managed to. Or why not overlay one’s Facebook profile photo with a picture of the Louvre, to pay homage to Paris’ recent past as the cultural capital of the world, and its present as one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Or why not take a selfie while devouring the greatest use of grain in world history: the delicate, flakey, layered croissant?
One of the most cruel forms of synecdoche is the conflation of a nation’s citizens with the state that rules over them. Try as I might to stop myself, I still regularly catch myself saying things to my students like, “…when we invaded Iraq in 2003…” as if any of us in the classroom had anything to do with it. Similar to the social conventions surrounding coverture, whereby women were made to adopt the name of the men they were married to (e.g. Mrs. John Doe), this liberal use of language allows an attack on the working and middle classes of Paris to become an attack on the French State, which is controlled by politicians referred to colloquially as ‘Paris,’ joined by their good friend ‘Washington,’ who together have already decided to retaliate by sending even more French citizens to their deaths. When the oppressed and their oppressors become wedded in this manner, a movement toward liberation can be considered an act of sedition. Runaway slaves, after all, were considered to be smuggling themselves.
International solidarity is not merely nice; it is a necessary precondition to ending war and terrorism altogether. Let us ensure that our solidarity lies in the right place.