In describing the attacks the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris last week the term “barbaric” was invoked a number of times. Individuals like Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission and Tony Abbot, the Australian prime minister all condemned the attack, which, of course, they should, despite the fact that they are politicians and really do not have any choice in the matter if they want to stand a hope of being elected again. No doubt I could cast my net wider, but I’m going to critique the use of the term “barbaric” in referring to the attacks. From its general definition, the attacks certainly fulfill the requirements of barbarism, as they were carried out with cruelty and violence.
The problem is that barbarism requires a barbarian, and a barbarian is an “other”, someone outside of the defining civilization’s willingness to understand. Roman history is full of barbarians, but the rhetoric that lies behind these labels serve as a distorting mirror for those who wish to understand the peoples under discussion, which tends to say a lot more about the people writing than the people being written about.
By calling the terrorist attacks in Paris barbaric this sort of language causes two problems. First, it assigns the role of the violence to the other, and then dehumanizes the other by setting them up as diametrically opposed to civilization. Second, the labels “barbarism” and “terrorism” place violence into a category where it is sudden and spectacular and where it comes out of nowhere. The rhetorical realm of the barbarian and the terrorist is one of flux and chaos, where sometimes its violence is brought to the streets of the civilized world. By seeing the violence brought by terrorists as inherently chaotic and something that can only be dealt with through clamp-downs on society, terrorism is no longer understood as a form of war. By defining terrorism as war and done by actors with goals and resources, the chaos of the barbarian world of terrorists is made somewhat less murky. This is clearly exemplified in the case of the Omar Khadr who allegedly killed an American soldier in Afghanistan with a grenade. For this act he was charged with terrorism, which goes to show just how deep the civilization versus barbarism rhetoric can go. Khadr was an enemy combatant, not a terrorist. By toning down the rhetoric and seeing those who commit such violence as a enemy and not an inhuman other from a world that threatens chaos, governments would have a better opportunity to understand the goals and motivations behind these groups, and possibly prevent some of them. Currently, the rhetoric of attacks coming from outside of civilization and targeted against civilization help those who wish to spread fear and provoke disproportionate responses.