Charlie Hebdo, Barbarism, and Terrorism

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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Charlie Hebdo, Barbarism, and Terrorism

  1. mikeaztec says:

    Reblogged this on mikeaztec and commented:
    A very good blog post on the dangers of rhetoric and the dangerous “other” in the ancient and the modern world….

  2. The problem with seeing it as an act of war is that a “war” presupposes an organised, concerted effort by a world power, not the act of, perhaps , an eclectic group of citizens who come together to take these kinds of steps.

    “Barbaric,” conjures up the Middle Ages, the early days of Christianising the Byzantine Empire and the Counter-Reformation – with all of the zeal.

    Perhaps there is a better word for this kind of violence?

  3. Ronald Johnstone says:

    Wrong. You can’t turn a semantic argument into an ideological argument. It’s one or the other because you need to limit the argument so as not to cross into an unintended space that can negate the argument. By your definition a “barbarian is an “other”, someone outside of the defining civilization’s willingness to understand.”. Please cite the origin of this definition.
    A barbaric act can best be described as ‘the condition of being brutal, primitive, or socially backwards’. The Hebdo murders certainly meet that criteria.
    Secondly you assert the term barbaric is wrong because it’s ” diametrically opposed to civilization”.
    So which ‘civilisation’are we talking about? The perpetrators’s or the victim’s? Well here’s a newsflash, terrorism is a violent attack on the [others] civilisation, or what you’re really mean, ideology.
    Your other fallacious argument is ‘terrorism is not a form of war’. Terrorism is characterised by attacks on soft targets, sic; civilians. Wars are waged nation on nation and by implication, army on army. Interesting you mention Omar Khadr. Being an Egyptian jihadist fighting in Afghanistan immediately classifies him as terrorist, at least in the Western understanding of the term.
    This is a very flawed and erroneous article. If you’re trying to make a point, at least have the courage to come out and say what you mean and not hide behind semantics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s