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Life in the days of mounting terror threats

Life in the days of mounting terror threats

21.01.2015 •  France • (Updated on 22-08-2015)

Can one ever get used to living with the fear of terror? Is there such a thing as a mental and physical survival kit?

Over the past 8 months, France was hit by 3 terror attacks: first, in early January in Paris, the attacks against satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo along with the slaughter at the Hyper Casher supermarket, then, in late June, the attack against the chemical industrial site of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, and finally, this Friday 21st August, a narrowly prevented shoot-out on the Brussels-Paris bullet train. The proliferation of lone-wolves attacks confronts us with a question: how can we adapt to a new era of terror?

The space where this new reality unfolds is the opposite of the Map of Love. And yet, I feel it as intimately as I do with the geography of my love life. The Map of Love is an imaginary space, while the opposite world is more than real – that of hatred, inhumanity, that of the silence which follows the blast, of screams and cries, of blood and nails and explosives, of panic followed by prostration, then by anger…

Drafted in the 80’s, much to my own reluctance, my personal map of terror and horror has much expanded, darkened, and diversified over the past 30 years I have spent living in the Middle East and Africa. The terror attacks of 7th, 8th and 9th January in France are now pushing the boundaries of this map further than ever.

It all begins in Eritrea

The death map begins in 1986, on a road in Eritrea, when the first car of our convoy, right before the one where I am travelling, gets hit by a blast; it continues at dawn in 1991 in front of piled up bodies of mutilated men, hacked to death with machete in Alexandra township near Johannesburg; the road moves onto another continent with the slaughter, in 1994, of 29 Muslim believers shot down at gun point in Hebron while praying at the Sanctuary of Abraham, and continues, in October of the same year, in Tel Aviv, with Jewish clerics filling plastic bags with bits and pieces of the scattered flesh of 22 Israelis killed by a bomb on their bus ; it then takes me to Istanbul, on what has been called “the Turkish 9/11”, when, in 2003, 58 persons are killed over a string of attacks against synagogues, the British Consulate and an HSBC building.

Some murky, foul and sinister “firsts” are also seared in my memory, such as: Ergun Cagatay, first ever surviving friend after an attack by Armenian secret army Asala at Orly airport in 1983; David Webster, first ever assassinated friend in 1989, Johannesburg; also: in 1994, the first suicide car bombing in Gaza, when, only a few steps away from the driver’s charred body still clutching the steering wheel, I caught myself whispering to the child I carried in my wombDon’t worry, this is NOT what life is about”.

Then, in a cave near the city of Bethlehem, here I go with my first interview of a determined and hooded armed group; and also, the first wake and burial alongside friends whose child had been killed in an attack. Let’s not forget, during the 90’s, attending the first hearing of a trial for “terrorism” of a left-wing Kurd militant in a Turkish military security tribunal in Istanbul.

On the map of terror and horror, I also met some of those who inspired it, a few who might have caused it and others who had acted in the name of organizations such as the AWB, the Inkatha, the ANC, AZAPO, the PLO, the PFLP, the DFLP, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Meir Kahane’s followers, the DHKP-C, the ASALA, the KWP, the Turkish Hezbollah, and so on – of course, one should distinguish between these organizations, but as far as victims are concerned, they can be put under the same umbrella.

A full set of warning lights

Still, does one ever get used to terror?

First of all, of course, “living with the fear of terror” is different whether you are in your own country or if you chose to expatriate yourself as a journalist. In the second case, you are always free to leave. Such a choice does not exist for the vast majority of the targeted populations.

As far as I am concerned, I never “got used” to such situations. When coming across any political cartoon that “humorously” sketches an attack, I can barely put on a grin. If it is impossible to get used to this, then, does one develop some kind of physical and mental survival kit?

Does one build up a sort of set of warning lights, of various tricks that change according to countries, places and circumstances? What’s sure is that the ear quickly identifies the sounds of an attack when the siren of an ambulance follows the alarm that got triggered by a detonation. One knows one should not rush to the site as a second blast is frequent after the first, and that some attacks trigger a chain reaction. Better use a bicycle, rather than a bus or the underground, avoid such and such spots, etc.

The usual “self-defence mechanisms” are there too: calling terrorists “bastards” brings a relief, calling them “mad”, “dangerous people” allows us to bring back a bit of order in the midst of chaos, thus making us radically different from “them”.

The inner logic of terror

Terrorism is not always as blind as might be thought, and though hideous, it sometimes – and only sometimes – follows some logic. Though not always known, the dates of some attacks, the seemingly banal places where they occur, the targeted individuals may have been chosen for specific reasons that escape the broader public, but not the investigators nor the state officials concerned, who usually keep quiet about this, so as not to give credibility to the terrorists.

Knowing this does not make us immune to terror, nor protected from it. Yet, understanding that acts of terror committed by individuals or groups are often (not always) rooted in desperation, has helped me bring some sense into senseless situations, at least as far as the countries where I lived are concerned – South Africa, Israel and Turkey. This more “rational” approach allows us to put our personal destinies in the context of conflicts that far exceed our individualities.  It helps us to take life as it comes – keeping in mind that understanding does not mean to accept nor champion terror – understanding does not mean to give in to some Stockholm syndrome.

In the past, the pressure of terror contributed to open the way for negotiations. However terrible it may sound, this is nevertheless true. That’s why we have seen, at times, journalists (or any other persons “close” to a specific situation such a humanitarian staff, religious personalities…) bring support to what is seen as a just cause, thus crossing the redline which should keep terror organizations at arms length.

In his magnificent novel, “My Traitor”, journalist Sorj Chalandon questions his own experience alongside the IRA and Denis Donaldson, one of its most charismatic leaders, whose commitment and courage he had admired until he learnt he was an undercover agent.

Should one deduce that no closeness is ever allowed, whatever the rightness of the cause may be, because the means then become even more justified? It is worth reading Camus’ “The Righteous” again, however far from that era one may be.

Most of the time, terror is the mightiest

At the end of the day, this mental and physical survival kit is laughable. It accounts for nothing in the face of terror’s merciless logic, as the latter polarizes, radicalizes and poisons entire societies: one quickly drifts from contempt to hatred for those who commit such crimes, for those who claim legitimacy from them, and finally for those who did not condemn them strongly enough.

The second collateral damage of terror is lesser known. One may embody a target, a potential victim and still develop self-hatred: “I am becoming a racist,” a young woman in Paris told me recently, although the origin of most of her friends proved to the contrary.

In the Paris métro, I could not help staring at all the guys who were weird and Arab-looking!”

Indeed, terror can get you to the point of self-loathing: when you see someone who does not seem trustworthy, you move to another wagon, another bus, you cross the street. That is called « judging on appearances », and you feel ashamed to admit you gave in! It takes the insight and frankness of a 20 year old to say this!

Or else, you end up caught up in others’ fears, while they are scared of you because you are an Arab, a Muslim, a Palestinian, a Kurd… and where you happen to live, the terrorists who struck shared the same identity as yours, the same nationality, the same religion.


“The real destructive power of terror is inside each one of us”
David Grossman

The next step is counter-terrorism, repression of enemy civilians, emergency laws and their string of rights violations – this can hurt you in your own identity, if you happen to feel responsible for what your government and country do. Terror stirs the worse in potential victims, too. “The real destructive power of terror is inside each one of us,” explains Israeli writer David Grossman.

Right after an attack, there is also a deep thirst for life – and I learnt how to discriminate between what is essential and what is trivial when I was living in the context of such horror.

In that sense, the nearly 4 million French people march on Sunday 11th January was an appropriate response. But let’s not delude ourselves: it will have no impact on would-be terrorists. To the contrary, the magnitude of the response could be a source of satisfaction for them, or rather, their masters. But at least, that march proved there was still life, laughter, transgression and solidarity… the warm memory of which will sustain us in the months and years to come.

Ariane Bonzon

Photo: DR Istanbul 15th November 2003, after the blast of a synagogue

Original French version (dates back to 21.01.2015) : S’habitue-t-on à vivre sous le terrorisme? 

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