Anne Nivat

As a war correspondent, I’ve grown accustomed to vicious acts of terrorism taking the lives of innocent civilians, but this usually happens very far from my country, in some “exotic” place where a regular army is combatting jihadists or other extremists. I’m referring to nearly all the bloody conflicts I have covered over the last 15 years, from Chechnya to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

But if, in the heart of Paris, people armed with Kalashnikovs are able to get away with killing men who satirized Islam, there is a sentiment that this is overwhelming, astonishing, disturbing. The stand-off with the Kouachi brothers and their apparent comrade-in-arms, Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked customers in a Kosher supermarket and killed four people, played out like a bad movie in Dammartin and Porte de Vincennes. 

The official version of events will reveal the details, and we will probably learn that all three presented themselves to the brave commandoes of the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group and special police commandos "weapons in hand" and, as such, had to be shot.

So be it. But I am afraid that their deaths, though these may somewhat appease the profound anxiety that had seized us in these days, do not contribute to any clarification regarding the numerous problems posed by these terrorist attacks.  

The perpetrators are terrorists or jihadists or barbarians or vile murderers - we do not know what to call them. But they are from my country. And because this act of terror was perpetrated in France by French people, everyone is helpless. Political leaders, journalists, opinion leaders, intellectuals - nobody has a clue, yet no one wants to realize or admit it. 

Prosecution of the terrorists would have no doubt helped us, for if, on Sunday the 11th, during the massive unity rally, by the grace of catharsis we were all united for freedom of expression, and for freedom itself, we nevertheless now need to make the unpleasant effort to realize that some people have radically different perspectives. 

Yes, some people, and they are French, were deeply offended by the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. 

Yes, shortly after the manhunt for the terrorists began, the hashtag "I am Kouachi" appeared on the Internet in a ruthless echo of the "I am Charlie" slogan that swept the planet.

Yes, on Thursday, in our secular and Republican schools, some children, teenagers and young people, struggled to comply with the minutes of silence imposed by the authorities. Timid voices were raised in French schools – children, daring to state their opinions, which did not correspond to the consensus: They were asking why “they” – the journalists at Charlie Hebdo – kept mocking the prophet knowing that it upsets the Muslim population. Teachers were starkly confronted with profound differences in values, which should be an asset in our society, but have become a burden.

The “War on Terror” has caught up with us. The nasty wars fought in far-away countries by the Western World in order to impose Western democracy have finally ricocheted back to us like boomerangs, and we should not be surprised. I am afraid that other Kouachis and Coulibalys might well pop up in France. How many of them will we need in order to understand that we need a truly coherent and inclusive debate about what’s happening in our country? Why is radicalization more and more linked to petty criminality and joblessness? Why do more and more of our young people turn to a level of violence that our media have banalized? Why don’t we care? Why have we grown so indifferent, fatalist and amazingly passive ?

In a democracy, one has the privilege of freedom of expression, and it is in the name of this that, for years, I have been traveling to the lands of “Islamist” wars.

For some time, I have been amazed, and even hurt, to hear friendly voices claim not to understand why I continue to give the floor to “the other side”; to those who make us afraid; to the "bad guy"; the "barbarian"; the "jihadist”; the Taliban; the “Islamic fighters” – the ones our allies have sought out to fight, or to "bump off in the outhouse,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin so elegantly put it in 2000 in reference to Chechen separatist fighters (Western military and political leaders typically use less violent vocabulary, but the meaning remains the same). 

I regret that the attempts to know the "enemy" – my work, and others’ – have not been sufficient, as evidenced by the onslaught of hate on social networks.

In all the war zones I’ve traveled, I’ve encountered young Frenchmen not so different than Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, and occasionally young women, who “found” themselves in Chechnya or Iraq or Afghanistan – to “exist,” to give meaning to their lives, posturing without really knowing what they were looking for. They were in need of a challenge, of a real (versus a virtual) experience of “violence,” without coherently questioning, if at all, whether they were being used.

In Afghanistan, one of them offered this arresting comment in explaining his reason for being there: "Ultimately, it is probably also the same for you: a break from the routine!”

It struck me in Chechnya that many of the so-called "Wahhabis" (converts to the extreme Saudi-based theology associated with Islamic terrorists in Russia) were unfamiliar with tenets of the Muslim faith in the name of which they claimed to act; their reason for fighting was not to defend Islam, but to defend themselves.

These young people seemed to me already torn between the drive of our globalized all-image societies and what they believe are their roots – much like, perhaps, the three French terrorists who attacked this month.

I was struck by the obsession I heard among young radicals with becoming a hero – a hero against all odds, and even a hollow hero; an anti-hero, as though to fight a jihad was a reality TV game that could have only one ending: to find oneself in the headlines.

This is what Mohammed Merah, a 23-year old French-Algerian, wanted in March 2012 when he killed seven people (including three children) before being killed in a police raid in Toulouse. And in the U.S, another pair of brothers, the Tsarnaev’s, who committed their terroristic act during the 2013 Boston Marathon, perhaps had the same disturbing desire to find themselves through killing. To strike with an act that would propel them to instant stardom, even if it meant ending with their deaths. But the younger Tsarnaev’s brother was arrested and is currently in federal court in Boston wearing a suit and watching the lawyers pick a jury. Hopefully the trial will help us to get an insight into the motivations for such an act. The most disturbing part to me is that, be it the Tsarnaevs or the Kouachis, these young men are somehow also the product of our societies (the younger Tsarnaev was barely 9 when he arrived to the US), and rejected these while trying to adapt. 

I have no answer or solution to this malaise, but I dread the hysteria, which inevitably leads to extremely dangerous confusion crossed/spiced with political correctness, the journalistic correctness and sterile discourse that only repeats itself. We must avoid getting stuck in this confusion; in no way we should give in to the temptation of hyper-security, which leads to ultra-security measures mimicking the post-9/11 “USA Patriot Act,” which we have, until now, roundly criticized in France. 

Practical security measures might help, but they won't help us understand how, in our country, where Islamophobia, unfortunately, has so long been commonplace, young men can come to imagine, plot and implement such acts of terror. After such a “knock-out punch,” the French people cannot afford to remain in denial. We should continue to ask questions – all questions, without censorship.

Anne Nivat, a Warscapes Advisory Board member, is an award-winning war reporter and author. She covered the Chechen war for the French daily Libération and was based in Moscow for ten years until 2005. Nivat has written pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune, and has appeared on NPR's Fresh Air, The Connection, and PBS's News Hour. She holds a doctorate in political science from Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, and was a Fulbright Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. For her first book, Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya, she disguised herself as a Chechen woman and traveled to the war-torn region despite a Russian ban on journalists. Her books include The View from the Vysotka; The Wake of War; Encounters with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan; and The Fog of War. Nivat is based in Paris and travels extensively covering Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Image via Walesonline