“War, Nazism, jihad, when you compare it all, nothing makes sense any more”, by Olivier Steiner
On Friday night I was like everyone else, you probably were too, feeling powerless, shocked, in front of a TV, a computer. I understood without understanding, I felt betrayed by reality, dirtied, ruined. The attacks that concluded the two hostage situations had taken place a few hours before. It was around 8pm and the President had just stepped up to speak for the second or third time. It was finished, a strange tension was beginning to dissipate. It was finished, and something else was starting: the beginning of the aftermath.
At 8.30pm I knew everything there was to know. I knew it, but I kept watching, I couldn’t stop channel-hopping. I wanted to see, and see again, to know more. I stopped on a private, 24/7 news channel when the presenter started talking about war. He built up the suspense, spoke slowly, announced the broadcasting of a video recording and said: “Listen very carefully to what is about to happen.”
The image was shaky, you could see smoke, a few leafless trees and the tiled roofs of the buildings surrounding the printing company in Danmartin-en-Goële
No words, no comments, the short video said nothing. The subject and the object were but a mixture of silence punctuated by gunshots and explosions. We could see nothing, but thought we saw it all. We knew nothing, but thought we knew it all. The presenter started speaking again, laying it on thick with another few “war” comments. He repeated, war, war, war. He even asked a reporter on the ground to confirm that there was a warzone-like atmosphere. The reporter, more balanced, replied: “You can hear the sound of Kalashnikovs, nothing more, nothing less.”
Why did the presenter insist on repeating the word “war” as if he was secretly loving presenting a TV news show during a war, as if he was finally at war, both reporting the news and in the limelight?
Do one or two Kalashnikovs, nothing more, nothing less, make a war?
What happened is of course horrific. I am not making light of it; one death will always be one too many. But…war? No. The recent attacks are isolated, terrorist attacks, carried out on French soil and enacted by French citizens. These acts are terrible, incredibly worrying, but isolated. So is this what war is like? Really? Is it not honourable and ethical for a journalist to reserve the word “war” for war, wars, real ones? Should we not use this word carefully, be it in memory of past wars or out of respect for countries like Syria and Iraq who have a daily understanding of the meaning of war?
You could say to me: “But aren’t you just playing on the words? Don’t we talk about the war on terror?”
Playing on words, there is a grain of truth there. But I would immediately add that it’s a serious, solemn game being played. The word “war” is used loosely and largely. Do we not also talk of the war against cancer, poverty, your step-mother, etc.? 1914-1918, 1939-1945, Vietnam, Bosnia. These are just a few examples of wars.
What is currently happening with these phantom terrorists, who change shape depending on the country in the crosshairs, who spread across the Internet, is complicated and entirely new, and I don’t know what it’s called. A poison, perhaps. We need to fight against this new form of terrorism, each at their level and in their own way. We need to fight lucidly, to resist, but in doing so we must refuse the war they strive to fight. No, what we have just experienced is not the French 9/11, please! Only a country may declare war against another country. France is a country, a secular, democratic republic, nothing like the morbid fanaticism of a certain few.
Words and what they englobe: ideas, concepts, feelings, reality. As a writer, this is my only battlefield, my only legitimacy, if I have any at all. It’s not much, but it’s far more than nothing at all.
My target is not that TV presenter, he is but a symptom of this semantic confusion which would see itself propagated in times of fear. My target is the meaning of words. Here’s another example: this morning I read a very “liked” Facebook post from one of my “friends”. The sentence was in the form of an equation, accompanied by a photo of Auschwitz: “jihadists = Nazis”! A shiver went down my spine. The use of the word “Nazi” immediately reminded me of the presenter’s use of the word “war”. Of course we could say (as Boris Cyrulnik recently did, with many nuances) that Islamist terrorism works basically in the same way an Nazism, but I feel we are making a mistake when we put the two phenomena on an equal footing. The Nazis were not the same, their crimes have no equal. I want to repeat this: the crimes of the Nazis have no equal. The commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz will take place in late January 2015, in just a few days. It is not the time to fall into the trap of bringing all evil to the same level, let us act with a little decency. You could reply by saying: “But I don’t see the difference between a Nazi and a jihadist, except that one acts in the name of the Third Reich, and the other in the name of their faith.” I can also understand this comment, but I don’t think we’ll get far if we obstinately compare what may have gone through the head of a Nazi and what goes through the head of a mujahidin. And when you look at the journey of a Mohamed Merah or an Amedy Coulibaly, you see that their radicalisation first took shape by default, through resentment, through a simple idleness with tragic consequences. It was probably the only thing that gave their lives meaning – which of course is no excuse – and it seems obvious that they would invent a banner behind which they hid their refusal of a society in which they lived, unable to find their place. “I avenged the Prophet”, shouted one of the Kouachi brothers. How can we not also hear: “I avenged myself! I didn’t exist, but now I do. And my existence will be proved by my death.”
Don’t confuse Nazism, a State-led fascism incorporating both biological racism and anti-Semitism, (also targeting the disabled, political opponents, freemasons, homosexuals and travellers, among others), with jihad, which refers to the subjective interpretation of a religious text. Islam actually includes four types of jihad: through the heart, through the tongue, through the hand and through the sword. Let us not either forget that jihad has no official status with Muslims, but serves to support extremists who seek to fight other Muslims (seeking supremacy) or the West, seen as a people of infidels, the unconverted and the “axis of evil”.
“War”, “Nazism”… Other words are also used left and right, especially on social networks where the display of extreme emotion is king, and where we post faster than we think.
We will lose when we lose the meaning of words. Because the meaning of words is everything.
This is what enables us to come back to reality, and is also the route taken by the meaning of history. Words first designate things, then symbols, but can also come undone from what is real, becoming empty, monstrous words, watchwords, slogans, a breeding-ground for terror and confusion. The meaning of words is not, alas, to be taken for granted. They must be constantly reconquered and questioned throughout our lives. The meaning of words is what separates us from savages, and must be preserved, refined, protected, come what may. The truth is truly beautiful…perhaps it is time to focus on accuracy, remembering that the meaning and precision of words make us civilised, enlightened beings. And through this we are free.