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A Dangerous Analogy: Islamic Terrorism As Reality TV

Today's terrorism is different, with a specific way of scripting the violence that echos popular culture. Of course, these aren't actors. Especially, the victims.

ISIS Fighters
ISIS Fighters
Roger-Pol Droit


PARIS — Is it shocking to compare a terrorist attack to a TV series? Of course it is, mostly because the victims aren't actors. That's not pretend, people really do die, or remain deeply wounded, in their flesh and their psyche. Those who survive suffer every day. Injuries, disabilities, trauma, loss of loved ones... It's not play-acting.

This must be made clear from the outset. Because, in spite of everything, I think this comparison can actually be legitimate — provided we specify its meaning and limits, and not forget the respect due to the dead or solidarity with the victims.

Several elements, in fact, bring together the recent history of terrorist jihadism and the devices used in television series. That's because 21st-century terrorism is different from that of previous generations. Its codes are drawn from video games, its rhetoric from blockbuster films. It claims its thread is religious, but it's also based on specific way of scripting the violence, an approach that combines symbols with elements of surprise, icons with emotions. Images rule, taking precedence over speeches, arguments, and analyses. Emotion surpasses all manifestation of reason.

Above all, the characters involved and the situations are always stereotypes. The "infidels' are enemies — all of them ungodly and deserving of punishment — while the jihad fighters are proclaimed pure and holy. The "good guys' are destined to defeat the "bad guys." Finally, the fight itself, with its tactics and twists, follows a narrative logic. And the fact that it's complete madness doesn't stop it from impacting reality and dramatizing, serializing history.

Flipping the script

It's a macabre series, in that sense, that we can break down into four separate "seasons." The first played out in the 1980s, in Afghanistan, then at war with the Soviets. That's where that the idea of a conspiracy of Jews and Westerners acting together to bring down Islam was revived. Against this conspiracy, it's no holds barred, starting with suicide assassinations.

Season 2 opened with the 9/11 attacks. It was dominated by al-Qaeda and by the CIA's actions against it, which are based on spectacular or secret operations, always involving organized cells and structured sponsors.

The third season is about ISIS, which combined local terrorism with an attempt to form a caliphate that controls land, capital flows and a military, and is destined to continue — to expand and ultimately globalize itself. Except now the season's coming to an end. ISIS is defeated, worn out, in disarray. The lands it controlled have been recaptured, its financing hampered, its troops decimated.

Obviously, though, the story is far from over. Terrorism has lost a battle, not the war. In that sense, we can say that Season 4 has, in some ways already begun — although we don't yet know what it's really about. Still, some elements are predictable. Conflicts to control territories will likely intensify in Africa (Sahel, Libya, and Somalia, in particular). As far as attacks in Europe are concerned, there could be another flare-up of local, low-cost and unpredictable initiatives.

It would be naive to believe we are out of the woods. This is a different kind of war but a war nonetheless. And it's one that can't be thought of in terms of months or even years. Those who want to destroy democracy, freedoms of expression and worship, and gender equality are thinking centuries or millennia ahead.

We mustn't make the mistake, therefore, of lowering our guard by excess of confidence. But there's also the danger of doing too much, of living obsessed with a danger that, without being imaginary, is nevertheless statistically rare. The trick is to strike a balance, however difficult that may be.

If we are neither negligent nor paranoid, perhaps we will end up making jihadism a sort of marginal horror, similar to those endemic scourges that kill, that we fight without eradicating, but that don't really affect the continuity or functioning of our societies. In that case, there wouldn't be a Season 5. Nobody would win. But terrorism would lose. It's just a possibility.

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Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, speaks during a press conference in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 24, 2023.

Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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Words are a strange thing, and in literal terms, we must distrust their meaning. As I never hit anyone, I have never declared that I wouldn't. It never occurred to me to say it. Strangely, there is more power and truth in a simple declaration like "I love her" than in the more emphatic "I love her so much." A verbal addition here just shrinks the "sense" of love.

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