Terror in Europe

France, The Myths Of Human Freedom And Terror

With the third major terrorism attack on French soil in 18 months, the question "Why France?" is another way to measure the stakes that apply to us all.

Liberte, Egalite, Pot de Fleurs
Liberte, Egalite, Pot de Fleurs
Jeff Israely*

PARIS â€" With friends in town visiting for the long weekend, we opted for dinner in our quiet neighborhood rather than jostling down by the Seine for a good view of the Bastille Day fireworks.

But once the bill was paid, we decided to haul our out-of-town guests up the hill to the Montmartre quarter to try and find a good perch to see the show exploding across town. Peering through the winding streets, we caught the grand finale with a small crowd that had gathered. It was, admittedly, a bit too far away to really count. Yet as we ambled back down the hill, that warm feeling washed over me of having just shared a moment of summer with complete strangers. Like the Fourth of July celebrations of my youth.

Sadly, of course, the Fourteenth of July festivities that honor the 18th-century revolutionary French ideal of freedom will now also mark the anniversary of an unspeakable act of 21st-century cruelty. With last Thursday's truck attack in Nice that killed 84 people who'd just finished sharing that city’s own fireworks display, France has now suffered three major terrorist attacks in 18 months. This nation today stands as the West's prime target in an ongoing, generation-long campaign of radical Islamist terrorism.

"Why France?" is a question (both inside and outside the country) that is as imperative as it is a perilous slide into blaming-the-victim. Answers will depend on whom you ask: politics, demographics, the strict French form of state secularism they call laïcité, abandoned ghettos, colonial sins of the past, Syrian air raids of today, this country’s role as standard bearer of Western freedom.

The targets have each been charged with carefully plotted symbolism: a satirical magazine's freedom of expression, Jews in a kosher supermarket, the freedom and fun of rock ’n’ roll at the Bataclan concert hall â€" and now, on Bastille Day, the French Republic itself.

Another cafe

Without plunging into the colonial past, it's worth recalling the 1966 cinema masterpiece Battle of Algiers, which depicts the violent and victorious movement for Algerian independence from France. One scene expand=1] in particular shows a woman enter a crowded cafe to plant a handbag containing a bomb. We see the would-be terrorist look around and notice the smiling faces. There's a young child among them who would almost certainly die if she leaves the rigged device in the cafe. We see tension, even a glimmer of doubt, in the woman's face. She places the bag down as planned, and walks out. Boom.

Violence of course has been a means for both political and religious ends since humans first began to organize themselves in such ways. The storming of the Bastille after all was hardly an act of Gandhian nonviolent resistance. Since then, French ideals of freedom and equality have too often been an alibi for great swaths of historical arrogance and bloody errors. The freedom-loving U.S. where I was born and raised has, of course, had its own share of hubris that is more recent than either Napoleonic invasions or Algerian colonialism â€" and hardly disconnected from what's happening today in France.

But that scene from the movie came back to mind for another reason after the carnage in the south of France. It was the Nice attacker’s chosen method for killing that was striking. Unlike the conflicted terrorist in the Battle Of Algiers film, there is no nervous glance at the faces of those about to be blown up. The driver on the Promenade des Anglais aimed straight at his victims, like some kind of rudimentary human-guided bomb detonating over time and space.

There has been much said about the reported mental illness of the 31-year-old killer, about how he had only recently started following the radical Islamist ideology. Perhaps the nature of this attack was different from Paris, Istanbul, Baghdad or Manhattan? No. Even if the details are different, it's more of the same. And it is quite obviously, for lack of a better word, war. Needless to say, a very different war than the one for Algerian independence â€" both in its ends and means.

In the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, the British debated whether to join France and the U.S. in airstrikes against the Islamist State (ISIS) terror group in Syria. In a memorable speech in Parliament, Labour leader Hilary Benn, laid out what the West is up against with ISIS:

“We are here faced by fascists â€" not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in the chamber tonight, and the people we represent.

They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.”

But beyond military action abroad, the trickier question is how to fight this war on the home front, and not kill the ideals of the French Republic in the process.

Power of myths

In his 2011 book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari explains how the human race managed to rise from a relatively insignificant species to eventually conquer the planet, largely thanks to our unique ability for "mass cooperation." One of Harari's most provocative theses is that such cooperation â€" everything from the establishment of villages and nations to local business contracts and global religions â€" has been made possible for millennia by the use of "myths" that are (falsely) propagated as verifiable truths, based on divine authority or natural law, or both. In current terms, this would apply to both ISIS's bloodthirsty Islamist self-proclaimed caliphate, and the Enlightenment ideas of freedom, equality and human rights that were born somewhere between Philadelphia and Paris. Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Harari says: No, there is nothing either natural or "self-evident" in these or any other such principles.

Still, even if Jefferson and Lafayette were selling myths, centuries later so many of us can't imagine life without them, while others are still ready to die to obtain them. Despite the failings of the nations that have relied on them as organizing principles, the principles themselves continue to represent a path to human progress in the best sense of the term.

The more frightening lesson in Harari's book is that the sheer scale of human history makes our supposedly self-evident progress look immensely small and fragile. We must, with both care and commitment, fight for it. So here's to the "myth" of the French Revolution, and seeing you at the fireworks next summer.


*Jeff Israely is the editor of Worldcrunch

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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