We should relegate terrorists to the obscurity of their own infamy

There are at least three reasons why we should stop publicising the names of violent jihadists who commit acts of terror. The first is that by doing so – by publishing and republishing their faces, living or (especially) dead – they become globally recognised characters in the showbusiness side of this terrorist war, thus fulfilling one of their keenest desires. Consider how during the Bataclan siege in Paris the killers demanded that their hostages call news channels in the moments before the massacre. The radical Islamist who attacked the kosher supermarket the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders took time to phone one of those channels to demand that it correct the banner it was using to identify him. And is it by chance that the mass murderer in Nice left his identity card in his truck for all to see?

The second reason is that by going into detail, as we are wont to do, about these zombie lives – by following the trail from a childhood that is invariably “unhappy” to a “sudden” radicalisation, by dwelling on the putative “mystery” of a monster who also happened to be a good father, a normal husband, a friendly neighbour always willing to lend a hand – we are taking the shortest route to the banalisation of evil, which we have long known to be a grave danger.

Why do we need to be told, for example, that the man who slit the throat of a priest in Normandy had a “brilliant personality”? What useful information are we getting when we are shown, over and over, the widow of one of the Charlie Hebdo killers telling us that even now, a year on, she still hasn’t uncovered the slightest warning of her mysterious husband’s radicalisation?

Was it really necessary to have spent so many years fighting the culture of excuses to now hand the stage over to the “best friend” of the Nice killer so that he can tell us that the latter was a “fantastic”, “almond-eyed” guy who once had proclaimed “Je suis Charlie” but who, alas, was so “frustrated” that he mock-murdered stuffed animals and that his “borderline” personality pushed him over the edge?

There is in this unending, often pathetic, chronicle of horror a way of neutralising the conscience; and, on the pretext of showing us the face of the criminal, a way of blinding us to what makes it so revolting.

The third fundamental reason that should convince the media not to focus on names whose hypnotic repetition has become the rhythm of our time (or perhaps to refer to them only by first names or initials, and so deny them the limelight) is that the present unstable mixture of trivialisation and glorification – in which we are told that these are ordinary people who happen to have hitched their fate to unforgettable acts – will have the worst possible consequence: a copycat effect; an invitation to vulnerable minds to follow their example and to commit similar acts; a taste of the global glory their role models gain after their deaths.

The mechanism is well known. It is what the French philosopher René Girard was describing when he emphasised the mimetic aspect of violence in general – and of terrorism in particular.

It is what Marshall McLuhan condemned at the height of the terror in Italy, when people were wondering whether it was appropriate to publish the statements issued by the Red Brigades. The author of War and Peace in the Global Village was so thoroughly convinced the war would ultimately play out in the theatre of the media that he proposed a news blackout on the acts of armed groups – an overly radical proposal that was nevertheless partly implemented by the Italian press.

But even earlier – at the end of the 19th century – witnesses to the first great wave of attacks that shook modern France had reached the same conclusion. A president had been stabbed to death and bombs were being set off in the national assembly and in cafes. For nightmarish months, readers of Le Temps, Le Journal and Le Petit Illustré woke each morning dreading the sight on the front pages of the name and picture of a new Ravachol or another imitator of Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry, to name just three prominent figures in what was then called “anarchism”. France was petrified.

Terrorism, in this age of Islamist extremism, has reached new peaks in the refinement of horror. But what has not changed is the principle of morbid contagion, the apparently endless viral transmission from body to body, the chain reaction of names that inspire and are inspired by other names.

Of course, no one would claim that refraining from mentioning terrorists’ names is enough to break the chain of imitation.

First, because the reign of the supposedly social networks has greatly limited the power of traditional newspapers.

Second, because jihadism has many other roots – deep roots – not in communication, but in forms of religion and fascism.

And were terrorist X to be deprived of the dizzying pleasure of associating his name with that of terrorist Y in the new dark phalanx, he would still have that other, just as great, pleasure: imagining himself absorbed into the chanted name of an immutable God. Or yet another pleasure, no less delectable, of seeing two names – his own and that of the Almighty – cast in the same lead of the same nihilism.

Still, disarming one trigger among three, four, or even more – is that not worth doing? In this total war that has been declared against us, should each of us not resist as best we can, where we can, where we have responsibility, where life and our occupation have placed us?

And would it not be something to see the engineers of opinion, by refusing to serialise infamy, try to jam at least one of the engines of a machine that is now hurtling along at full tilt? We have to make the best of where we are.

We need a broad agreement within the media to limit descriptions of terrorist criminals to no more than the bare essentials.

Against all the mock heroism and copycat productions that bring us into unwitting complicity with violent jihadism, we need to relegate the terrorists to the deserved obscurity of infamous men.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher, author and film-maker. Translated from French by Steven B Kennedy.

The philosopher Michael answers him: Terroristes : montrer pour ne pas nier.

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