Trauma and Its Symbols

Discussions I’ve had or seen around the 13th of November terrorist attacks on Paris eventually arrive at the same point: “Where is the recognition for the other recent victims of terrorism?” or “What about Beirut?” or “Where was the outcry about Boko Haram?" or "Remember when that MSF Hospital in Kunduz was bombed?"

Apparently nothing short of total compassionate victory will do. Demonstrating your compassion through the nomination of significant horrors in the world is the de facto strategy; the more obscure, tragic, and numerous the casualties, the more treasured a place it holds in the total compassionate war playbook. As though by acknowledging other victims (or that most favoured nation of Internet activism, ‘creating awareness’) your grief is more authentic, more real, than everyone else's.

The Paris attacks affect us in a way these other tragedies, no less tragic on their own, do not. The cognitive distance is less and the strangeness is heightened. Paris the symbol, its visibility and its prominence, is key to understanding why the night of the 13th of November feels different to the night of the 12th of November.

I'd like to set aside race as an issue here, if only because I’m horribly unqualified to discuss it, but it cannot be ignored; the disproportionate response is informed by undoubtedly racist attitudes. We undoubtedly see the Parisian victims differently to those in Lebanon, Iraq, Bangladesh. The question is not whether our response, or lack thereof, to these attacks is racist; the question we need to answer is whether we can acknowledge the horror and grief of these attacks, stand strong against those who perpetrate them, and be compassionate and supportive to their victims.

The question is whether we can chew gum and walk at the same time.


Terror and its maleficent works need symbols in order to function; they are asymmetrical assaults designed to goad a response and deliver a message. Much as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center required their symbol of American capitalism to be destroyed, they are also inextricably linked to it. Horrific as they were in their own right, they were also designed to become iconic, memorable shorthand for an idea. Terrible as it may be, they are likely to become the iconic image of the early 21st century.

We are foolish to view these attacks in any sort of different light. In its attempt to distract from real and serious losses of territory and military strength, Daesh have assaulted a deeply symbolic part of their enemy.

Paris holds a special place in the western imagination. The city of lights, love, food, and culture has been a beacon of civilisation for hundreds of years. France, more broadly, is perhaps one of the central melting pots of western ideology; the French Revolution cemented the idea of republicanism and representative democracy, while the Declaration of the Rights of Man set out some of the rights we now take for granted in civil society. We have visited it, or loved it from afar, for a very long time.

The history of the English speaking world is deeply linked to France in terms of culture, language, and philosophy. Many of us can probably speak enough French to say bonjour, merci, au revouir. We might be lucky enough to eat croissants on the regular. We may even be lucky enough to understand existentialism, Marcel Duchamp, French new-wave cinema, or to have fallen in love with Les Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain, The Closet, The Three Musketeers, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, The Triplets of Belleville, or twelve little girls in two straight lines.

In the output of our popular culture, how many times has the United States rescued France from the tyranny of Nazism?

An attack on the symbols of this culture is an assault on our culture. We feel it in a different way. We understand it differently.


Perhaps more than any other terror organisation since Nazi Germany, Daesh have understood and manipulated the power of symbols to craft a narrative around their despicable movement. You can probably recall the Daesh flag as easily as you can the swastika, but it’s deeper than mere graphics. Understand that this group is also reliant on the propagation of these symbols in order to maintain and bolster its support.

The declaration of a caliphate is a symbol. The use of a black flag is a symbol with a long and powerful history. The torture, murder, beheadings, and horrific practices are symbols. Their use of social media focuses on symbolic rather than factual communication, bypassing language and cultural barriers through reversion to brutal and universal imagery.

In order to combat this imagery, we need to see it for what it is: designed and distributed memes of fear, a dark and twisted reflection of doge, big success, and salad fingers. Their power comes from their ease of communication and the immediacy of their absorption into a narrative which has been building and fomenting since the religious wars of the first millennium.

It is designed to create fear and alienation. It is working.

Our fear is driving our politicians into a pandering frenzy of ever more authoritarian solutions. Identity cards. Mass deportation. The denial of sanctuary. Protests against mosques. Violence towards Muslims. The anger and fractious displays of disharmony and racism at protests across the country. The casual discussion around ‘all those Muslims’ at the water cooler in the office, as if we could summarise the collective will and desires of over a billion people in a single sentence so lacking in imagination, compassion, and sympathy that you wonder whether your colleague has been secretly reading cue cards for all your other interactions.

These are the responses of fear.

We need to meet this fear with clear hearts, open minds, and welcome arms. That means not prosecuting others grief; we should instead use that grief as a tool through which we can understand and extend the liberty, equality, and fraternity to which France has pledged itself.