Killing Fields

Anti-Sarkozy protest. France, 2007.

I was at a party when I first heard news of the Paris attacks. My friend and I curled around her phone, scrolling through the grisly details: two explosions close to Stade de France, gunmen attacking multiple restaurants, and an Eagles of Death Metal concert. 

I immediately began to filter the information through my own experiences with terrorism: in Oslo with two attacks by Norwegian white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik on July 22, 2011, and in Sana’a with an attack by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the Ministry of Defence compound on December 5, 2013.

This article is an attempt to unravel my reactions to those attacks. Beginning with Sana’a, given that I was in close physical proximity to the fighting, I will proceed to Oslo, where I stayed long enough after the violence to observe the pain and devastation wrought by Breivik’s actions. It will end with remarks aimed at people currently affected by events in Paris.

Explosions in Sana’a

After the assault on the Ministry of Defence compound, I sat in a computer lab near the Old City and wrote an emotional article called Explosions in Sana’a. I wrote it out of instinct: I wanted to possess the bloody deaths of fifty-two people, and injury of at least one hundred sixty-seven others, through literary output. As I read it today, it is obvious that I simply had not yet reflected on the complex emotions generated by the violence.

This is most clear when I speak of a body-mind divide, and how questions about my sexuality appeared to fuse with the terrorism in the Old City:

I leave the college and find my body gently pulling my mind through the city streets. We walk together into the Old City, and I bite my bottom lip at the sound of lively conversation, awash as it is with mentions of the military. My eyelashes bat at the millennium-old architecture. I feel a cold tingling at the base of my spine.

Is this what sex feels like?” My mind asks my body. “I feel so alive,” my body whispers in reply. More gunfire. More blasts. Sirens now. And we continue to drift together, dancing through the marketplaces, closer and closer to Bab al-Yemen.

In retrospect, I misread the situation completely. It is not that I felt a sense of sexual fulfilment as a result of the violence. Rather, the violence forced me to rally certain qualities that I identified with my then-repressed feminine sexuality, now housed in the identity of Zenab.

Military helicopter. Sana'a, 2008.
Helicopter surveillance. Sana’a, 2008.

My body didn’t separate from my mind. Instead, the two fused, because my reaction to the bloodshed was to encounter it more closely, in order to better understand the event itself, as well as the various forms of “un-death” that I found in other areas of the Old City.

I have always understood that engagement, in order to control violence through understanding and reflection, as a manifestation of my femininity. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I felt most like Zenab during the explosions and gunfire. My sexuality was forcing me to be productive during the attack (which scared me) and use writing to unravel its complexity. It was the most “womanly” that I ever felt, and it has taken nearly two years to acknowledge that.

I knew that I needed to confront the violence intellectually and emotionally, because it made everything less abstract. Once I could understand it as Zenab, in all its complexity, the events of that day could stop being frightening. Critically, I needed to understand the roots and results of what was happening in order to subvert its control over me:

A major part of the reason I felt the need to go to Bab al-Yemen, despite it being so dangerous, is because it prevented the violence from seeming like something abstract. When I can see that the violence is something tangible, I am able to navigate it far more easily. It becomes something that is an event, and can be rationalized. Then, it ceases to be as scary, and becomes something to think about.

Another is simply that I need to feel certain sensory things (“un-death”) in order to feel alive after seeing something traumatic. I need to hear people talking. I have to taste things again. All of these experiences reestablish my sense of bodily integrity, and anchor me into the present, from which I can move forward.

Later, I would find more somethings to think about: I looked up details about the two German aid workers that were killed, which was particularly difficult given that I was forced to relocate to Berlin in the aftermath of the assault, read extensively about the tactics that Yemeni forces used to retake the compound, and looked through the blueprints for the weapons and vehicles that were used (including the AK-47, M4, and Humvee).

I could only dissect the bloodshed as a result of this research. The German aid workers were no longer simply shot dead in Al-Thawra Hospital. They were sent to Yemen by the federal humanitarian agency GIZ. The Yemeni military responded the way it did because it was applying tactics influenced by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, the United States, and other state and non-state actors. Those guns, armed trucks, and suicide vests were all built somewhere, and either shipped or smuggled until they finally arrived at the compound that day.

Everything was the result of a concrete process, but if there is one thing I regret, it is that over the past two years, I have neglected the sense of “un-death” that I had taken such care to describe the day that it happened.

Law and order. Oslo, 2011
Law and order. Oslo, 2011

Explosions in Oslo

I was in the Oslo suburb of Haugenstua when Anders Behring Breivik’s car bomb detonated in the Norwegian government quarter of Regjeringskvartalet. Immediately after it happened, there was speculation on the BBC that the explosion “bore the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda,” which intensified after news broke that an unknown shooter had begun firing at a summer camp organised by the Norwegian Labour Party.

Ultimately, we learned that the attacks were executed by Breivik, who killed eight people and injured at least two hundred nine in Oslo, along with shooting sixty-nine dead and injuring at least one hundred ten at the summer camp on Utoya. Breivik’s manifesto cited Islam and immigration as his main grievances, as well as the multiculturalism of Norwegian liberal elites.

The BBC’s insistence that this was Islamic terrorism was suddenly contrasted by the fact that Breivik was clearly targeting liberal-left youth on the island, for being supportive of such things as immigration, and multiculturalism. I was visiting my uncle, who bitterly remarked, “whenever something like this happens, they always say, Muslim! Muslim! Muslim! Bastards.” For all the condemnations that followed, neither of us have ever forgotten the tone of those few hours. Racism was the automatic reflex to an incident of violence that itself turned out to be racist.

Breivik was arrested. Regjeringskvartalet was cleared. Utoya was evacuated. Slowly, the despair began to set in. Norway was experiencing its most traumatic moment since World War II. I had never seen such an immense outpouring of grief, with the streets filled with mourners who felt a mixture of anger, sadness, and confusion about what would happen next. I sat quietly with my Norwegian friends one evening as they huddled around the television, breaking into tears at the sight of the King of Norway weeping at a church service.

Even despite Europe’s ongoing tendency to blame people like me and my uncle for its problems, what happened was unbearable. This misery was necessary, and it could potentially lead to a determined zeal to tackle the root causes of Breivik’s extremism. Still, I left Norway that summer hoping that I would never have to experience it again. That changed when my windows rattled after a suicide blast about two and a half years later. When I read myself discussing “un-death” in the Old City, I remember Oslo on those few days. It was a process of communal grieving that opened the possibility of maintaining egalitarian and multicultural values in the face of terrorism, rather than embracing what was then being called a loss of national innocence.

Yes to order. Paris, 2012.
National Front rally. Paris, 2012.

Explosions in Paris

Is this Europe’s September 11? That remains to be seen. What we can say is that the attacks in Paris will continue to energise reactionary movements in France. It is difficult to be optimistic about the country’s political situation, which nurtures the National Front as much as it does mujahideen that are willing to fight and die for Islamic State. Decades of market-friendly economic policy have combined with Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ National Front-like emphasis on the rule of law, and President Francois Hollande’s weak leadership, to produce a state of emergency that poses a serious threat to European democracy.

I have seen photos of Parisians running from the attackers that remind me of how I felt when a group of us ran from artillery fire in the Old City. The horror in their faces is as disturbing as it is familiar. Unfortunately, rather than leading a comprehensive understanding, and eventual overcoming, of their grief, the French political establishment is catering to a sense of national panic and uncontrollable rage.

It seems inevitable that rather than Norway, France will be the country that actually loses its “national innocence.” When non-Norwegian commentators were using the phrase, they were presuming that Norway would respond to a possible Al-Qaeda attack with unprecedented militarisation. Essentially, Norway was supposed to turn into the United States and United Kingdom, or at least Sweden after the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme. That didn’t happen. Instead, we are seeing that ‘transformation’ occur where it was always more likely: France, politically regressing in the face of Islamic terrorism, and refusing to face the immense poverty and racism that runs at its core.

This process has been made possible by obvious differences in how we discuss terrorist attacks, and grieve those affected by them. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I wrote that there has been “an obvious disparity of mourning” between the dozen French journalists that were killed in Paris, and the 7,655 Pakistanis that died in 2014 as a result of terrorism, militant attacks, drone strikes, sectarian violence, targeted killings, and security operations. Achille Mbembe critiques Foucault in his essay Necropolitics, and argues for the existence of “necropower.”

Mbembe argues that necropower is defined by the deployment of new weapons “in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creating of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.” As a result, deaths (for example as a result of terrorism) have less value in the death-worlds, and necessarily, more value in the spaces outside of them.

There is a reason that Europeans grieve Paris, Oslo, and Utoya, but not Karachi, Beirut, and Sana’a. The latter three have become death-worlds through imperial policy, and continue to occupy that position in the global order. The cost is that the feelings of “un-death” that I found in Sana’a, including those linked to my gender, and the communal grieving that I saw my friends experience in Oslo, can never fully happen. They are stunted as a result of how the mourning process becomes immediately channeled into reactionary impulses.

The question is whether or not the Norwegian response in 2011 can ever be viable. It could very well be that as the French left declines into irrelevancy, and populists continue their ascent to power, we are likely to see more terroristic violence, as well as victories by the far-right. Necropower has a deep impact on a national polity’s ability to recognise and mourn human disaster, which inevitably impacts policy developments, serious discussions about structural problems, and military interventionism abroad. If that continues in France, then attacks like those in Paris may become the new normal, and what’s more is that those affected by the violence will not be able to overcome it.

Photographs courtesy of philippe leroyer, Step, nrkbeta, and David Oranje. Published under a Creative Commons License.