Victoria Marie Page. 16.01.2016

Terror – a feeling of extreme fear. A person who uses extreme fear for political purposes – a terrorist. These definitions are conceptually broad yet contextually narrow. A “terrorist”, a Muslim – “Arab” in origin, potentially born on European soil, but “radicalised” in the Middle East – this is the embodied image that the media and politicians espouse. Religion. Muslims, made into a “race”. Hannah Arendt states that terror is significant because it is more than solely psychological warfare; terror outlasts the achievement of psychological aims – ‘its real horror is that it reigns over a completely subdued population’. [1] The terror of Friday the 13th in Paris. Terror does not subside with the suicide or killing of the terrorists involved. It outlasts the act, it remains present, at the fore of (Western) public consciousness. The news headlines; the front cover image; militarised police on the morning commute; loudspeaker prompts to remain vigilant and report any “suspicious behaviour”; foiled attacks; planes turned around; potential threats; a football game; blue white and red lights; the affect  that racialized and veiled bodies now carry. Confusion. “Terror”, reproduced with every retelling of the event, image shared, stories of the dead, dying injured. Instilled with fear.

Arendt says that in totalitarian countries ‘propaganda and terror present two sides of the same coin’. A foreign currency in use. Propaganda? Propagating fear? Fear of who? Totalitarian propaganda stops the masses from ‘believing in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust in their eyes and ears but only their imaginations’.[2] This propaganda ‘thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency’.[3] Sitting on the tube, opposite me, on their phones, reading a paper, people chatting – all activities my senses are over-accustomed to, so that they no longer note them. Everything is what is called the “ordinary”. I do not see it. Gunmen storm the carriage, wrapped in explosive belts; I quickly assess the space. Where can I go to shield my body? How small and invisible can I become? My mind’s eye tricks me. A psyche terrorized. It is not reality that I seek to escape, it is the fiction, the infallible prophecy.

‘The world is not a safe place to live in. We shiver in separate cells in enclosed cities, shoulders hunched, barely keeping the panic below the surface of the skin, daily drinking shock with our morning coffee, fearing the torches being set to our buildings, the attacks in the streets. Shutting down’.[4]

Reality and fiction are distinct for Arendt. In fiction, ‘uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks’ of human existence.[5] But, this isn’t totalitarianism. This is democracy. Fiction is filled with terror; rather than escape, fiction fixes my mind elsewhere; taken from the people on their phones in the tube to the non-real. Presence in the present, gone; instead I am transported to Paris, 13/11, London, 07/07. In reality, my presence there is fictitious. But where is the boundary placed, between Arendt’s reality and fiction? Is there such as a thing as an objective reality? Is reality not an act of consciousness, be that individual or collective? If my consciousness fills my imagination with thoughts and things that are not, in that moment, materially before my eyes, am I outside of reality? “Reality” requires a conscious mind to become “real”, but is this divided into chapters of “real” consciousness and “fictitious” consciousness?  Does my conscious not flow across pages, unbounded in time or space? Arendt states that Nazi propaganda on ‘a Jewish world conspiracy was transformed by totalitarian propaganda from an objective, arguable matter into a chief element of the Nazi reality’.[6] Reality, then is fluid, shifting and political.

Bias in reporting. The “Islamic State” has their bias, Europe has hers. Clearly I am biased to the latter. But there is an economy of fear at play here. Terror is strategic. Not simply death, but a death that follows a moment of terror – it is the terror in this moment that is made to be feared, those moments of life before death. The infallible prophecy – ‘mass leaders in power have one concern which overrules all utilitarian considerations: to make their predictions come true’[7]. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack it is said, “we must intervene otherwise they will attack and kill us again”, or rather, “if we don’t intervene more, they will attack and kill us again”. Each time more. The cycle continues. ‘The claim inherent in totalitarian organization is that everything outside the movement is “dying,” a claim which is drastically realized under the murderous condition of totalitarian rule’.[8] Though, this is “democracy”, and the 132 who died in Paris were not murdered by their government. But the prophecy self-fulfils. The “War on Terror” rhetoric demands the killing of Islamic extremists, otherwise new ones will be radicalised and terrorist attacks against the West will continue. Bombing sites in the Middle East, civilians and “terrorists” become merged, Western forces indeed kill some “extremists”, but also the “non-extreme”, the civilian. Each time, more bombing, more death, more fuel is thrown to the fodder.

The actors and the context differs. This is not WWII nor the Nazis or Bolshevists whom Arendt tries to make sense of. This is terrorism against a multitude of targets; Western states and people are included, but let it not be forgotten that the majority of victims of terrorism are not from the West, but are Nigerian, Kenyan, Indian, Syrian, Muslims, Jews, Christians and so on. The death of the non-Western, non-“white” is never made to matter as much. Distanced, spatially, mentally, we are placed. “Us”– and “them” outside. But where are the non-“us” victims? The “them” victims? A third, fourth, fifth group excluded.

Security. Anything in the name of “security”. Everything. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Sacrificed to be protected. What? The pieces crash into each other. “Rights” are only for the “hu[man]”. Being man in a particular way. Stripped naked. Nationally unmarked. Killable, but not sacrificial, outside of national “reality”.

There is a strategic framing of terrorism and use of it for state-building. Not disavowed. Terrorism, the threat of terror, is kept alive in people’s minds. At the front of peoples imaginary, straddling fiction and reality. It must not be forgotten, it must continue to “terrorise” in order to discipline. Not the same as the murderous acts of terrorism, it nonetheless helps to solidify state-making and control over populations.


Image from:

[1] Arendt, H. (1951) The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man. In The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken Books: 244

[2] Ibid: 351

[3] ibid: 352

[4] Anzaldua, G (2007), Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Fourth Edition. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco: 42

[5] Arendt: 353

[6] Ibid:362

[7] ibid: 349

[8] ibid: 381