The Anti-terror Virtual Country

Can literature prevent terrorism from spreading?

Vered Coehn Barzilay

Vered Cohen Barzilay

The recent terror attacks in Europe are another sign of the wearing away of the world’s morality.

Besides the absolute evil of taking innocent civilian lives—as we saw in the recent Paris attacks[1]—terror brings with it the wind of religious fundamentalism: dehumanizing the treatment of minorities; preventing education, particularly for women; damaging democracy; and preventing human rights. Usually, the wind of fundamentalism comes first, followed by murder.

The Guardian recently reported that, according to a landmark report by independent watchdog Freedom House, our democracy is at greater risk than it has been at any time in the past 25 years. People in nearly every part of the world are in danger of significant threats to their freedom, and the level of brutality under authoritarian regimes is at an all-time high.[2]

Terror has no borders—geographical or moral—and it is not exclusive to any religion, not Islam or any other religion in the world. Terror reaches into our neighborhoods, offices, streets, even our houses.

The Internet, together with the globalization process, has united the people of the world and blurred our geographical borders. We still live in countries, but we create different definitions for our borders and communities. We may live in Europe, for example, but still be part of a global community of organized terror.

This is how terror becomes a virtual country—with supporters spread all over the world. One of the methods of terror is to instill fear and horror. It forces us to feel unprotected. It makes clever use of marketing and social networks to communicate with its supporters, and rains terror upon the world through strategic terror attacks or through YouTube, as recently seen in ISIS’s release of horrific videos depicting the beheadings of its victims. Last reports from France suggest that Amedie Coulibaly used a GoPro camera[3] to document the terror attack at the Jewish Kosher supermarket in Paris. The next goal, experts warn, is to broadcast live from the terror arena.

The civilians of this “virtual terror country” are diverse. They can be the girl from school or the rapper down your street. They can be dragged to terror through social networks, where they were looking for adventure, or revenge, or even a romantic cause. Terror invades places where hope has ceased to exist, and influences people who have become invisible to the rest of society—those people we have failed to treat as equals, holding equal rights, in our communities. Terror promises that they will be heard, together with the erosion in morality—they will cross all red lines and take innocent lives in order to restore dignity to their names, families, or even religion.

These people are often recruited for a single strategic suicide terror attack, or for larger attacks operating in small groups. These attacks are usually never stopped.

Why have these terror attacks in France had such a strong impact (especially considering that, by comparison, the September 11 attacks in the US took the lives of three thousand people and caused at least $10 billion US in property and infrastructure damage)?

France is a world-renowned republic of democracy and liberty, a world symbol of accepting and integrating minorities, refugees, and working migrants. It is a symbol of socialism and progressive welfare policies. The terrorists not only murdered an innocent journalist and civilians, they also killed the concept that France is immune to the horror of the virtual terror country. The terror attack was mostly strategic, deliberately attacking the foundation of liberty—the freedom of speech.

The terrorists had two goals with their attack.  One: To send a message of horror to those who believe in freedom of speech and to narrow the global boundaries of the conversation. Yes, the solidarity shown by all world leaders is very impressive and inspiring; but at the same time, many in communications media worldwide have since the attacks censored Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures. A new decree that went into effect recently allows the French government to block websites accused of promoting terrorism, without seeking a court order. The regulations have been under consideration since 2011, but gained new momentum following terrorist attacks at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.[4]

The second goal was to send a message of bravery and sophistication to their virtual supporters by spreading the horror so strongly that it summoned all leaders to France. For people who feel that they aren’t heard or seen in their countries or by their leaders, this kind of attack will be most impressive, and it will help recruit more supporters to the virtual terror country. It will also most likely lead to similar terror attacks in other places in Europe or the world.

The only way to overpower the terror virtual country is to create an “anti-terror virtual country.”

Strong armies and sophisticated weapons are not enough. Yes, they are very important in fighting terror, but they will not stop the winds of terror from blowing. Armies will use the violent means of war to fight the violent people who choose the means of war. But they will not rebuild our democracy or ignite our solidarity. For these, we need the power of the pen.

We must create a strong global movement that will spread hope instead of horror; our weapon will not be guns or explosions, but the power of words, of literature. Our army will be authors and literature supporters, and we will spread our values through social media and the Internet. We will work in solidarity and accept all men and women as equal, no matter their race, gender or religion. We will adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as our “constitution” and turn back the winds of terror.

Why literature?

It is no coincidence that human rights came into vogue as the world’s first universal moral vocabulary at the same time that the Bildungsroman became a popular literary form—both of them equally privileging the individual autonomous being. While the UDHR is often criticized for this, literature can both conform to and subvert this conceptualization, providing a form of expression that can represent human experience (and rights) and narrate others’ stories freely and without prejudice. Literature’s ability to penetrate the consciousness of another individual is where it excels—and where it stands in solidarity with human rights.[5]

Literature creates and saves our morality. Since the beginning of humanity, people have exploited literature’s moral role, spreading morals and values through stories, first verbally and then in writing. Today, literature has lost much of its popularity among the public (in particular its young audience). Readers no longer consider literature as relevant or necessary to their lives.

According to Italy’s National Institute of Statistics in 2013, 57% of the population of that country had never read a book for nonacademic or nonprofessional reasons—indeed, some 10% of Italian households reported not owning a single book. According to the 2013 Survey of Adult Skills by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nearly 70% of the country is unable to “understand and respond appropriately to dense or lengthy texts.”[6] Another survey published in 2013 revealed that in the UK almost 4 million adults never read books for pleasure, and 25% of Americans over the age of 16 had not read a book that year.[7]

There is a strong connection between the deterioration of the popularity of literature and the growth of empathy, especially among young people, toward terror in the world.

Literature can help save our moral global foundations. It helps us analyze and express deep feelings and communicate better. It encourages us to raise and solve problems, and to express our grief, history, or anger.

The Novel Rights movement[8] brings literature back into popularity. It re-engages the young potential supporters of the virtual terror country with morality through literature. It open up new communication with them and offer them a way to be heard.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), who lived through the two most traumatic wars of humanity, developed the theory of “engaged literature” as part of his leadership in the French resistance during the second world war. He published it first in his magazine Les Temps modernes (Modern Times) and later in 1947 in his book What Is Literature?![9] His words reflect our resolve and we must use them in order to overpower the growth of the virtual terror country:

“If the writer is imbued, as I am, with the urgency of these problems, one can be sure that he will offer solutions to them in the creative unity of his work, that is, in the indistinctness of a movement of free creation. There is no guarantee that literature is immortal. Its chance today, its only chance, is the chance of Europe, of socialism, of democracy, and of peace. We must play it.  If we writers lose it, too bad for us. But also, too bad for society. …If it were to turn into pure propaganda or pure entertainment, society would wallow in the immediate, that is, in the life without memory of hymenoptera and gasteropods. Of course, all of this is not very important. The world can very well do without literature. But it can do without man still better.”[10] 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo_shooting

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/28/global-democracy-at-risk-warns-watchdog

[3] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/paris-magazine-attack/paris-kosher-supermarket-attacker-amedy-coulibaly-was-wearing-gopro-n297386

[4] http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/9/8003907/france-terrorist-child-pornography-website-law-censorship

[5] Challenging power, shattering silence?

Understanding gendered human rights violations through literature

[6]  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/22/opinion/a-ray-of-literary-hope-on-italian-tv.html?_r=0

[7]   http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/14/4-million-uk-adults-never-read-books

[8] www.novelrights.org

[9] https://archive.org/details/whatisliterature030271mbp

[10] SITUATION OF THE WRITER IN 1947 Pages: 296, 297