Exterior. 11:30 a.m. A stylish black Citroën screeches to a halt in the middle of a Paris street. Two men armed with Kalashnikov rifles exit the vehicle and storm into the headquarters of a controversial newspaper. They open fire on the ground-floor receptionists, forcing one of them to unlock the door to the building’s upper level, where editorial staff are working through the final stages of an upcoming edition.
All but one of the people in the conference room is shot dead by the men. He survives by hiding under the table. The killers leave the building and are confronted by police. A gunfight ensues. A police officer is shot. As he lies wounded on the street, hands above his head in an act of supplication, one of the masked men approaches. With an almost casual ruthlessness, he shoots the officer at point-blank range in the head. The men get back into the car and make their getaway.
What happens next? The partner of the dead police officer and the sole survivor of the conference-room massacre team forces and hunt down the perpetrators? It’s what you’d expect if it were a Hollywood film treatment you were reading. But it isn’t. It’s a summary of Thursday morning’s news reports, following last Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Paris. In real life, as we’ve since seen, it takes hundreds of special forces officers and commandos to settle such scores.
A terrorist attack, like a shark attack, ‘wields tremendous psychological impact,’ writes Jeff Victoroff from the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Southern California. They are “rare, but awesome, deriving almost mystical significance by virtue of the suddenness, drama, and outrageousness of [their]violence”.
Suddenness, drama, outrageous violence: certainly we have all of those things here in spades. Just as we have them in almost every Hollywood action ever made (no shortage of which take their setting in the city of lights, either – Ronin, Taken, A View to Kill, From Paris with Love, The Bourne Identity… the list goes on).
But what’s the point of linking the two here? Certainly it isn’t to trivialise the events that have taken place in past week or to make them seem like light entertainment. Nor is it to suggest that Hollywood films are to blame for inciting such indecent attacks. Although, research would suggest there may be a link between the motivation to commit terrorist acts and the popularity of films which romanticise similar kinds of violence.
As film producers and script writers know all too well, the appeal of watching Liam Neeson or Robert de Niro or Matt Damon expend cartridge after cartridge as they fell body after body is only further heightened by the juxtaposition of the setting. We enjoy the brutality these actors portray all the more when it’s played out against a backdrop of cobblestoned streets and flower-potted balconies. Somehow, it makes the violence seem even more sudden and unexpected, the cold-bloodedness even more extreme. In short, it thrills us.
Have we enjoyed opening the newspapers and turning on the television over the past week? Emphatically, no. However, like the words ‘great white shark’ and the toothy image they bring to mind, there is something about the news, about the grainy pictures of those hooded assailants brandishing their assault rifles that thrills us.
There’s a link here to cognitive theories of terrorism that suggest one of the most alluring features of being involved in a terrorist attack is the fulfilment of an innate need for risk-taking behaviour and elevated stimulation. Such theories go some way toward explaining why the prototypical terrorist is a young male. In part, it’s the same reason why those most likely to play violent video games or to take part in paintball or base jumping are young males: because this is the demographic where the compulsion toward extreme behaviour is most forceful. If it made your heart race to read the first paragraph of this article, imagine what it did for the trio who acted it out.
Unlike the attack that took place in Sydney last month, where a much older male bunkered himself down in a café with a group of hostages until the early hours of the morning when, on the verge of sleep, his threat toward violence was precipitated toward realisation, the violence here came on suddenly and without warning. It came on explosively. If, indeed, we are to classify it as an act of terrorism, as French President François Hollande was quick to do, then it surely makes for a more potent one than that which occurred in Martin Place.
This is not only because the loss of life was higher, but because as an act of terrorism it’s more successful in its two-pronged objective. In the first instance, it can be understood as a violent reaction to a perceived act of oppression and humiliation, as terrorism or “freedom fighting” commonly is. This newspaper had a history of courting controversy – particularly where Islamic extremism was concerned. Apparently, the terrorists saw it as their duty to avenge perceived indecencies against their faith. Reprehensible as it was, there’s logic at work here.
In the second instance, a widely-used definition of terrorism suggests that its goal is primarily that of influencing target audiences, rather than affecting immediate change through action. So, which target audience is this most recent attack likely to influence? Publishers? Cartoonists? Intervening police officers? Perhaps, perhaps and perhaps. But, almost certainly, would-be terrorists. Such attacks make for highly-effective recruitment tools. All the more so when the perpetrators pull off an air of “Hollywood cool” in carrying out their deeds.
Violence in drama is cathartic. Aristotle noted as much 2500 years ago. Psychoanalysis posits similarly: we quell our appetite for destruction through artistic mimicry (among other things). Fortunately, in most cases, even the brashest young men can distinguish between real life and make-believe, and know that what goes in film doesn’t necessarily go on in real life. Except, of course, when the “film” they’re watching is a piece of news footage.
In its somewhat inadvertent role as a piece of recruitment propaganda, the Paris attack has a frighteningly powerful message. It says, ‘Here’s your chance to fire on cop cars and screech tyres around the Arch de Triomphe… and not just on your computer screens, either!’
Excitement like this has the power to override logic. Which, sadly, is why Tony Abbott is quite right when he says ‘we can expect more of this.’
Like a spate of bad sequels that refuses to go away, terrorism is a production that feeds off its own hype, always trying to outdo precursory instalments with bigger explosions and higher body counts. Only, of course, in this case there’s no-one to yell ‘cut’ at the end of it all.
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