The Invisible Armada

A sparrow scarecrow

Alain Brossat


“Terrorism” is a scareword intended to scare the sparrows – and the sparrows are us, supposedly. The ordinary people. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say here: pigeons, rather than sparrows [1]. “Terrorism” is one of those words that saturate the language of the masters, when they evoke what resists their influence, a term of hegemonic storytelling , a key language element aimed at disparaging any kind of uprising from below. It is a masterful (patrician) way of speaking about the insurgent plebs – particularly in colonial, neo-colonial configurations.

It is a word which has always been intended to disqualify and insult the insurgents, the resistance fighters, the partisans, the maquisards, the guerillas – those who are alien to State power. This is the code name for resistance and uprising, in the mouths of the watchmen of the janitors of political order. It is the name with which the victors bestow the vanquished engaged in infinite resistance.

It has become, through the force of habit and repetition, the kind of poisonous term that sticks to the teeth and lips of everyone, even critical observers of situations where the misuse of this term is obvious, as in Palestine/Israel today. There is, however, a very sure indicator which should push them to be circumspect, when they use this term (inseparable from its double - "terrorist"): this word, when it is used to designate the vital threat, the enemy to " eliminate”, the barbarity of “others” - dictatorial regimes, totalitarian autocracies and liberal democracies have it in common. It is a word that brings them together under the sign of the criminalization of the enemy and therefore in the perspective of its extermination. When, in the jargon of the Wehrmacht and Nazi propaganda, we talk about the elimination of a "terrorist gang" in occupied France, it is exactly the same discursive matrix that is at work as when the French general staff speaks of the liquidation of a group of Islamist terrorists (jihadists) in the context of Operation Barkane, in the Sahel – same code name intended to rule on the exterminability, without restriction or moderating rule, of a absolute enemy considered as a pest, foreign to the human community (in truth: to the community of which the State, whatever it may be, sets the contours and of which it establishes itself as the guarantor).

This consensus (bringing together political regimes whose political science strives to convince us that they are opposed in everything) around the magic words "terrorism", "terrorist" puts us on a track, the storytelling of total democracy contemporary does everything to divert us from: that of a hidden matrix, that of the forms of effectively terrorist violence to which the contemporary State resorts, as soon as it finds itself grappling with an opponent or an enemy in a conflict where an infinite wrong (tort) or a dispute (différend)  not soluble in any form of communication, negotiation or diplomacy is at stake.

It is always the same operation or the same gesture that is outlined when the word terrorism appears in the mouths of the masters: this term does not designate in the first place specific forms of violence, it names above all the status of " outlaw” of the one who sees him.herself associated with him. Indeed, both when Gérald Darmanin [2] describes the demonstrators against the Sainte-Soline mega-basin [3] as “eco-terrorists” and when a tailor-made jurisdiction rules on supposed offenses of “apology for terrorism” (which would be, for example, the doubt expressed aloud regarding the qualification of Hamas as a “terrorist” faction), we can appreciate the dizzying scope of the amalgamations and diversions to which these associations of words can give rise. We can clearly see that the discursive machine which tirelessly sets up and reactivates these magic words is a factory of imaginary crimes, a device intended to produce chains of equivalence between actions, behaviors and gestures devoid of any common measure. - hyperviolent operations such as the destruction of the Twin Towers or the assault on the Bataclan [4] and classic militant actions, but also sentences, statements – in short, opinions transformed into crimes in an ever more sticky climate of witch hunting.


What matters above all in the uses of this corrupt vocabulary (terrorism, terrorist) is the performative effect of its use – the making of the outlaw. What is revealed here is this trait common to dictatorial, authoritarian, totalitarian regimes and liberal democracies today; all share this crucial operation: the indispensable production of an absolute enemy, defined on the one hand by its irreversibly criminal essence and its exterminability, and understood on the other as that against which the "we" of the community is called to assert and defend itself. It is by ritualizing the rejection, execration and liquidation of the outlaw, of the terrorist as enemy of the human race, that we assert what we are in our own right: a community (of whatever kind) which can only prosper or survive on the condition that we to end with what constitutes for it (in the community fantasy stirred up by those in power and the elites) a vital threat.

most common proper names for this threat are “terrorism”, “terrorist”. Which allows us to move from the indefinite of the threat to the definite of the barbarian, with his terrible face and his unbearable irreducibility to the conditions of the masters of the world.

The words "terrorist", "terrorism" have the function, in the language of hegemony, of drawing an insurmountable line of separation between the world of white-democratic-Western civilization-global North (molar and major world, in perpetual struggle for the safeguarding of its identity and its supremacy), and that which opposes it, or even, just escapes its grasp. Terrorism, according to this dividing line, is indissolubly associated with the barbarian. This is a discursive production, an imaginary construction, but which, in the world of total democracy, imposes its regulation in a very imperative manner. This is the reason why, in the French press, the warlike action carried out by Hamas on October 7 is ritually described as "terrorist" and "barbaric" while the industrial terror exercised by the Israeli army on Gaza, the planned and regulated urbicide of the city of Gaza then extended by the continuation of the aerial destruction of the entire enclave (in practice: genocide and ethnic cleansing) are never associated with these two terms.

These terms are all the more practical in use as they apply to the absolute enemy both internally and externally. It is the nomenclature adapted to an age characterized by the erasure or obsolescence of the distinction between the internal enemy and the external enemy. Liberal democracies, like authoritarian or, even more, totalitarian regimes, have a pressing need for this vocabulary intended to give credence to the idea that, our societies being constantly exposed to vital threats (the hydra of terrorism, not global warming, rest assured), the exceptional means and the exorbitant powers of the police must find the force of law everywhere.

Liberal democracies are always more authoritarian and brutal as far as that they can less and less do without the figure, the fetish of the absolute enemy – they revolve, they fuel themselves with threat, risk, vital danger - and terrorism is the perpetual alibi of this quest for legitimacy associated with the protection of populations, security, and the repression of real or supposed threats. Terrorism is the justification for anti-terrorism, which gives States, starting with liberal democracies, unlimited credit in terms of setting up (and legitimizing) exceptional measures. The essentialization of the figure of the “terrorist”, a scarecrow with variable geometry, is what justifies the continued expansion of security systems in a horizon where the exception tends to become the rule.

It is a contaminating figure which not only affects the practices of repressive institutions (police, justice, army, etc.) but the entire functioning of democratic societies – people get used to the fact that daily life itself has been placed under the sign of a multitude of exceptions, of practices associated with emergency, security or otherwise. The promotion of the figure of the terrorist as the incarnation of barbaric otherness, of blind violence (unlike that of States which is never blind), of the cataclysmic threat - this figure is inseparable from the rise of authoritarian paradigms in liberal democracies. The more the welfare state is torn to pieces, the more we are doomed to govern by  highlighting the terrorist threat – a motive whose specificity is to make the fantastical inseparable from the real.

The terrorist has become the all-security fetish par excellence in our societies. Its promotion has the effect (and undoubtedly destination) of making indecipherable, in its political function, the original figure to which this signifier refers: terror. Against this process of fantasmatic and ornamental fetishization of terror in the form of “terrorism” (a nebula, by definition) and “terrorist”, intended to blur the lines, we must return to the primary meaning of the words: terrorism, is a practice, set of practices, or operations intended to inspire terror – both to those to whose detriment they are carried out and to those who, in varying capacities and positions, are spectators. The terrorist is, in this sense, quite simply the agent of these practices or operations. As such, he can be all kinds of things - not in particular an individual subject usually identifying himself as a figure associated with evil, a bloodthirsty monster, a criminal madman, a Bin Laden, but also, a collective subject, a power, an institution, a device, etc.

But precisely, in our societies, “terrorism” as a fetish, as the big bad wolf, has become a dramaturgical issue of the first magnitude, the object of a staging and an intrigue consisting of making the figure coincide of terror with that of the monster, the barbarian, the absolute other, by giving it a face or faces that have entered the cycle of technical reproduction and therefore become obsessive.

The policy of close-ups, of excessive personalization (Bin Laden) and all the black magic (or the Grand Guignol - melodrama) that goes with it (a policy of excessive facialization of terror) aims to make terror undetectable without any particular face, the institutional terror, powerfully armed (armed), that of the States. The more terror (individual, artisanal, associable with restricted rebel groups, “rogue” fighters) has singular face(s), the more it finds itself decoupled in the present narrative of massive terror exercised by States, generally to the detriment of populations and not enemies of the same status as them [5]. A terror whose main, but not exclusive, form is air policing, aerial terror. The characteristic of this is that it occurs in conditions of absolute asymmetry: there is no confrontation, battle, test of strength – those who drop the bombs and who trigger the missiles keep out of reach of those who they kill and whose living environment they destroy – this terror is, as such, exercised by a bureaucracy of white-handed crime, essentially, but not exclusively, military. Its horizon is not war but rather the police in a general sense, punitive expeditions and reprisals carried out in the name of the right of the strongest disguised in defense of universal values, democratic principles and human rights... and whose outcome is, as yesterday in Iraq or Afghanistan and today in Gaza, the blind “blood-letting” of populations and the destruction of their living environment – culminating, in the last case, with the ethnic cleansing associated with the genocide.

On a continuous basis, the maintenance of hegemony, understood as organized chaos, requires the regulated, recurring, strategic and tactical recourse to terror, to state terrorism.

The specificity of this is its industrial and technological form, inseparable as such from the organizing principles and modalities of collective existence in the countries of the global North: efficiency, technical rationality, close association with science, division of work, complexity of processes leading from decisions to results, etc. This is one of the reasons (not the only one, there are more directly political ones as well) why the opinions of Western countries, of Western democracies, do not associate anything particularly monstrous and barbaric with this terror and the exterminationist procedures which extend them: the technologies intended to inflict mass death are the same as those that we associate in our societies with the production of life, in its economic dimension, but not only, in its most advanced forms in particular: see the current use of artificial intelligence by the Israeli air force in planning bombings in Gaza; see the omnipresence of drones in the conflicts currently underway, in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Ultra-technological, associated with science, based on the distance between the perpetrators (the killers at the controls) and their victims, this terror is perceived as “clean”, sanitized, administrative by the populations of the Global North – quite the opposite of the strong and repulsive (bloody) images usually associated with terrible words deriving from the root word - terror. The usual guise of state terror is that of the global police, an inevitable recourse against fanatics and their dangerous blindness. Its exterminationist, eradicating horizon remains in the blind spot of “democratic” opinions. And yet, to the very extent that this terror is industrial in form, it is indeed exterminating: it affects populations, the masses, people in an indiscriminate manner, it does not differentiate between civilians and soldiers, it is all but “targeted” (latest news: an armed drone released “inadvertently” on a group of civilians confused with insurgents, in Nigeria – 82 dead ( Le Monde , 5/12/23).

The regime of terror is one which consists very precisely of carrying out reprisals on the populations, of massacring and terrorizing them by subjecting them to massive bombings, under the pretext of tracking down terrorists cowardly using these populations as “human shields”. But what the massive bombings intended to wipe out Gaza show is that their effective target is the human mass itself, which it is a question of reducing (by exhausting and decimating it) to a pure condition of survival, prelude to ethnic cleansing. Under the hunt for “terrorists”, the war of conquest continues, and which, more than ever, is in full swing. What is currently underway in Gaza is the last (provisionally) of the wars of colonial conquest led by a white power, the one which is supposed to avenge, finally, the loss of empires and more recent routs (in Afghanistan, in the Sahel...).

The war against terrorism remains, in general, the mask and the alibi for the defense and promotion by the global West of its "wide open spaces" and its private preserves: the Middle East and its oil reserves (among others ), Sahelian Françafrique until recent disappointments, the Korean peninsula and friendly Japan placed under the threat of North Korean “nuclear terrorism”, etc.

The cloud of dust, particularly dense at the moment, deployed in the global West around terrorism, aims to make indiscernible a truth that is both massive and elementary: terror has always been part of the means and tools of politics, understood here in its most extensive sense, and in particular as the political domain is never entirely separated from that of war. The discursive proliferations of which we are witnesses and hostages today have this very distinct function: to make us forget the persistence of this use of the terrible-terrifying-terrorizing , in the politics of States and legitimized powers; terror must always remain the act of the other and his mark of infamy, which defines him not only as the enemy of the moment, but, structurally, as the enemy of civilization. Behind the discursive proliferations around fear-inducing words (terrorism, terrorist), the war of civilizations is always looming. The terrorist belongs to a species , he (more vrarely she) identifies with a type – see the American TV series on this subject. This species bears all the signs of a radical otherness which makes it the very antagonist of white civilization; it maintains strong elective affinities with violence and fanaticism – hence the ease with which, in the liberal democracies of the Global North, the figure of the Palestinian can be superimposed on that of the terrorist. Hence the infinite tolerance of Western opinions towards what appears to be counterterrorism: the destruction of the Palestinian people by the terror apparatus of the Israeli state.

Formerly and recently, in the West, terror as a means of asserting power, as a figure of sovereignty, was associated with extreme regimes or characters, it was constantly allied to the exception – the Terror under the French Revolution (or the Bolshevik dictatorship), the fascist regimes, notably Italian and German... Today, terror has found itself integrated, at the heart of the police of hegemony, into the "normal" systems implemented by the Western democracies to combat what stands in the way of the expansion of their power, that is to say the “total democratization” of the world which constitutes the horizon line of the strategists of the hegemonic bloc. The more the terror practiced by States (the democracies of the Global North in particular) is technological, bureaucratic, associated with the notion of maintaining global order, and the more it is normalized in the eyes of Western opinions, virtuous, almost; unassailable as a principle, its all-too-visible abuses regularly falling into the category of blunders, accidents and collateral damage. 

By contrast, at the same time, the “minor” ( “mineur” - Deleuze) actions of counter-terror practiced by the damned of hegemony (here, the Palestinians not only as a punished people but as a people to whom the very right to existence is denied) clash with the sensitivity of the inhabitants of the mental gated communities of the white Western world - as if the warrior who kills artisanally with knives embodied a figure of barbarism infinitely more abject than the F17 pilot who drops his cargo of missiles on an overpopulated neighborhood, in an open-air camp where a population of refugees is captive. “Terrorism” is the word which, in this context, is used to designate the “untimely”, archaic regime of violence, to which, by force of circumstances, the oppressed who do not have the means to resort to industrial and technological terror. It is this poverty of means which, in the eyes of Western opinions locked in their immune bubbles, marks him as a fanatic and a barbarian.

We must learn to speak with other words than those the masters of the language put in our mouths.

 (December 2023)


[1] In idiomatic French, “pigeon” (the bird) also means sucker, dupe.

[2] The French minister of the Interior (2024)

[3] In the rural Western part of France.

[4] A bloody assault launched by Islamist militants on a concert hall in Paris in November 2015.

[5] Generally speaking, the so-called war against terrorism, which essentially consists of terrorizing and harming civilian populations, is a war of cowards – those who lead it most often keep out of reach of the moves of the designated opponent. Hence their indignant amazement when, for once, it is those who are on the side of law and order who are massacred.