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The War on Terror Is a War on Youth: Paris and the Impoverishment of the Future

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From .These were our passports, our weapons..
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Reprinted from, by Henry A. Giroux and Brad Evans, with author permission

"There's a nagging sense of emptiness. So people look for anything; they believe in any extreme - any extremist nonsense is better than nothing." - JG Ballad

There is a revealing similarity between the attacks on September 11, 2001 - when airplanes were flown into the twin towers, killing thousands of people - and the attacks in Paris, in which over 130 people were killed and hundreds wounded. Yet, what they have in common has been largely overlooked in the mainstream and alternative media's coverage of the more recent terrorist attacks. While both assaults have been rightly viewed as desperate acts of alarming terrorism, what has been missed is that both acts of violence were committed by young men. This is not a minor issue because unraveling this similarity provides the possibility for addressing the conditions that made such attacks possible.

While French President François Hollande did say soon after the Paris assault that "youth in all its diversity" was targeted, he did not address the implications of the attacks' heinous and wanton violence. Instead, he embraced the not-so-exceptional discourse of militarism, vengeance and ideological certainty, a discourse that turned 9/11 into an unending war, a tragic mistake that cost millions of lives and ensured that the war on terrorism would benefit and play into the very hands of those at which it was aimed. The call for war, retribution and revenge extended the violent landscape of everyday oppressions by shutting down any possibility for understanding the conditions that gave birth to the violence committed by young people against innocent youthful civilians.

Hollande channeled the Bush/Cheney response to an act of terrorism and in doing so further paved the way for the emergence of the mass surveillance state, and the collapsing of the state-army distinction, all the while legitimating a culture of fear and demonization that unleashed a wave of racism and Islamophobia. There is a hidden politics here that prevents a deeper understanding, not only of the failure of the government's responses to the Paris attacks, but also how such warlike strategies legitimate, reproduce and quicken further the acts of violence, moving governments closer to the practices of a security state. Under such circumstances, fear becomes the foundation for producing both regressive and vindictive policies and for producing subjects willing to accept violence as the best solution to address the conditions that cause such fear. Judith Butler is right in arguing that the fear and rage at the heart of such responses "may well turn into a fierce embrace of a police state." (1)

A War Waged on Youth and by Youth

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While politicians, pundits and the mainstream media acknowledged that the Paris attackers largely targeted places where young people gathered - the concert hall, the cafe and the sports stadium - what they missed was that this act of violence was part of a strategic war on youth. In this instance, youth were targeted by other youth. This incident was part of a larger war waged on youth and by youth. For ISIS, the war on youth translates into what might be called hard and soft targets. As hard targets, young people are subject to intolerable forms of violence of the sort seen in the Paris attacks. Moreover, there is a kind of doubling here because once they are lured into the discourse of extremism and sacrificial violence, they are no longer targeted or defined by their deficits. On the contrary, they now refigure their sense of agency, resentment and powerlessness in the image of the suicide bomber who now targets other young people. The movement here is from an intolerable sense of powerlessness to an intolerable notion of violence defined through the image of a potential killing machine. In this instance, the hard war cannot be separated from the soft war on youth, and it is precisely this combination of tactics that is missed by those Western governments waging the war on terrorism.

The soft war represents another type of violence, one that trades in both fear and a sense of certainty and ideological purity borne of hyper-moral sensibilities, which writes off the victim as a mere necessity to the wider sacred claim. As symbols of the future, youth harbor the possibility of an alternative and more liberating worldview, and in doing so they constitute a threat to the fundamentalist ideology of ISIS. Hence, they are viewed as potential targets subject to intolerable violence - whether they join terrorists groups or protest against such organizations. It is precisely through the mobilization of such fear that whatever hopes they might have for a better world is undermined or erased. This constitutes an attack on the imagination, designed to stamp out any sense of critical agency, thoughtfulness and critical engagement with the present and the future.

The use of violence by ISIS is deftly designed to both terrorize young people and to create a situation in which France and other governments, influenced by structural racism and xenophobia, will likely escalate their repressive tactics toward Muslims, thereby radicalizing more young people and persuading them to travel to Syria to fight in the war effort. Put differently, when Hollande calls for pitiless vengeance, he is creating the warlike conditions that will enable an entire generation of Muslim youth to become sacrificial agents and the pretext for further violence. When violence becomes the only condition for possibility, it either suppresses political agency or allows it to become either a target or the vehicle for targeting others. War is a fertile ground for resentment, anger and violence because it turns pure survivability into a doctrine, and produces subjects willing to accept violence as the best solution to addressing the conditions that cause an endless cycle of humiliation, fear and powerlessness.

But the soft war does more than trade in a culture of fear. It also relies on a pedagogy of seduction, persuasion and identification. ISIS also capitalizes on the desperation, humiliation and loss of hope that many young Muslims experience in the West, along with an endless barrage of images depicting the violence waged by Western nations against Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern nations. The spectacle of violence is its defining organizational principle. Many youth in the West are vulnerable to ISIS propaganda because they are constantly subject to widespread discrimination, and because of their religion, continue to be harassed, dismissed and humiliated. Much of this is further exacerbated by the expanding Islamophobia produced by right-wing populists in Europe and the United States. (2) All the while, their suffering and impoverishment are ignored while their resentment is dismissed as a variant of ideological and political extremism devoid of both historical forces and personal experiences. Heiner Flassbeck rightly argues that ISIS is particularly adept at highlighting the conditions that produce this sense of resentment, anger and powerlessness, and how it strategically addresses the vulnerability of Muslim youth to join ISIS by luring them with the promise of community, support and visions of an Islamic utopia. He writes:

For as much as we know, they grew up in human and social conditions that few of us can even imagine. They grew up fearing attracting attention to themselves and being branded as potential terrorists if they were a bit too religious (in the eyes of the West) or frequented Arab circles a bit too often. They also saw that the West shows little reservation in bombing what they considered their "home countries" and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in order to guarantee the "safety" of its citizens.... The sad truth is that thousands of young men grow up in a world in which premeditated killings take place on an almost daily basis when army personnel from thousands of miles away push a button. Is it really surprising that some of them lose their wits, strike back and create even more violence and the death of many innocent people? (3)

When the conditions that oppress youth are ignored in the face of the ongoing practices of state terrorism - the attacks waged on Muslim youth in France and other countries, the blatant racism that degrades a religion as if all terrorists are Muslims or forgets that all religions produce their own share of terrorists - there is little hope to address the conditions that both impoverish and oppress young people, let alone developing the insight and vision to address such conditions before they erupt into a nihilistic form of rage. Abdelkader Benali gives credence to this argument when he writes:

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But I know from my own experience that the lure of extremism can be very powerful when you grow up in a world where the media and everyone around you seems to mock and insult your culture. And European governments are not helping fight extremism by giving in to Islamophobia cooked up by right-wing populists. What I see is a lack of courage to embrace the Muslims of Europe as genuinely European - as citizens like everyone else. (4)

Very few voices are talking about the terrorist attacks in Paris as part of what can be called the war on youth. The terrorists in this case targeted places where young people gather, sending a message that suggests that young people will have no future unless they can accept the ideological fundamentalism that drives terrorist threats and demands. This was an attack not simply on the bodies of youth, but also on the imagination, an attempt to kill any sense of a better and more democratic future. When this script is ignored or derided as an unrealistic fantasy, war, militarism, violence and revenge define the only option for governments and young people to consider: a binary forged in a complex friend-enemy duality that erases the conditions that produce ISIS or the conditions that make possible the recruitment of young people to such a deadly ideology.

The Seeds of Terrorism

The seeds of terrorism do not lie simply in ideological fundamentalism; they also lie in conditions of oppression, war, racism, poverty, the abandonment of entire generations of Palestinian youth, the dictatorships that stifle young people in the Middle East and the racist assaults on Black youth in urban centers in the United States. For too many people, youth are now the subject and object of a continuous state of siege warfare, transformed either into suicide bombers or the collateral damage that comes from the ubiquitous war machines. There are few safe spaces for them any more, unless they are hidden in the gated enclaves and protectorates of the globally enriched.

The "war on terror" is in reality a war on youth who are both its target and the vehicle for targeting others.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and the Paulo Freire Chair in Critical Pedagogy at The McMaster Institute for Innovation & Excellence in Teaching & Learning. He also is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. His most recent books include more...)

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