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s I sat in the departure terminal at Manchester Airport on the morning of 8 January 2015, all the TV monitors were tuned in to the news of the ongoing search for those responsible for an attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The other travellers around me silently watched the news unfold, some occasionally glancing at the screen from behind the pages of the morning paper, the headlines of which all carried news of the shooting. By the time I arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth, the manhunt in France was fully underway and it seemed like the whole world was on alert. A murder in Paris had become a “global event.” My own jet-lagged mind turned to other non-global, non-events: the hundreds of unnamed victims of US drone strikes in Pakistan, the 16 journalists and hundreds of other civilians killed in Gaza in 2014, or the overwhelming numbers of Muslim victims of so-called Islamic terror in Nigeria, Yemen and Iraq. Perhaps unwilling to confront the brutality and senselessness of the murders in Paris, my mind immediately went elsewhere. This impulse toward elsewhere is, in part, an impulse toward justice. It represents an urge to disrupt a dominant aesthetic of suffering and question who are the grievable victims of terror (Butler, 2010; Rancière, 2010). And yet, it also feels profoundly unjust not to confront the specificity of particular acts of violence, by instead putting them in a comparative frame, or placing them into scales of suffering.
Seeking an alternative explanatory frame, other commentators have directed our attention towards another elsewhere – that of the past. By recalling the long and bloody colonial history that tethers France to North Africa, we can recover the “events in Paris” from the ahistorical timeline of the War on Terror. And yet, we cannot draw a straight line from Algiers to the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Cherif and Said Kouachi, the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, were said to have been radicalized in response to the US invasion of Iraq. Indeed, jihadi ideology itself sketches an ahistorical global geography connecting places like Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, and Iraq to a supposed Western war on Islam. This is the mirror image of the global imaginary that pits “Islamic Terrorism” against “civilization itself,” as US Secretary of State John Kerry put it. It is this particular framing that allows the likes of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah as-Sisi, who came to power in a bloody coup which saw hundreds of innocent protestors and journalists killed or jailed, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fond of drawing equivalence between such disparate groups as Hamas, Boko Haram, and ISIS, to parade themselves as bulwarks of civilization against the barbarian horde. This single, violent event in Paris therefore explodes with many possible worlds. As geographers, our task is to attend to the multiple scales in which such an event can be understood, and to shed a critical light on the politically contested nature of these global imaginings of terror and suffering.
On 8 February a demonstration was held by Muslims in London condemning the insulting depictions of Islam as responsible for “sowing the seeds of hatred” and condemning also the attacks in Paris, which the organizers said were perpetrated by “cold-blooded killers” who had taken the “un-Islamic path of human destruction.” The organizers argued that “Passionate emotions must be harnessed and channelled through good manners and etiquettes to civilise any debate in our diverse society.” This was, in short, not a rally to defend civilization from a barbaric other, but rather, a call to civility, respect, and dignity in our interaction with others. Such calls for civility are often viewed with suspicion, as thinly veiled attempts to rally consensus and to brand those who dissent as uncivil. In short, they are often viewed as a form of anti-politics masquerading a politeness. Such suspicions are well founded. But perhaps we might also take such calls for civility seriously. This would mean widening our understandings of terms such as ‘civil society’ and beginning to think about how civic interaction makes up a highly contested everyday space of intimate geopolitics. Liberal notions of civil society often take for granted a shared understanding of civility and instead focus on the actors and structures that make up civil society rather than the contested processes that constitute activity therein. If civil society is understood as a normative space where uncomfortable differences are negotiated toward some greater aim, we must confront differences over the very definitions of civility itself.