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What use is a terrorist attack?

Nothing affords greater power than the management of fear. Western nations have failed to find the way to defeat terrorism in cities, but have found the way to defeat their citizens. We saw it after 9/11: Mayor Giuliani and President Bush standing in the rubble —both covered in dust from buildings and dead bodies— meant to paint a picture of courage and collective endurance, but ultimately became a sign of complete psychological domination. The presence of the king of Spain yesterday in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya had the same purpose.

The mise en scène of solidarity is an invitation to feign innocence. That is why you do not know how dozens of attacks have been foiled in the last few years: they need you to remain child-like. Suspending individual judgement, criminalising dissidence and declaring a permanent state of siege are the cultural products of this decade. America’s Patriot Act, the law that permitted the invasion of privacy, stringent airport security measures, ever-present CCTV in the streets and militarised police at train stations is merely the normalisation of a deep-seated ideology. Using fear to consolidate hierarchies, militarise the State, and weaken democracy —and spontaneous life— is the new normal. They have intended for politics and ideas to be left in the hands of the corniest sentimentalism, the most repetitive form of entertainment, the indignity of advertising the beauty of our ego as our only goal in life.

The problem stems from the fact that democracy and violence are at odds with one another. After the two world wars, the prestige of the armed forces took a deadly blow. However, the emergence of terror initially brings back the professional soldier cast as the lesser evil until, eventually, he becomes the backbone of coexistence. This is justified as a lesser evil because it is understood as an alternative to democracy. We suspend politics because safety comes first. This apparent dichotomy between democracy and violence prompts those who support the former to become entrenched in a naive rhetoric about the price of freedom. Democracy is abandoned to the forms of popular culture, to the infantilisation of the will — “I want this now because I’m entitled to it”—, to the search of material comforts as the only horizon of dignity. The truth is that democracy is built upon precisely the opposite idea: we are accountable for the violence that we inflict and we share the risks because we take joint decisions that never offer an ideal solution. We would rather have vulnerable cities over the moral impoverishment of seeking the protection of a Big Brother, a Leviathan, a monster that handles our nightmares while we are living the fiction of pleasure.

Democracy is the realm of adulthood and a terrorist attack is used to infantilise. We have witnessed it in the US, in France under siege, in London’s neo-imperial City and in the gradual slide of continental thinking towards authoritarian bureaucracy. In the world of a beefed-up China and an imperialistic Russia, our political leaders harness our lower instincts to lead us to wars and bombardments that, under the pretext of fear, serve the same geopolitical interests as always. But we are deprived of the chance to reject or desire these interests as adults: they dish out their degraded fruits to us like a baby is spoon-fed a bowl of cereal.

We will see this in Spain now. Anybody with a keen eye has noticed how the number one priority for the State and its media is to use the attack in Barcelona to suspend the political debate and bring it to the technical ground of security and the moral ground of public order. In a crisis, maintain the status quo. The crass identification of self-determination with the ensuing chaos that typically follows a terror attack found in El País and El Mundo's editorials (which can also be read in the calls to unity and spanishness penned by the Royal House and the Spanish government) is neither mistaken nor excessive. Rather, it is the same state reason that we have always seen everywhere. It is making use of the emotional shock and nostalgia for a more pure form of solidarity to infantilise people. It is the same reason why the Catalan police was denied access to key intelligence: life is less valuable than power. Given that we have experience with the use of fear to consolidate submission, given that the recent history of our culture is an attempt to rid us of this fear, given that we know the temptations by fruitless folklore to replace politics and its uncertainties, our mission is to be adults. The answer to terror is not to surrender our fear to the guardians of power, but to seize it in order to strengthen democracy while we acknowledge the risks and walk with a steady foot towards freedom, well-aware of the uncertainty that defines any human life that is lived with dignity.

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