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Dublin: 22 °C Tuesday 4 August, 2020

Here's why those 'All American heroes' who stopped the Paris gunman fed into our fantasies

Brian O’Flynn asks, “Is this tired East vs. West analysis of such a complex issue really the best we can do?”

Brian O'Flynn

IN THE WAKE of every suspected Jihadist terrorist attack comes the same, predictable headlines.

The aftermath of last weekend’s Parisian train terror was no different. The dialogue around the drama centred on anachronistic divisions which should have been put to bed years ago but still lingers in our collective psyche.

Phrases like “All American heroes” were bandied about as clickbait, and even the world’s most respected broadsheets indulged in detailed analysis of the terror suspect’s background, ethnicity and identity. The media capitalised on the paradigm of the just, vigilant West bravely snuffing out the foreign radical fire.

This paradigm still dominates discussion of terrorism in western media, but it is a reductionist, over-simplified version of reality. Is this tired East vs. West analysis of such a complex issue really the best we can do?


As more and more newspapers delved into incredibly detailed examination of the attacker’s history, movements, associations and influences, I had to wonder; what are we really trying to get at?

In such an obvious terrorism case, where the culprit’s story is so outlandish (who finds a loaded AK-47 abandoned in a park?), there seems to be little need for such “justification” for their actions.

The fascination with profiling these people is nothing short of morbid. Do we really think that latching onto minute details about how, when and where the individual was radicalised will help us to understand the most important question; why?

When we shift the focus so narrowly to these areas, we reinforce dangerous ignorance about radicalism. We start to believe that we can explain away his actions by understanding where he was born, who he spoke to and where he travelled.

We start to associate radicalism with a small group of people in a certain location, and we can convince ourselves that as long as we stay away from these people and places, we can be safe.

This is nothing more than delusional self-soothing. And it is being done at the expense of Muslims everywhere.

Religious prejudices 

In reality, we obsess over the personas behind terrorism because it is comforting. We feel that if we know everything about them, it means we’ve beaten them. We think that if the perpetrators fit the same stereotypes that we expect them to, we can dismiss the horror as nothing new. We were totally expecting it from someone like that, right? But this desire to demonise becomes dangerous… the rampant Islamophobia across the UK and the US is evidence of that.

The truth is that more and more British and European people are being turned to radicalism. We can’t seem to go a day in the news without encountering another story of a UK teen who’s run away to join ISIL. These teens often have no familial connection to extreme Islamism, and have self-radicalised via the internet or other means.

Radicalism is the real problem; not Islam. There is no implicit connection between the two, and Christianity can just as easily intersect extremism; just look at the Westboro Baptist Church.

When we conflate Western liberalism with righteousness and Islam with some sort of inherent evil, we reinforce dangerous racial and religious prejudices, and fail to get at the core of the issue.


It is disturbing that when white males go on killing sprees in schools, cinemas and black churches in the US, the word “terrorism” rarely enters the fray. When a man who openly hates women declares the fact on Youtube before going on a murderous rampage (see Elliot Rodgers in Isla Vista, California), we like to use phrases like “mentally unstable” or “insane”, but never “terrorist”. Apparently, terrorism counts as terrorism when you’re a Muslim, but not when you’re a misogynist.

At the end of the day, it all comes back to fear. We are afraid of terrorists, and rightly so. The idea that apparently sane, functional human beings can whip out a rifle without warning in our local cinema and start firing is… terrifying.

It impinges horribly on the boundaries of innocence and culpability that we construct. We like to believe that if we keep our noses clean, we have nothing to be afraid of. The idea that we might become accidental victims of some worldwide trend during a stroll along a beach in Turkey is scarily beyond our control.

East vs. West

Thus, we tell ourselves comfortable lies. We believe that we are outside the firing zone of this particular global trend. We tell ourselves that it matters that the heroes on that train were American. We tell ourselves it matters that the attacker was Moroccan.

If we believe these lies, then we are able to convince ourselves that it matters that we are Irish; as though this status will somehow keep us safe and warm, insulated from the chaos.

It is for these reasons that we rely so heavily on the East vs. West paradigm. It gives us a sense of security and control in an uncontrollable situation.

It is not such a crime to want to afford ourselves some peace of mind… but let’s not get so caught up in our constructs that we start to really believe the world is so black and white.

Brian is a student at the University of Edinburgh and a regular online contributor to Attitude magazine, the UK’s best-selling LGBT publication. He also contributes to The Outmost and GNI. His focus is on social justice issues and analysis of pop culture.

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Brian O'Flynn

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