Terror Violence and the Public Sphere

Jones, David W. (2018). Terror Violence and the Public Sphere. In: Adlam, John; Kluttig, Tilman and Lee, Bandy X. eds. Violent States and Creative States, Volume 1. London: Jessica Kingsley, pp. 147–159.

URL: https://www.jkp.com/uk/violent-states-and-creative...


The past two decades have witnessed huge global interest in acts of ‘terror’. Many commentators have observed how the various mass media appear to play a key role in the transmission of this terror (eg Burke 2016; Weimann 2011). This chapter argues that the link with ‘the media’ is not incidental but is fundamental to an understanding of the nature of the phenomena and that an important framework for this understanding can be provided via the notion of ‘the bourgeois public sphere’ that Habermas (1989/1962) claimed was a product of western secular thought, economic and political development. He argued that this space, emerging at the end of the 17th century, was fundamental to the development of democratic processes and civic life that underpinned the development of statehood in the west.

An understanding of the history of the public sphere suggests that it also contains an inherent violence, as it was at birth inextricably linked to processes of colonization that were so integral to the development of modern European states. One reading of some acts of extremist violence, might be to understand them as responses to the perceived violence and colonialism of the western secular public sphere. Examining the killing of staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as a case study can provide a psychosocial understanding of acts of terror within the public sphere.

This chapter will: briefly review the need for a psychosocial approach to understanding acts of terror; give a description of the history of the ‘public sphere’ as outlined by Habermas; use Maalouf’s (1996) thesis that the encounter with modernity can offer threats to the identity of those who feel themselves to be marginalised within that experience; look in some detail at the lives of the perpetrators of the massacre. It is at this level that it becomes clear that an understanding of grand historical narratives needs to be brought together with the details of the particular lives of the perpetrators.

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