An 'act of war' in a world of war

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Friday's horrific events in Paris were an "act of war," French President Francois Hollande declared. It was a promise to return total violence with total violence. "Our fight will be merciless," the French president vowed. France "will be merciless toward the barbarians of the Islamic State group," he said, and "will act by all means anywhere, inside or outside the country."

What does it mean for President Hollande to call the violence in Paris an "act of war?"

In international law, before state aggression was formally outlawed by the Charter of the United Nations, an "act of war" meant an act that broke the peace, an act that initiated a war. Does "act of war" mean that there was no war before Paris was attacked? What have the United States, Canada, France, and their allies been doing in Iraq, in Syria, and in so many other arenas of violence, if not war?

In fact, the category "war" has been selectively deployed by the executors of the "war on terror," to exercise the prerogatives of military action while evading international legal rules governing the conduct of war (regarding targeted killings and the treatment of captured fighters, for example).  

The "war on terror," after all, has been characterized as a special kind of war, requiring special kinds of rules: an existential battle against a shadowy hydra-like enemy, a campaign of undefined and expanding geographical and temporal limits.   

What is an "act of war" in this world of endless war? Calling the bombings and gunnings in Paris an "act of war" excises the attacks from their context of war. Paris is not the start of violence, but its effect and continuation.

Coalition bombings in Iraq and Syria have killed between 650 and 2,000 civilians since August 2014 (although U.S. Central Command has only acknowledged two civilian casualties). Many more civilians have been killed by Daesh (ISIS), Iraqi and Syrian government forces, and other military groups in the region.

If Paris split the history of the world in two -- a time before war and a time after war -- where do we place all those lives destroyed, maimed, and bereaved during the supposedly peaceful period before war arrived?    

Were those not "acts of war" because "they," unlike "us," had no peace to break? Because violence for "them" is not extraordinary? The racialized representation of Arab and Muslim lives as subject to endless violence has served to dehumanize them. How can we relate to lives portrayed as nothing but fear and death? How can we mourn lives depicted as already lost -- or, worse, depicted as complicit in their own deaths?

For example, some media's initial description of a Daesh bombing in Beirut just one day before Paris as an attack on a "Hezbollah stronghold" worked to discount the toll of the assault: 43 dead, over 200 injured. "It was a matter of time before residents of Dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut, Lebanon were bombed again," opined one Huffington Post commentator, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. 

The residents of Paris, in contrast, have been humanized in their encounter with violence, with media celebrating the remarkable resilience of those who refuse to be afraid, who refuse to alter the rhythm of daily human life in response to terror. The ability to return to "life as normal" marks Parisians as human, a privilege denied those whose "normal" lives have been rendered unliveable by conflict. Exceptional violence is an "act of war"; ongoing violence is the world order as usual.    

Does "act of war" retroactively justify our participation in this state of continuous violence? The decision to drop bombs on Daesh in Syria has always been on shaky legal ground, as several experts of international law have explained (see, for example, here, here, and here).  

Does "act of war" mean that we were right to attack -- even if the legal basis was questionable -- because now they have attacked us? That all our violence has only been a reaction to (and never a cause of) what we already knew they would do to us? That our only mistake was an excess of mercy, not of militarism?

The doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence, as espoused by the United States in the "war on terror," is generally considered illegitimate in international law. Will the Paris attacks serve as retrospective sanctification for pre-emptive assaults, thus further entrenching the folly of attempting to immunize ourselves from violence with violence?   

The labelling of Paris as an "act of war" underscores, once again, the profound asymmetry of the "war on terror": a war in which we may attack but may never be attacked, in which we may kill but may never be vulnerable to death ourselves. Their violence is terror, but ours is justice and security and civilization.   

Despite Western governments' valiant efforts to brand violence as peace, life for so many has long been war under other names: counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, humanitarian intervention, liberation. The war was already there and here, outside and inside, international and domestic -- even if some of us could not taste it before Paris. 

Azeezah Kanji is a graduate of University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, and a Masters of Law candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Photo: flickr/ Martin Schulz

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