Editors’ note: This article is part of a forum on ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and the Politics of Response.


In reflecting on the recent attacks in Paris – and more recently Copenhagen – I am struck by the manner in which a pattern of mobile, irruptive violence can be traced from these events to Nairobi,Boston, Mumbai, London, Madrid and before that Tunisia and New York. This is a form of violence that is distinctively urbanised: a form of urban insurgency that exploits urban technologies/infrastructures – cars, rails, roads – and urban morphology – enclosed and crowded spaces – for maximum effect. It is not new, but it’s effective. Military doctrine has warned of the complexity of urban space for a while, but this urban insurgency demonstrates a lack of effective response – partly because, as I will discuss below, the proposed responses obfuscate the origins of this violence and erode the core attributes of the urban environment that we value – particularly freedom, plurality.

Like all insurgency this violence is both symbolic and yet instrumental – metaphoric and yet practical. It adopts the logic of effects based operations (EBO) – the form of nodal targeting that was deployed in the shock and awe campaign of 2003. EBO is both communicative – sending a message to wider constituencies (enemy governments and populations) – and yet tactically instrumental – exploiting urban technology and form to achieve force multiplication. Above all EBO is an affective form of violence, seeking to achieve a sensation of sudden arrest that will shatter routinised patterns of behaviour and thought. It is supposed to have a non-conscious effect on its audience.

This insurgency is not an urbicide in the sense of a deliberate attack on the fabric of the city in order to eliminate heterogeneity. Indeed, in a perverse way, we could argue that this is a violent attempt to stake the claim for plurality, to stake a claim for an antagonistic other to puncture the consensus about tolerance of offence. That said, this violence is related – in a roundabout fashion – to urban counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan as well as Gaza. The widespread use of high explosives in civilian space and the massive military presences required to pacify complex urban terrain have, via the global media, played their own role in nurturing grievance and sharpening insurgent practice.

The response is not promising. Too much of the discussion has focused on the transnational nature of terror. Of course training in Yemen or elsewhere matters, but to attribute the attacks to a shadowy network is to foreclose the uncanny sense in which they are of the city not from beyond it. They are attacks borne out of grievances nurtured in what Mustafa Dikec has referred to as the ‘badlands of the Republic’. The attacks are disquieting insofar as they are uncanny in Freud’s sense of disclosing the repressed grievances that run deep in western urban environments.

Finally, the militarisation of the physical and virtual infrastructures of the contemporary urban environment – the hardening of urban spaces and the increasing surveillance of the communications that are the substrate for the urban public realm will not, in the end, neutralise this type of violence. Rather they are a militarisation of everyday life that diminishes the very thing that #jesuischarlie calls for – a vibrant public dissensus.

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Martin Coward is a Reader in International Politics at The University of Manchester. He is the author of Urbicide: The Politics Of Urban Destruction (Routledge, 2008).