The Artist as Counter-Terrorist

Paris attacks
A makeshift memorial in Paris.

On the evening of Friday the 13th, November 2015, just six months ago, my dear friend, French actress Camille Solal, was onstage in a performance of Le Tombeur at the Théâtre des Nouveautés on the Grands Boulevards in Paris as 130 people were being killed and 352 people were being wounded:

We ended the play immediately. And I rushed to my car with my dogs. Very frightened. I got home on the 15th. Soon after, I welcomed some fellow actors to my home. We spent the night watching the news and comforting one another.

Camille Solal
Camille Solal

From a train station in Ankara to a street corner in Chicago, from a bedroom with screaming sheets to a police station with bloody cells, from a classroom with bullet holes to a comment feed with death threats: as technology makes the world more globally connected, we share more of the world’s painful stories of terrorism and violence in all its forms:

Michael Brown, Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, Dylan Roof, Abdul Haji, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, Delrish Moss, Dana Rhoden, Adel Termos, Adam Lanza, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, Larry Griffin, Ana Marquez-Greene, Robert Lewis Dear, State Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney

How does that list make you feel? Where do you feel it? How do you handle it? Some of these headline individuals are/were terrorists or suspected killers. Some are survivors, others victims or martyrs whose lifetimes ended in excruciating circumstances. Some saved lives or are tasked to protect. Many have permeated through media and reverberated through offline conversations. It all gets into our bodies. Our world gets agitated and increasingly heavier with each headline.

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Johan Galtung’s Violence Triangle theory explains that violence comes in three interrelated types:

  • Direct: war, mass shooting, bombing, neglect, torture, abuse, sexual assault and rape, murder, ethnic cleansing, genocide, bullying, beating, fight, brawl skirmish;
  • Structural: indirect, institutional, behind the curtain;
  • Cultural: e.g., where soldier/fighter is always equivalent to hero.

Some violence is an uncontrolled personal rage. Some is a calculated organizational attack. Some violence is an act of protection for self, family or property. Some is in the name of national security. Some violence is created in order to secure power or the status quo. Some is cold ideology. Some is erroneous persecution or just punishment.

Artists are in a great position to make the peace on all those levels. Camille explains:

As artists, we are on the front line of that world and system. We do not fit in. We do not produce. We can’t be tamed. That’s my vision.

Yet we have to walk the walk. Several organizations aim for social change but simultaneously hold up non-violence policies restricting artists and student artists from discussing, processing or expressing the violence in their lives. And that seems wrong. Like fake plants in an arboretum.

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Unlike the violence in our homes and schools and movie theaters, current international violence is often put into a religious frame. In my first Global Spitfire post last month, I explored the need for religious literacy. I would call for us to connect that knowledge to social and historical elements. For example, did you know that the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in 1797 by President Adams, states the following, translated from its original Arabic:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

I’ll give you a minute to take that in.

So what is the role of artists in an agitated world? Might today’s artists involve others in a sustained state of social critique, joy and spirituality? Can we counter the ignorance of the us vs. them narrative? Camille continues:

I became more radical on these points after [the attacks here in Paris], but with the fatigue and fear in my heart linked to those events.

Yes, as important as activism and awareness are, they can demand much of us. Rejuvenation is needed.

Now is the beginning of Ramadan — June 5 to July 5 — and I will once again join millions of Muslims around the world in a month of sacrifice, refocus, gratitude, generosity and renewal. For me, it is a personal and cross-cultural practice. Days are demanding with going without, nights are filled with light and community tables. Ramadan is not simply a ceasefire, but a more proactive peace.

If we shared even a bit in Ramadan 2016, we would all be the better for it.

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.