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A French Psychoanalyst Talks About Fear, Anxiety, and the Paris Attacks

We asked Hélène L'Heuillet, a prominent French philosopher and psychoanalyst, to help us understand how fear works and how we can control it in light of this weekend's horrific events.

Policemen on the streets of Paris. Photo: VICE News/Etienne Rouillon

This article originally appeared on VICE France

It is an understatement to say that the mood in France is grim. Faced again with the aftermath of horrific terrorist acts, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said his country was at "war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism." Ordinary Parisians are in shock, either staying at home and waiting for the panic and grief to pass, or going out to demonstrate that life must go on even in the face of unspeakable violence.

In an effort to understand and control the fear that many of are feeling, we reached out to Hélène L'Heuillet, a prominent French philosopher and psychoanalyst.

VICE: Why do you think the terrorists targeted mainly young people?
Hélène L'Heuillet: You know, this is the typical weapon of fear. The most prominent attacks, the ones that sow fear, often affect the youth most. One can remember the bombing of a casino in Algiers, for example.

As such, the 11th Arrondissement is an ideal target in Paris. It is a neighborhood filled with young people, and the Bataclan [the theater attacked by the terrorists] is a symbol of the district. Attacking it with a single hit, you achieve hundreds of shots: hurt families, annihilate a potential that lies in every single young, etc. In addition, you attack the notion of partying, a symbol of an alleged Western decadence.

These terrorists also consider Western youth as the paragons of modern sin.
Yes, and in this denunciation lies the revolutionary aspect of the Islamic State's ideology. Its criticism of capitalism is everywhere. The organization has consistently vilified the Western materialism, its presumed hedonism, etc.

A hedonism that the IS binds to idolatry—a notion that the group has strongly criticized in its statements after the attacks.
It should be understood that the attack at the Eagles of Death Metal concert was not by chance. This American band represents a lot that the terrorists hate. Moreover, relation between the band and its public is unacceptable for the Islamic State. Remember when Osama bin Laden said, "We love death, you love life." It was a push of his condemnation of idolatry up to denunciation of idolatry of life.

Fear seems to be one of the keys for better comprehending a reason for the group's attacks.
During so-called conventional wars, fear is an inherent consequence of the conflict. The ultimate objective of the war is not to arouse fear among populations, but to triumph over the enemy.

Nowadays, fear is at the root of a conflict which is being exported more and more into our territory. The Islamic State knows that it will not reverse French political system with eight attackers. With 9/11, the terrorists knew that the American political system would survive the attacks. It is not important to win. It is important to scare.

As a psychoanalyst, how do you approach the consequences of this fear in individuals?
In my experience, I can tell you that fear isolates. This is one of its characteristics, noticeable among many patients I received on Saturday morning. Their psychic insecurity was real. But this is not new. Wars have always isolated people. Fear locks us in the room, in what is near, immediately visible, and sensitive. Seeing the mobilization among the population after the January attacks [on Charlie Hebdo] helped us understand that people sought, above all, to break from that sense of isolation.

A solidarity demonstration at London's Trafalgar Square on November 14.Photo by Christopher Bethell

Do you think this fear arises from our misunderstanding of the way terrorists think, which we judge as irrational?
The renunciation of life—an attitude advocated by these terrorists—is indeed the opposite of thinking that is cultivated in the West. At the same time, we must not close our eyes. One of the great fears of our society comes from the fascination that a part of our youth has for IS—a fascination that is not solely within the domain of the irrational.

These young terrorists—even very young in some cases—seek, above all, to find answers to their personal questions, questions inherent to adolescence. Unfortunately, the ideology of IS, provides them with it... This ideology of destruction is totalitarian.

The radical nature of this ideology prevents any external criticism.
Yes, we are speechless before it. Besides, it is enough to listen what people say after the attacks: "It's horrible," and so on. It is extremely difficult to find suitable words. Big totalitarian ideologies have always engendered this sense of helplessness, extreme ineffability.

What about the fear of a new attack—is this likely to fade anytime soon?
For many years, France has not experienced such a situation—probably since the Occupation. It is therefore legitimate to feel such fear. But, you know, a state of war is not a synonym for hysteria. A feeling usually settles and allows people to continue to live their lives. It was also seen after the January attacks. Parisians are not going to hole themselves up at home. It will be the same this time.