Politics, Security

Flag-Shaming in Response to Terrorism

‘Prayer shaming’ in the wake of an American mass-shooting is a relatively new phenomenon, as far as I can tell. I first saw it discussed in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, and it takes the form of social media users, think-piece writers, and politicians mostly — but not exclusively — on the Left who say things like: “We don’t need your thoughts and prayers. What we need is political action.”

The idea is not just to point out that prayers are useless while political action is consequential. “Political action” in this context is a synonym for swingeing gun control legislation. And the thinly veiled accusation is that thoughts and prayers are being offered by reactionary gun nuts and craven politicians as an alternative to action. Simply put, prayer shaming consists of the demand: “Spare us your pious hypocrisies and surrender your weapons.”

Last night, a variation on this behavior proliferated across social media in the wake of the latest Islamist terror atrocity on European soil. “Your hashtags and customized tricolor avatars are worthless virtue-signaling,” it went. Like prayer shaming, flag-and-hashtag-shaming comes freighted with righteous disgust and an imputation of bad faith. From the Right, the accusation is that swivel-chair-bound liberal slacktavists are offering empty compassion even as they drape suicidal denial in the usual platitudes about Islam and peace. From the Left, flag-avatars are held to be a sanctimonious denial of the West’s own responsibility for the mayhem it suffers, and evidence of callous indifference to worse atrocities committed elsewhere.

Scrolling through Facebook last night as news of the mass-murder in Nice unfolded, I saw numerous people also pour scorn on national gestures of respect and remembrance, such as the lighting of landmark buildings in the colours of a grieving nation. As one Facebook friend wrote:

[My wife]’s saying to me & I never want to see buildings lit up ever again. I don’t want us to be virtue-signaling bastards. Because when those lights go out, people are still dead. The bereaved don’t get their loved ones back.

Action, not pathetic empty gestures that speak of our cowardice and narcissism rather than our quiet resolve to stop this.

But this is a kind of signaling too — if not of virtue exactly, then of some other kind of superiority; an absence of vanity, perhaps, and a readiness to confront ugly truths from which the less courageous prefer to hide. But the bereaved will not get their loved ones back either way.Nor is it clear what action is being demanded that make statements like these more useful than the statements they denounce.

Does “action” in this context mean greater powers to the police and security services? Stringent restrictions on Muslim immigration? Mass deportations? Aggressive military intervention? Or, alternatively, a complete pullback from the Middle East in the hope that fanatics will leave us alone and concentrate on killing one another? Justice for Palestine? Not one of these ideas is satisfactory. It is certainly exasperating to hear the president of the United States tactfully pick his way around the term ‘radical Islam’ but simply saying those words is no substitute for coherent and effective policy, either.

The problem is that the Middle East has become the world’s largest dumpster fire, and no-one has a good idea what to do about it anymore. Intensive intervention in Iraq, limited intervention in Libya, and an absence of intervention in Syria have seen large swathes of all three countries fall to jihadist militias. Bush was bellicose and unilateralist. Obama has been conciliatory (if not positively apologetic) and multilateralist. Neither approach has produced anything close to the desired outcomes.

The more demagogic elements of the Leave campaign assured us that Brexit would ensure an end to long lines of Middle Eastern refugees at the border. Even if that were true, transnational jihadism is not an idea that can be kept out of Europe even if some of its adherents can, and dealing with homegrown radicalization is fraught with its own problems. If free societies are to remain meaningfully free, it will be impossible to prevent attacks by dedicated fanatics prepared to use motor vehicles and kitchen knives in arbitrary assaults on soft targets.

This is not a counsel of despair. There are almost certainly things European countries could be doing to better mitigate the threats they face. But as we have discovered over the past 15 years, figuring out what those things are is not a remotely straightforward task. It will involve considerable trial, error, and patience on numerous fronts. In the meantime, further attacks are inevitable.

And in the face of this unpleasant fact, the shaming of those who express respect for the dead and solidarity with survivors is just another expression of impotence and angry frustration. Yes, the widespread use of solidarity hashtags and avatars reflects a degree of thoughtless conformity and moral vanity that can be irksome if dwelt upon. And no, bathing buildings in the colours of a grieving nation and flying standards at half-mast and three-minute silences will do nothing in and of themselves to defeat jihadism. But that does not empty such gestures of worth or meaning.

Reflexive expressions of solidarity signify an internalized Western understanding that life is precious and not cheap: “You glorify martyrs and we mourn the departed, because you embrace death while we value life.”

This sentiment is undeserving of sanctimonious derision. It does not and need not preclude action or debate. It can and should be complementary.


Jamie Palmer is a writer and film-maker. Read more of his writing here and follow him on Twitter @jacobinism


  1. Ardy says

    As members of the financial elite in the world, the vast majority of us Westerner’s would do anything to avoid putting our lifestyle or our bodies at risk. Yet it is that lifestyle that is under attack both from well meaning left wingers inside our countries and Islamists inside and outside our countries.

    We have to face reality and state that all of us must fight against this threat and not via a telephone link to some nobodies approval 10,000k’s away or posting on some brain dead site.

    We have to fight terror with terror and anything else means nothing. To this end my suggestion would be to combine all our elite soldiers in the West ie SAS etc and let them loose with orders to kill all the hierarchy of Islamist terrorists and ignore the various laws and procedures that ensure we can never win with one hand tied behind our back. This will not be pretty and a large part of left leaning populace will get upset but war is neither pretty, nor fair.

    Having our soldiers fighting with the threat of imprisonment hanging over their every move and each tactic awaiting some tremulous person, in total safety, giving their approval is a recipe for failure.

  2. Nick says

    Excellent article. Two things strike me.

    First, as Jamie says, “Reflexive expressions of solidarity signify a Western understanding that life is precious and not cheap”. Expressing sympathy and solidarity actually is action. It does ideological and cultural work and helps to define who we are and what we believe. That is very important.

    Second, one kind of action – expression of sympathy and solidarity – does not preclude other kinds of action.

  3. Excellent post. It just occurred to me that I saw Pegida types yesterday a) pointing out that Houllebecq was right and b) saying France should vote for Le Pen. However it’s support for the far right which directly leads to the triumph of Islamism (in his novel Submission/Soumission) through forcing France to become polarised.

  4. Simon says

    My feeling is that many of the #PrayFor… people tend to forget about many of these tragedies after a couple of days and will never even talk of them again, whereas those who find those hashtags vacuous are the people who are continuously debating and campaigning for real action on these issues. Yes, it is very difficult to determine and implement policies and actions that may resolve these problems, but it’s never going to be done by the vacuous minds of people who flit in and out with their tricolour avatar and then show us all a picture of what they cooked for their dinner.

  5. Me Here says

    “limited intervention in Libya, and an absence of intervention in Syria”? In both cases there was substantial intervention to escalate violent revolutions that would otherwise have been suppressed in fairly short order as previous attempts at revolution had been.

  6. Mack says

    The other problem in comparing the prayer-offerers and the flag-lighters is that it’s faulty reasoning. The prayer-offerers think that they are actually doing something substantive (obviously false, of course) while the flag-lighters probably understand that their act is purely symbolic.

    It’s a mistake to put these acts on an equal footing. Both groups are virtue signaling in their own way, in context with their own communities. Only one is thinking that their actions may be sufficient for the events in question.

  7. Green Caboose says

    “Prayer-shaming” didn’t start that way. It was a response to Republicans in the US Congress who offered their “thoughts and prayers” after the latest mass shooting but refused to do anything about the proliferation of the semi-automatic weapons that make these shootings possible. As in: “Don’t tell us about your thoughts and prayers, fix the problem you created!”

  8. Pingback: Jamie Palmer: Flag-Shaming in Response to Terrorism | Ordinary Times

  9. Boddicker says

    We know that prayers, lights, love and flags are not going to solve a damn thing. They’re often presented as if they are solutions. The ritual is getting tired and annoying and way too predictable. It feels like the apathetic among us will stay apathetic and #PrayForX until they die–feeling they’ve contributed. They shouldn’t feel they’ve contributed an ounce if they haven’t critiqued the cause.

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