Tonight Charlie Hebdo bleeds: are we paying attention yet?

Violence is endemic to humankind. There is no group of people or period of history that has been spared at least some level of violence.

When you are at the business end of gun, you probably do not really care what the motive is. But the rest of us should. The staff of Charlie Hebdo were targeted because they spoke their mind. The fact that 10 of them lie dead tonight is an attack on us all.

There is a qualitative difference between violence inflicted from personal torment versus violence inflicted with public intent and political purpose – i.e., terrorism. (Violence experienced in war is just as or more horrific – it’s just too vast a category to discuss here.)

The debate over what, exactly, defines terrorism has kept academics busy for quite some time. It has been muddled by bad faith arguments equating state violence inflicted through warfare and non-state violence inflicted through terrorist tactics. Again, from the victims’ perspective, the debate is moot. But from an intellectual and even moral perspective, it’s not.

As I’ve said before, the Western democratic state is a care-taker state. But more importantly, it does not demand ideological or religious fealty in return for its services. We are free to think as we please.

Whatever its crimes, from unfair economic policies to racial or religious electoral gerrymandering to heavy-handed or even brutal foreign policy, it is still the most progressive and beneficial system of human organisation in history. I write this both as an observer of history and politics, but perhaps more as a female with an (almost) total right to self-determination and autonomy unseen throughout history and still heretical in many parts of the world.

Non-state actors who organise violence against the democratic state claim legitimacy via their superior moral or ideological stature, or by pointing to injustice or oppression, using these arguments to challenge the state’s long-held monopoly of violence.

While the narratives they craft may be appealing to those both inside and outside their immediate sphere of influence, the movements are – across the board – inherently anti-democratic and leave those who live under their rule with no safe avenue for dissent.

All political systems are imperfect, but given this, we must all ask ourselves one question. To whom will we give the benefit of the doubt: state actors or non-state actors? By adopting a strategy of terrorism, a movement automatically assumes the role of judge, jury and executioner, against its enemies and against its supporters. This is wrong, no matter how appealing the underlying ideology or how understandable the underlying grievance.

We have completely overlooked this fact under the sway of traditional left-wing thought. Terrorism, especially today’s Islamist terrorism, is the only place where it remains acceptable to blame the victim.

Take for example, a previous terrorist attack in France, in 2012 in Toulouse, where a young criminal turned Islamist radical went on a killing spree that included three small Jewish children at the gates of their school.

In writing about Mohammed Merah, the gunman who grabbed a little girl by the hair and put a bullet into her head at point blank range, one scholar used words like “soft-hearted” and “at a loose end.”

Politics and religion, much less anti-Semitism, were certainly not to blame. Instead Merah “was himself a victim of a social order that had already doomed him” to being “the definitive other.” France itself was to blame.

The uncomfortable truth is that while our humanities-educated, fair-trade purchasing media elites have been busy scrutinising the unpleasant mechanics of how states attempt to squash the threat of terrorism, Islamist radicals of various affiliations have been loudly and with utmost sincerity proclaiming their intention to slaughter as many people as they see fit. And they carry out that threat across multiple continents, every day.

Those same elites who vigilantly look for examples of Islamophobia after every Islamist inspired act of violence, who praise US military leakers as battlefield heroes, and who loudly and self-righteously castigate all those who fail to show total loyalty to their politically correct principles, have wilfully been ignoring the vicious totalitarian rhetoric of Islamists since Ayman al Zawahiri released al Qaeda’s dismal but oft-quoted DIY propaganda manual Knights Under the Prophets Banner.

“Tracking down the Americans and the Jews is not impossible…Killing them with a single bullet, a stab…or hitting them with an iron rod is not impossible…With the available means, small groups could prove to be a frightening horror for the Americans and the Jews.”

Radical Islam enjoys an ideological cohesion that is by no means complete. But those of us who believe in core Western values — with the powerful exception of the Charlie Hebdo staff — have lost the courage of our convictions.

The Islamist message is simple and resonates powerfully across a wide spectrum of people, including many people born and raised in secular, Western societies. And despite media hand-wringing after every terrorist event in the West, it is the populations Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria who have suffered the most from this ideology.

We haven’t been listening to their cries. We have been cowed by accusations of ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, and imperialism.

Western democracy, for all its flaws, still holds at its core liberties that I, as a woman, a secularist and an egalitarian, am acutely grateful for. It’s time for us to coalesce behind the message that attacks on religious, intellectual and personal freedoms will not be tolerated.

@jennyeholland

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It’s a reminder of the grotesque absurdity of all terrorism. Lest we forget in this part of the world.

  • Superfluous

    “It’s time for us to coalesce behind the message that attacks on religious, intellectual and personal freedoms will not be tolerated.”

    It’s time for us not to over-react to isolated attacks against our Liberal system. I must say that I have been rather heartened by the complete lack of intellectual excuse making for this atrocity – every media outlet I’ve come across have condemned it for what it was, which is a massive improvement on the media cowardice shown during the Salman Rushdie affair a quarter of a century ago. It seems that everyone finally gets it – violence against ‘ideas’ is never excusable, regardless of cultural norms or political sensitivities.

  • Cahir O’Doherty

    What I think you’re basically saying is that it is morally wrong and somehow vaguely collaborationist to ask the basic question ‘why do terrorist events like this occur?’ and to challenge the narrative given by Western politicians and parroted by most of the media that it is simply because ‘they hate our freedoms.’ It is such a shame to see this anger at academic and critical understandings of an important phenomenon raising its ugly head again. I am reminded of Robert Fisk’s thoughts on the subject after 9/11 when he says that ‘I was right about the way in which the world would be told that this was a war of “democracy versus terrorism”, about the attempt to obscure the historical injustices that lay behind this terrible act. I never imagined how brutal, how dangerous and how bloody would be the attempts to suppress all but the most sublime acceptance of this naive, infantile version of history.’ (Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, London: 2005, Fourth Estate, p. 1031) I suggest that you read this book, or at least this chapter called ‘Why?’

    Another problematic thing that you do in this piece is conflate the actual victims of this heinous attack (the staff at Charlie Hebdo) with the metaphorical victim of the attack (France – whatever that can be thought of as being). And while the actual victims of the attack are most certainly not to blame, the same cannot necessarily be said of the metaphorical victim of France. Yes, I think that our system of liberal democracy is great and I have benefited greatly from it, as have, apparently, you. But we must always remember that the benefits that we get from this system are not shared equally by all and are based on questionable social, economic, cultural, and political beliefs, histories, and actions.

    And anyway, it is only by understanding why attacks like this take place that we can prevent it in the future. If how we prevent it is by making our system of liberal democracy less exploitive then all the better. When we ask the question ‘why’ we do not want to change our core values and beliefs of, say, freedom of expression, but what we want to do is understand why people are driven to do extreme things. And, it turns out, things are a lot more complicated than a cartoon.

    PS, I am a fair-trade buying, humanities-educated, junior-academic!

  • Paddy Reilly

    An end to these incidents could easily be procured by taking the 50 or 100 most suspicious cases each year of Islamic fanaticism out of circulation. This does not mean imprisoning or harming them: it means disqualifying them from living in the metropolitan area, and confining them to some offshore island like Kerguelen: alternatively they would be allowed to leave altogether and proceed to some Islamic state that would take them.

    As every Islamicist incident (in England, France and Australia) has been committed by people who are already known to the police as prone to this sort of fanaticism, this would be the end of them. Muslim states are well aware of the danger their fanatics constitute, and exercise much crueller sanctions against them.

  • barnshee

    Agree about Fisk`s– book its an excellent well written item

  • Roy White

    “while the actual victims of the attack are most certainly not to blame,
    the same cannot necessarily be said of the metaphorical victim of France”

    Are you saying that France deserved this attack?
    If not, what exactly are you saying?

  • Cahir O’Doherty

    Sorry, I think I should have been clearer in what I said. I don’t think that France has been attacked, or a system of liberal democracy has been attacked, or even that freedom of speech has been attacked (because you can’t shoot a concept!). I think that 12 people were brutally murdered in cold blood.

    What I was saying is that we need to look at the causes of attacks like this and those are probably not as black and white as ‘they hate liberty/freedom/democracy etc.’ but may actually implicate the actions and policies of the liberal democracies that Jenny Holland is so proud of.

    What I got from the article is that Jenny thinks we shouldn’t ask those questions and that if we do, ‘the terrorists win,’ whereas I think that these questions are the most important ones to ask because only through asking them can we hope to understand why.

  • Superfluous

    How many of those individuals may be innocent? Do you care? I’d recommend “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” for an Orwell-like narratve critique of such utilitarianism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Omelas – edit: pdf http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.omelas.pdf

  • Roy White

    Thanks for clarification.
    I didn’t read into the article that Jenny thinks we shouldn’t ask questions as to why it happened, or that liberal democracies don’t have flaws.
    There are undoubtedly many partial causes for this attack, but dwarfing all these, is, as in the Salman Rushdie & Danish Cartoons cases, the extremely unpleasant aspect (or interpretation) of Islam that says that anyone who offends the prophet must be put to death.

  • Paddy Reilly

    All such individuals would be innocent, because they would be exiled before they could commit atrocities. Should one care? There are
    plenty of peaceful innocent people in the world who are confined to remote islands because they were born there. An Islamic fanatic is more worthy of compulsory isolation (with right to return to any Islamic Country that will take him) than a person who just happens to come from Pitcairn Island.

    The state of human rights you envisage is: right of Muslims to leave their native countries and settle elsewhere: absolute.

    Right of Muslims not to be offended by others: absolute.

    Right to life of dhimmis: only when it does not infringe the
    right of Muslims not to be offended.

    Right to free speech of dhimmis: as the previous.

  • Guest

    Well, I’d say your views are a bit extremist, ye know, packing people off without having committed a crime, for simply having certain views. Can I vote for packing you off somewhere else since I find your views extremist? If not, what makes you so special that this new law will apply to other people, but not yourself? As far as I can see you are attacking our liberal system – with the irony being that’s exactly what the terrorists were attacking…

  • Superfluous

    Well, I’d say your views are a bit extremist, ye know, packing people off without having committed a crime, for simply having certain views. Can I vote for packing you off somewhere else since I find your views extremist? If not, what makes you so special that this new law will apply to other people, but not yourself? As far as I can see you are attacking our liberal system – with the irony being that’s exactly what the terrorists were attacking…

  • turquoise_unionist

    Great piece

  • Paddy Reilly

    Fraid you can’t as I am already confined to my lands of ethnic origin (plus EU countries), having no visa for the US etc. The evil fate that I wish to inflict on worrisome Islamicist terrorists is that they be required to live in the land their fathers came from: something I am already doing.

    It isn’t the risk of terrorism: what has happened is that we now have Islamicist law imposed on us. If we say something the Islamicists do not like, we will be executed: the state may undertake to protect us, but it cannot. If we break the law of our own country, we will only be jailed. Islamicist law trumps mere European legislation.

    With the passage of time, the sphere of statements which Islamicists can execute us for will expand, so that no-one will dare to criticise the minutest aspects of Sharia law. It will be too dangerous even to quote Dante. This is their way of gaining power.

    Besides, the statement merely for having certain views is false. Kouachi had already been in jail for Islamic crimes in Paris, Man Haron Monis was subject to demands for extradition for fraud, etc etc.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “As I’ve said before, the Western democratic state is a care-taker state. But more importantly, it does not demand ideological or religious fealty in return for its services. We are free to think as we please.”

    Not so seemingly in the case of Britain at least, as anyone reading “Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents” quickly finds out. There are approved attitudes, and when you are taking the “Life in the UK” test, there are right and wrong answers. This is essensially an ideological position. while I see myself as a liberal person, having a tick list of what is good and what is bad, while perfectly human, gets things simplified and we end up with slogans such as “We can beat the Bullies”, meaning we can bully them into not being bullies. As an earlier Slugger thread puts it: “Magna Carta: “in England today we may do what we like, / So long as we do what we’re told.”” ”

    All states are in essence coersive, try not paying your tax for any reason and see just how fast you are fined vast sums of money, with little or no appeal against the force mageure of HMRC. This is not a care taker state, that’s a sentimental fantasy, but its a pretty conventional modern state using Edward Bernays’ recipies (check out his influential books) for managineg their people, a pretty indifferent machine for collecting tax, incuring public debt to fill shortfalls, and rewarding its apparatchniks, MPs and major civil servants with great pensions for their services while buying votes with public services. I’m not commending the terrorists, mind. My thoughts on that are over on the “Cartoonists unite in support of Charlie Hebdo” thread, and since PD/NICRA days I’ve been entirely anti-violence. But this has never let me take sides with the state, whose violence I detest, against those whose violence I equally detest. Look at where such black hat/white hat thinking has led poor Rith Dudley-Edwards!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As I said above, Superfluous, its pretty much summed up in “we can beat, (ie ‘bully’), the bullies”. I had a long discussion with Lord Lester about ten years back about the delicacy of freedom, and just how any attempt to constrict freedom of speech will simply remove what moral high ground there is taht the “defenders of Freedom” may stand on.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed, Cahir, the automatic habitual reification process ensures that individuals with aborted lives, the real sufferers, simply become chess pieces in a play of ideologies. Thank you for remembering that ten real people lie dead, not “Liberal Democrarcy” or “the French State.”

    You are perfectly right that Jenny is telling us to think “We don’t care what they think”, where it is only the ability to not fall into the knee jerk abstract hatreds of the killers that finally seperates us from them morally.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Cahir – the causes of the attacks that you don’t seem to comment upon anywhere, would appear to be that two drugged up, loser brothers thought they would validate their shite existence by taking the words of whatever ballsack mullah they happened to be watching that week on the web as gospel, taking up arms and murdering a dozen plus people. I don’t know if you were going down the track of the west’s various interventions into Al Q ‘vile (sp ‘Ville) which I don’t personally support – I’d leave them in peace and allow them to massacre themselves, but it pisses me off mightily that people look to blame our actions for these sorts of reactions. I don’t buy it. It’s a mutated slant on a medieval religion that propagate these actions and its terrorism pure and simple, which cannot be “engaged with”. Maybe you an idea?
    Sorry for the rant!