Charlie Hebdo and the ‘Blowback’ Debate

The vicious murder of the editors and writers of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris has had an effect similar to the hysteria that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: demands that we invade Iraq (again!) and also Syria, as well as a campaign of vilification directed at anyone who dares question this dangerous nonsense.

What we might call the Charlie Hebdo Effect, in concert with the rise of the so-called Islamic State, has propped up the previously failing interventionist consensus, mobilizing previously faltering neocons on the right and "liberal" interventionists on what passes for the left around the flag of the War Party.

You may ask: So what else is new? Yet there is something new-ish about the response of some of the more weak-kneed libertarians, who never did care much for the anti-interventionist critique of US foreign policy and have now come out of the closet, so to speak, training their fire not on the interventionists but on principled opponents of US militarism. Shikha Dalmia, writing in The Week, takes aim at Ron Paul: "Former congressman and erstwhile presidential candidate Ron Paul offers a completely off-base analysis of the root cause of the episode. It is blowback for Western foreign policy adventurism, the libertarian-leaning Texan claims." Paul, Dalmia avers, isn’t "doing his avowed commitment to the cause of freedom any good."

Leaving aside for the moment the absurd "libertarian-leaning" appellation – is she really challenging Paul’s libertarian credentials? – Dalmia goes on to write:

"Ron Paul rose to political prominence by making opposition to the West’s foreign policy interventionism his signature issue. So within days of the attack, he was off flogging this hobbyhorse, declaring – after obligatory condemnations – that the Hebdo attack was ‘retaliation’ for French interventionism."

Leaving aside the despicable implication that Ron Paul secretly hails the Paris murders – which is what that business about “obligatory condemnations” really means – one thing is clear: in Dalmia’s world, anti-interventionism is a "hobbyhorse," not a vital pillar of the libertarian philosophy. According to Dalmia, by making opposition to militarism and US foreign policy his "signature issue" – instead of a defense of, say, immigration, her own particular hobbyhorse – Paul has been led astray, the attacks on the French government’s longstanding "bad policy." Dalmia knows better:

"This flies in the face of the declared motives of the attackers. The journalists – whom the assassins identified by name before summarily executing them – were not agents of French foreign policy. Their sin was that they violated an Islamic injunction against drawing pictures of the prophet – and in unflattering ways to boot."

This is just factually wrong. Al Qaeda, which took responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo soon after the smoke cleared, has repeatedly declared they are retaliating against decades of Western intervention in the Middle East: this has been a staple of their propaganda since Day One. And Amedy Coulibaly, who worked in tandem with the Charlie Hebdo attackers in murdering four people in a kosher delicatessen shortly afterward, was quite explicit about his own motivation. While Coulibaly was holding the hostages, he answered when French radio station RTL rang the store phone, slamming the phone down but leaving it off the hook so that his rant directed at his victims was heard and recorded:

“‘I was born in France. If they didn’t attack other countries, I wouldn’t be here,’ [he said].

“In RTL’s recording, the man purported to be Coulibaly tells the hostages that they are accountable for France’s actions against Muslim militants abroad, in part because the hostages pay taxes and elect the government’s leaders. ‘But I am telling you, it’s almost over. Militants are going to come. There are going to be more and more. They (France) need to stop. They need to stop attacking ISIS. They need to stop asking our women to remove the hijab …’ You pay taxes, so that means you agree…’ with France’s actions in Mali and the Middle East, the apparent gunman says in the recording."

You can’t get much more explicit than that.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State wouldn’t be able to recruit the Coulibalys of this world without pointing to Western intervention in the Middle East – and persecution of Muslims in the West – as a rationalization. Instead, they would be what they deserve to be: a marginal group of fanatics ranting from the sidelines. The West, by its actions – a decade-long rampage through the region – has ensured the jihadists are now major players.

All this is recent history, but Paul’s indictment of French imperialism rightfully traces the source of the blowback further back in time.

Understanding the historical context is key: none of the individual terrorists who struck that fateful day would’ve even been in the country but for the fact that France established an African empire in the nineteenth century and fought to hold on to its North African possession well into the twentieth. Mediterranean Algeria was formally annexed by France in 1830, and, in accordance with the "civilizing mission" of the conquerors, the vanquished were considered French citizens. Tunisia got the same treatment starting in 1881. This opened the floodgates to massive immigration, so that in our time more than ten percent of France’s population can trace its origins back to this colonial heritage. To deny that the present internal tumult has its origins in this history is to spit in the face of Clio.

Having learned nothing from history, the politicians of Paris have been pushing Washington to get more actively involved in the Levant: after the attacks, the French ran air sorties over Syria, and sent in a warship to plant the tricolor in the midst of the world’s most volatile region. The French once ruled over Syria, half of which the Islamic State has overrun, and they are deluded enough to think they can reestablish their sphere of influence.

While vaguely acknowledging "that wars have unintended consequences," Dalmia declaims: "But it’s delusional to think that a tamer foreign policy would by itself deter Hebdo-style attacks. Iranian clerics, after all, issued their death fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 – nearly a quarter century before the West announced its (misguided) war on terrorism."

Dalmia is mixing apples and oranges: we aren’t talking here about state-sponsored terrorism, which Iran is not about to engage in at the moment. The issue is non-state actors like Al Qaeda/ISIS, the Sunni Islamists who struck Charlie Hebdo and murdered four Jews who were shopping. The point isn’t that these folks would be deterred from wanting to strike out at the West – but rather that they wouldn’t have the capacity to do so because they’d be unable to recruit pawns like Coulibaly. Al Qaeda and ISIS have convinced thousands of European Muslims that the West is on a crusade to eliminate Islam – and given the history of the past decade or so, who will prove them wrong?

Rather than openly take the Fox News line outright – that Islam is per se evil, and therefore inclined to slaughter innocents – Dalmia sniffs that "such religious violence" shouldn’t "come as any surprise." After all, we in the West didn’t come to appreciate the beauties of blasphemy until very recently: "Had Andres Serrano tried to exhibit Piss Christ – his picture showing a crucifix submerged in a jar of his urine – then [in 1925], he might well have triggered a murderous rampage." Why, "even Hindus" have been known to engage in such unenlightened behavior! And here’s the punch-line:

"It might be politically incorrect to say this, but the truth is that many cultures are simply not as far along in their journey toward the Enlightenment as the West. And until they catch up, such clashes will continue."

Until those Ay-rabs are sophisticated enough to appreciate the Andres Serranos of this world in all their juvenile glory, then we’re doomed to endure endless terrorist attacks by the culturally inferior. Instead of "simplistically attributing every cultural clash to Western foreign policy," says Dalmia, Ron Paul should be campaigning against French "hate crime" laws – as if he had any power in that sphere. Who, exactly, is being simplistic here?

This isn’t a "cultural clash" – it’s a war being waged by non-state actors against the West. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a battle in a military campaign calculated to turn the largely secular Muslim population of France into foot soldiers in the Islamist jihad against the West. As the Middle East expert Juan Cole points out, the purpose of targeting Charlie Hebdo was to "sharpen the contradictions" in French society, provoke an anti-Muslim backlash, and create a pool of potential recruits from a religious minority already radicalized by decades of Western depredations against the Muslim world. As the radical leftist Weathermen in the US liked to put it in the 1960s, they aim to "bring the war home" – which they certainly succeeded in doing.

Dalmia is having none of this, however: instead of listening to Ron Paul and other critics of a failed foreign policy of endless aggression, she declares, "What the West needs to do is stay firm." In other words, keep bombing – and keep idolizing people who draw obscene cartoons of other peoples’ religious figures. And maybe some day they’ll come to appreciate true "art." One wonders if Dalmia would be so fulsome in her valorization of professional blasphemers if, say, the Black Guerilla Family attacked the offices of a white supremacist magazine which depicted Martin Luther King in a variety of sexual poses.

The question answers itself.

Also writing in The Week, Jim Antle – whose anti-interventionist credentials are impeccable, and who has been an invaluable friend to libertarians – makes a much milder form of the same error. Most of his piece is a defense of libertarianism, and while he doesn’t try to minimize the role our foreign policy plays in swelling the ranks of Al Qaeda & Co., he writes:

"Yet sometimes libertarian and conservative critics of American foreign policy do sound as if they are shifting blame away from the terrorists – who are ultimately responsible for their contemptible actions – and toward the victims. The nicest thing that can be said about this is that it is not a very good way to change people’s minds about foreign policy."

The answer to this is that there is no contradiction between blaming the actual attackers – the sick minds who plotted and carried out the Paris attacks – and pointing to the context that made this sickness possible and attractive to many thousands. That context is the foreign policy of the US and its Western allies, including France, since 9/11/01. This is what created the ticking time bomb we saw go off in Paris – Charlie Hebdo and its glorifiers merely caused the fuse to burn a little faster.

Antle continues:

"It’s also possible to exaggerate the effects of blowback. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t the most hawkish magazine in the Western world. It did, however, publish pictures of Mohammed. That’s what the attackers said motivated their decision to murder the cartoonists. Apologists for these crimes argue publicly that there should be consequences to exercising free speech in this manner. Denying or minimizing these facts doesn’t do much for the credibility of libertarian foreign-policy arguments. And it ultimately doesn’t sound very libertarian."

Charlie Hebdo has been publishing pictures of Mohammed in various obscene postures since the 1970s. Yet that didn’t motivate European-born Muslims to murder their own countrymen – and join terrorist cells. It was only after September 11, 2001, and the launching of a massive invasion of the Middle East and North Africa, that the pot boiled over.

Caught up in the immediate moment, stuck in the 24/7 news cycle, it’s sometimes difficult to get an overview – and lose perspective. It’s also easy to cave in to the pressure the War Party relentlessly exerts in its campaign to enforce the intellectual conformity that is the hallmark of a country in wartime. Thus the mindless campaign to pressure every media outlet into publishing the worst of the cartoons. After all, isn’t that just what the world needs right now – more hateful provocations?

The neoconservatives who brought us the last Middle Eastern war are eager to repeat their "achievement," albeit on a much grander scale: what they want is a "civilizational" war pitting the West against over a billion Muslims. So does Al Qaeda and its offspring – and if you think that’s a coincidence, you have a lot to learn.

By the way, there is nothing – repeat, nothing – remotely libertarian about Charlie Hebdo‘s often juvenile Richard Dawkins-style militant secularism, although some would have us think so. These people confuse libertarianism with libertinism, a conflation the enemies of liberty would be glad to see widely accepted. Yes, we defend Charlie Hebdo against violence, whether it be the violence of Muslim terrorists or the coercion of government censors. But let’s be clear about one thing: legalization, yes – glorification, no.


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