At this point, the justified expressions of outrage and the paeans to the dead have long surpassed the need for duplication. What remains is to ask, with the cold clarity of an observer looking down from a great height: Who profits, and who loses, from the terrorist strike at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo?
The profiteers of tragedy, in this case, are all the worst elements in human society, East and West. On the one hand, our War Party is in high dudgeon: on Twitter yesterday [Wednesday], New York Times columnist Roger Cohen shrieked:
"I am shaking with rage at the attack on Charlie Hebdo. It’s an attack on the free world. The entire free world should respond, ruthlessly."
I asked him who or what should be the target, and he responded:
"The perpetrators. Their enablers. Their ideologues. Their fellow travelers. Follow the money. Ruthless equals remorseless."
Cohen, by no means a war-crazed neocon, is ready for a blood purge, and a good chunk of the political class in this country and Western Europe is right behind him. The actual perpetrators of the horrific act of murder are soon to be forgotten as the hunt for the "enablers" and "fellow travelers" is taken up with glee. And the hunters will range far beyond their home terrain as "links" are discovered in the far corners of the globe: indeed, with this act, the mysterious "al-Qaeda" makes its reappearance in our collective nightmares. That amorphous ghost, which seems to be everywhere and nowhere, will be chased down from Toulouse to Timbuktu – and then on to Tehran, as the West gears up for a fresh rampage across the war-scarred Middle East.
The ideologues of state terrorism are already sharpening their swords, which resemble pens, eager to slash their way into the kind of "moral clarity" their kind cannot find in peacetime. Over at the New Yorker, George Packer, an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war – until it became unpopular – hones his blade: any attempt to "understand" (his scare quotes) what happened in Paris by reference to actual events in the real world is for sissies. The French immigration conundrum, French imperialism, and least of all the invasion of Iraq – all of this is irrelevant. Like all too many intellectuals, who deal in ideas, he is only concerned with "ideology," as if such a thing could exist without a material basis.
The problem, Packer avers, is "an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades." And it isn’t just an extreme form of Islam, but Islam itself that energizes this holy terror: after all, Charlie Hebdo skewered all religions, "but only Muslims responded with threats and acts of terrorism." That this is untrue – the terroristic Jewish Defense League threatened one cartoonist, Maurice Sinet, with violence, and the French government itself shut down the magazine’s predecessor because it "insulted" Charles de Gaulle – doesn’t slow down our relentless crusader one bit: after all, the man lives in a world of floating abstractions, and such vulgar phenomena as facts don’t get in his way. And he knows just where he’s going. In France, they can’t just round up all the Muslims and deport them – or worse – and Packer must satisfy himself with educational measures, which will somehow "prevent young Muslims from giving up their minds to a murderous ideology." But elsewhere, farther afield, "higher levels of counter-violence" must be pursued.
Shorter Packer: Bombs away!
The neocons are already using this incident as a way to justify the Surveillance State in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Gary Schmitt, writing in the Weekly Standard, warns against dismantling the Panopticon:
"As the U.S. Congress turns this year to the issue of whether to renew, reform, or let die key sections of the Patriot Act on terrorism surveillance, it might want to keep in mind what has just happened in Paris. If a country such as France – with as strong a counterterrorism effort as there is in a liberal democracy – is still vulnerable, it should give some pause to those members who think now is the time to water-down our own counterterrorism efforts."
Yet Schmitt undermines his own argument by noting that the French have shown little concern for civil liberties – taking an "aggressive stance [that] has of course upset civil libertarians of the French left and right" – and still the well-planned military-style terrorist operation succeeded. So the draconian measures the neocons favor and want to import here didn’t work – but since such measures are an end in themselves, and not a means to accomplish any goal other than enshrining tyranny for its own sake, that hardly matters to Schmitt.
Bill Kristol, the neocons’ strategist-in-chief, denounces the alleged weakness of liberals in the face of the inherent evil of Islam: the New York Times comes in for a tongue-lashing because they dared print a piece on what we knew (at the time) and what we didn’t know about the Paris attack. Among the latter was the motive of the killers – and to Kristol, who doesn’t want to understand the difference between a news organization and an opinion journal, this appalling lack of instantaneous knowledge is proof of their craven capitulation to terrorism. He also makes much of the fact that news organizations are blurring the images of the Charlie Hebdo magazine covers that so inflamed France’s Muslims – "as if they are pornography." According to Kristol, and his co-thinkers, once the threat of violence has been posed we have a moral obligation to broadcast the offending images or other expressive media as widely and loudly as possible – otherwise we are caving in to terrorists.
Would this be true if, say, the Black Guerilla Family blew up the offices of a white supremacist magazine? I think not. So this weird idea fails as a general principle. However, our politically correct leftists are wrong to conflate Charlie Hebdo with racist propaganda, as many are doing. While the magazine took particular aim at Muslim sensibilities – often in a manner that would never have been tolerated in France if any other group had been so targeted – the editors were (and are) equal opportunity provocateurs: no one was immune from their barbed commentary. They weren’t racists – they were professional polarizers. And therein lies the reason they were chosen as a target.
After all, if al-Qaeda – or whichever terrorist faction planned and executed this murderous act – just wanted to take down some infidels, they could have carried out a suicide bombing in the middle of Paris. But that’s not what they’re after. As Middle East scholar Juan Cole explains in a perceptive essay, the radical Islamists are out to "sharpen the contradictions" – to polarize French society along ethno-religious lines and dip into a pool of French-Algerian recruits. He writes:
"The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world."
Their strategy, therefore, is to create a subculture of grievance by provoking the French state into taking repressive measures – and giving the more reactionary sectors of French society the means to lead an organized and effective anti-Muslim backlash. These elements already exist in the National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen, which outpolled all the other parties in the EU elections. The FN is the vanguard of the burgeoning anti-Muslim movement that was sweeping Europe even before the Paris attacks – and will now take off like a rocket.
The paradox here is unnerving: Charlie Hebdo was the French far right’s mortal enemy. The editors once sponsored a petition drive to ban the National Front, and various far-rightists sued the magazine over the years in an attempt to shut it down. That these types are going to be the main political beneficiaries of the Paris attacks mocks the dead with a dreadful irony.
The radical Islamist project is out to polarize not only France but the world: like their funhouse mirror counterparts, the neocons, they too view world events through a Manichean prism, a great civilizational conflict between two irreconcilable ideologies. Like the Weathermen faction that plagued the American left during the tumultuous 1960s, the goal of their violence is to bring down society’s fist on Europe’s Muslim minority – all the better to sweep them up into the waiting arms of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, or whatever form these fanatics invent.
Therefore the campaign to broadcast images most Muslims find offensive gladdens them because it quickens their effort to "sharpen the contradictions" French society is already rife with.
While the French far right rails against Muslim immigration, the reality is that most Muslims resident in that country have been there for at least a generation. They are citizens because, in the heyday of French imperialism, Algeria and environs was annexed directly into the French empire and made a "department" of the Republic – a mistake America’s imperialists avoided (or were dissuaded from) when they first acquired overseas possessions.
These aren’t immigrants, they are citizens, having been integrated – not always successfully – into French society, where they are in a position somewhat analogous to African-Americans in that they suffer discrimination in jobs, housing, and the exigencies of everyday life. The hijab has been banned in the public schools and in "public spaces," supposedly in accordance with the French anti-clericalist tradition of which Charlie Hebdo is one expression: however I know of no attempt to rip the crucifixes off the necks of Catholics who venture out in the public square, and this is one form of direct repression which must grate on devout Muslims as symbolic of their semiofficial otherness.
The contradictions are there, to be exploited by terrorist factions and by the likes of Marine Le Pen. And our own polarizers are also having a field day with this, hoping to reintroduce the intellectual terrorism that targeted the Susan Sontags and the Noam Chomskys, who stood up against the wave of mindless militarism that swept the nation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. How dare anyone challenge the idea that our response to murder must be to promote the nihilism that profanes the sacred as a matter of high "principle"! While some may seek to valorize Charlie Hebdo as unmitigated heroes, no libertarian – or decent person, for that matter – could react with anything other than revulsion to this cartoon which celebrates the murder of peaceful demonstrators by Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
A corollary to intimidating dissenters into silence – in the name of a fight for "free expression," no less! – is a foreign policy agenda that seeks to restart the so-called "Long War" which George W. Bush and the Cheneyites declared on the ashes of the World Trade Center. Indeed, if you listen to Bill Kristol, even Bush caviled in pursuing the neocons’ policy of perpetual war. This time they hope they can go all the way, if only the contradictions can be sufficiently heightened and the world can be polarized as a prelude to another American war of conquest – one that will take us to the gates of Moscow, Tehran, and beyond.
The warning of the Founders against going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy" rings down through the years, and yet all too many Americans – diverted by propaganda and the mass hysteria generated by modern media – are deaf to it. My biggest fear is that we’ll all wake up one day to find that the monsters are right here, where they’ve always been. By then it will be too late to leash them and put them in their proper place, which is a zoo.