I Understand Nothing

I have felt ill and exhausted since first reading about the murders at Charlie Hebdo. The illness comes, partly, a sense of the pressure to form an opinion. The killers have forced themselves on the world's attention. Like the scriptural passages in a liturgical calendar, their monstrous acts have become the mandatory starting point for all interpretation.

I don't want to start there. I don't want to start there because for more than thirteen years, the judgments of the world's powers have been terribly, violently distorted by taking monstrous acts too seriously. Since September 11, Americans in particular -- though not only -- have supported politicians and opinion-mongers in pivoting their geo-politics and world views on isolated, spectacular, terrible acts by terrible people.

I don't want to be pivoted on this one. I am sick at how familiar the scripts have become. Consider:

Point I: Murder is horrible and inexcusable, especially murder over words and ideas. (Yes, of course.)

Counterpoint I: But we must not forget that many kinds of violence, even many murders, happen everywhere, including drone strikes on innocent suspects and torture by "free" governments. Denouncing what is obviously evil can be too easy, especially at a convenient distance, and can obscure more inconvenient evils.) (Yes.)

Point II: Free speech and thought are central civilizational values and worth defending without stint. (Yes.)

Counterpoint IIA: But in practice, and intending no excuses for killers, most adults learn to exercise free speech with discretion. (True, David Brooks, though somewhat beside the point, even for you.)

Counterpoint IIB: Anyway, the North Atlantic world is no paradise of free speech. Have you heard of mass surveillance and Edward Snowden? Once again, moral clarity about an obvious evil may blind us to subtler threats to "our" values. (Quite right.)

Point III: France has an integration problem, producing thousands of disaffected young people with poor prospects. Some of these end up attracted to extremist versions of Islamist politics. We can't understand the Paris murders without this structural view, any more than we can understand police killings in the US without considering the intersections of race, poverty, and violence here. (All true.)

Counterpoint III: Islam is the vocabulary and flag for many of the world's most violent, anti-liberal, anti-woman, and generally intolerant movements. Though it has no monopoly on religious violence (witness Christian militias in Nigeria, Buddhist terror against Muslims in Burma, etc.), it is quite intelligible to say that Islam has a terror problem. (Yes.)

Counter-countpoint III: Pointing this out very easily feeds into anti-Muslim bias, which is widespread in Europe, the US, and elsewhere. This degrades and endangers the lives of the vast majority of Muslims, in France and elsewhere, who are trying to live their lives just like anyone else and, being human, are as susceptible as anyone to paranoia and resentment. (Just so.)

The Internet's first (and second and third) responders pick their major themes, holding aside the remaining minor themes in to-be-sure asides or reassuring first sentences. (Murder is really wrong.)

When it succeeds on its own terms, this writing is pretty. It is pretty in a specific way: it is coiled with a certain kind of tension between competing liberal commitments -- principle and context, nuance and clarity, John Stuart Mill's fighting faith and Michel de Montaigne's "I reserve judgment." This is the rhetoric that high-toned liberalism (a broad category that definitely includes David Brooks) has made its own since the liberal anti-communist of the twentieth century: alert to all considerations, proud of the scope of its views, committed to the tension among them. It has room for all variations, all compositions. In fact, they require one another. Their respective exaggerations form the point-counterpoint of a single, improvisational concert of moral and perspectival tension that becomes evidence of intellectual virtue and almost an end in itself.

Why dislike this -- a style that, after all, I am sure I usually share, and is the joint product of sincere and smart people doing their best? Partly because of an incongruity between the seeming clarity of the judgments and the opacity of the realities. It's been widely noted that most commentators have not exactly been regular readers of Charlie Hebdo. But our ignorance is much more impressive than that. What do most of us know about growing up Arab in the suburbs of Paris? What do we know about the global and local networks of Islamist recruitment that drew in the killers? Where are the facts that will help us to balance the George Packer story that figures the murderers as soldiers in a global war -- an occasion for the clarity of a fighting faith -- and others that insist on the need to understand what local conditions made the fantasy of such a war attractive to them -- the tense ambiguity of context?

Moral clarity can be addictive, with all the self-deception and charisma of addiction. So can ambiguity. Without useful knowledge to check you, there isn't much alternative to these seductive habits. And they can subsume all kinds of facts.

None of this commentary is producing facts. None of it is producing knowledge. It is holding up scanty, bloody, awful facts, which we all share, until they catch the refracted light of our previous convictions and arrange themselves into a reassuring image: the world is awful, and we have been right all along.

This writing uses the rhetoric of intelligence to produce feelings. Feelings, above all, of seriousness, the feeling of having mastered a sickening event, and a dizzying set of reactions, that have forced themselves upon us.

Maybe it is a heretical thought, but I would rather refuse the hijacking of my attention and feelings by murderers. I would rather not spin facts of which I am mostly ignorant until they fit my existing beliefs and give me the mood, if not the reality, of having understood something. Today, I understand nothing.

That is another exaggeration: but it is a relief from what would be, at least for me, a false sense of having taken responsibility.