Terror Attacks in France: Sanity and Decency in Terrible Times

The terror attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7 which killed 12 people in a military style assault was followed by two other attacks causing the death of five more people. The victims were Jewish, Muslim, atheistic or Christian, French and non French. The immediate reaction of a huge majority of people in France was to rise in defense of freedom of speech and in the expression of a desire to live together. The massive demonstrations which followed were also a defense of the same values.

It is simply not accurate to say that Charlie Hebdo was racist or Islamophobic as many radical left media in the US claim. There had been a debate about whether it was wise or advisable to publish the controversial Danish cartoons in 2005 but no one on the left here thought this satirical magazine was racist. On the contrary it is perceived as anti-racist.

The kind of humor common at Charlie Hebdo is vulgar and in bad taste and often it is what is known in French as humor au second degré (ironic, offbeat humor which refers to various levels of information). I don't particularly like this kind of humor, but that is not the point. The left in France, radical or not, is united in condemning the attacks and calling for demonstrations. Glenn Greenwald is wrong to think Charlie Hebdo never made fun of Jews, particularly of rabbis for the magazine mocks religions, all religions. Its history is one of anti-clericalism, common among French leftists. The left in France fought a long battle against the Catholic church.

The shock and popular reaction are perfectly understandable when writers are killed for what they draw or write and when this attack on freedom of speech is followed by an anti-Semitic massacre by the same gang. The key issue here is not whether one agrees with the magazine or not, something which should be easy to grasp in the land of the ACLU where freedom of expression is not only guaranteed by the first amendment but also a cornerstone of progressive politics.

When writers, journalists or cartoonists are murdered, freedom of expression is threatened and must therefore be reasserted. Democracy cannot exist without this basic right. This has nothing to do with the identity of the writers, whether they be Turkish and writing about the Armenian genocide or American writing about the history of Israel-Palestine or right-wing writers who are offensive to progressives (for instance, Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands). After the shock, the French reaction is therefore first of all a reaction against political murder and attacks on freedom of speech. The basic meaning of the slogan which became a rallying cry Je suis Charlie, (I am Charlie) is then "I oppose political assassination and I defend freedom of speech." Tunisians had the same type of reaction when Mohamed Brahmi, a progressive, was assassinated in 2013. The demonstrators come from all walks of life, all ethnic or faith communities. Muslims worked for the magazine and at least one Moroccan woman belonged to the staff.

The attacks on a paper were followed by an attack on a kosher supermarket. The motives of the killer were obviously anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in France and it is quite true that some people in the deprived areas known in France as banlieues (suburbs, though it's closer to inner cities in sociological terms) have chosen this simplistic way of expressing their frustration or anger. Denouncing "islamophobia" (a problematic term) or anti-Arab racism (a better expression) which are also rampant in France should not act as a kind of blindfold: anti-Semitism does exist. It is also true that the huge majority of Muslims in France disapprove of the attacks and are not anti-Semitic. Indeed, as one article from Haaretz which Truthout included in its Buzzflash section, showed how one brave guy from Mali saved the lives of 15 people at the kosher supermarket in Paris. Some victims of the murderers were Muslim and targeted because they worked for a paper or the police.

Of course the legitimate emotion was immediately used by various groups for various reasons. The government of so-called socialist Hollande surfed on the emotions and popular reaction to deploy a two-faced anti-terror rhetoric which both relates to the popular revulsion toward murder and legitimates a foreign policy said to be directed against terrorism but which, on the contrary, often promotes it. The French intervention in Libya in 2011, decided by the former administration but supported by the socialists, contributed to the chaos and rise of terrorist groups which in part spilled over into Mali and led to a French military intervention. The emotion and demonstration bracket the Western responsibility in the rising chaos.

At a time when people are in shock it is very difficult to be sober and analyze historical contexts. All groups focus on their woes and tend to forget the crimes targeting others and tend to forget their own crimes. It is also difficult to remember that there are multiple forms of terrorism and that every day people die somewhere in the world. Americans forget drones, the French forget their intervention in Libya. The pain and shock occupy the mind and the heart. Numbness is followed by the energy of demonstrations. The shock brackets rational and historical thinking for a while. The time for sane, rational analysis comes just after. So yes, historical consciousness disappears for a while.

Here a quote by Chomsky on Z Net is particularly apt: "The reaction of horror and revulsion about the crime is justified, as is the search for deeper roots, as long as we keep some principles firmly in mind. The reaction should be completely independent of what one thinks about this journal and what it produces." The US war in Iraq which Bush started under false pretense in 2003 and the torture and destruction which followed created a lot of rage in the Muslim world, a rage which easily becomes vicious terror directed at the West. Those who finance terrorist groups or are responsible for torture and massacres and now demonstrate in Paris are co-responsible for the crimes and are therefore hypocrites. This does not in any way justify the murders committed in France this week. The murderers who killed cartoonists, shoppers and journalists cannot be considered any less responsible because of the international context. In French there is an expression which confuses two very different processes: Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardoner (Understanding everything is condoning everything). Unfortunately this is totally wrong. One must understand the international context, see how a barbaric organization like ISIS could emerge and find supporters everywhere in Europe without condoning terrorism. Understanding should lead to a better way of dealing with terror and changing one's own counter-productive actions.

The demonstrations in Paris gathered a lot of leaders who are running countries which are not respectful of freedom of speech, countries where state terrorism is rife and these leaders are those that Charlie Hebdo made fun of. Netanyahu, Orban from Hungary, the Ukrainian PM, the Russian foreign minister, leaders from Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey -- not exactly a panel promoting freedom and real democracy at home. One major ambiguity of these demonstrations but here there is a calculation everyone has to make: should one not demonstrate because the demonstration is not pure? Last July, there was the same difficult calculation: there were anti-Semites mixed in with the demonstrators about Gaza. How could one demonstrate and not help the terrible confusions? When we demonstrated against the Iraq war, some marchers also were not progressive or decent. Still we were right to demonstrate. The same is true of France today: "The reaction of horror and revulsion about the crime is justified" and of course the rest of the quote also applies.

When things are complex and ambiguous how does one retain one's sanity? In this particular case, several principles should be respected: freedom of speech, total condemnation of political murder, rejection of all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, a foreign policy which should be re-organized around the Hippocratic principle: first do no harm, a denunciation of all forms of political manipulation of the horror of the attacks.

This means opposing the far right's instrumentalization of the emotion to call for the return of the death penalty and immigration policies based on xenophobia. It means siding with those who fight against anti-Semitism without falling into the trap that Israeli leaders have set up; doing what Israelis on the left themselves do when they oppose Liebermann and Netanyahu. Most of all we must all mobilize against the peddlers of a war of civilizations. There is a divide within Islam but not between Islam and the West or between the West and the rest. We must unite against the Huntingtonian nightmare by being all decent defenders of freedom of speech, anti-racists and fighters for justice.

There is this possibility in the mobilization in France but there is also the possibility of a slide into a Bush dead end as happened after 9/11 in the US. We are at a cross-roads, we must prevent the implicit collaboration between so-called Islamist terrorism and reactionary forces in our midst. Terrorists and reactionaries feed off each other, as is well-known. There is no reason though to slide into a spurious religious or culture war. The demonstrations help stop this slide into a Hobbesian anarchy welcomed by the anti-democratic forces which have formed a subterranean alliance. We, decent people, appalled by terror must work against all forms of terrorism, everywhere in the world, with all groups or communities. Western interventions which fuel terrorism must be stopped. We must defeat the ghost of Huntington and we can do it whatever our ethnic origins or creeds.