I live in Paris. Indeed, it has been the center of my life since 1976. I love Paris, and I love France.
I have until now hesitated to circulate any articles or thoughts on the recent bloody events in France, in part because my own thoughts have been in flux. However, as the initial shock-induced groupthink has moderated and more thoughtful and nuanced articles and views have started to appear, I will now share my own thoughts.
It goes without saying – or SHOULD go without saying – that ALL massacres of innocents are horrible are unjustifiable.
However, a brief AP article in the weekend edition of the International New York Times reports that, on the same day that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were assassinated, “as many as 2,000 people were killed” by Boko Haram in Baga, a town on the Nigerian border with Chad, and that “most of the victims were children, women and elderly people who could not run fast enough when the insurgents drove into Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles at residents.”
Few people on the planet can be unaware that 20 people (including the three killers) have been killed in and around Paris this week. Few people even among my distinguished recipients will be aware that up to one hundred times as many people have been killed in Baga this week.
Huge numbers of non-Western, non-Christian and non-Jewish people are being slaughtered every day in many countries around the world, by their fellow Muslims, by Westerners, by Christians, by Jews and by atheists. Such deaths are so common and routine that they constitute a barely newsworthy journalistic yawn.
In Paris this week, a relatively limited number of atheists (the cartoonists), Christians, Jews and, yes, two Muslims were killed by Muslims seeking revenge for the insults and humiliations which they perceived to have been inflicted on their prophet, their religion and their co-religionists – not because of any more general hostility to “freedom of the press” or “freedom of expression” – the cartoonists would not have been targeted by their killers had they confined their insults to Christians and Jews – or to the proclaimed values of Western civilization.
This was a rare event, hence newsworthy (indeed, especially newsworthy since journalists were targeted) and shocking.
It is also undeniable that, at least in most Western, Christian and Jewish eyes, Western, Christian and Jewish lives are infinitely more valuable and important than non-Western, non-Christian and non-Jewish lives.
This afternoon, over a million people, including President François Hollande and nearly 50 foreign leaders, have marched in the streets of Paris. So far as I am aware, no one has been marching anywhere to honor those killed in Baga.
There has been much homage paid in recent days to “freedom of the press” and “freedom of expression” in France. These are noble concepts. However, consciously and gratuitously provoking others, particularly marginalized minorities, by insulting them, their human dignity and their most deeply held beliefs does not strike me as an exercise of freedom of expression at its most noble, humane or constructive level.
One may wonder what it means to proclaim “Je suis Charlie” or “Nous sommes tous Charlie”, as people are doing all round the world. All atheists? All Islamophobes? All equal-opportunity insulters of all religions, all believers and all people of power and prominence? Are they declaring that they are FOR some values or AGAINST some people? Time will tell. One must hope for the best.
In light of my intense interest in justice for the Palestinian people, I am aware of several instances in recent years in which “freedom of expression” in France has been revealed to be distinctly subjective and discriminatory:
1. On several occasions, Palestine solidarity and BDS activists have been prosecuted for the crime of “inciting discrimination and racial hatred” for publicly advocating a consumer boycott of Israeli products.
2. The current French prime minister, Manuel Valls, banned a show by the hugely popular stand-up comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala on the grounds that portions of the show offended Jews. (Dieudonné, like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, is an equal-opportunity insulter, but, while they were most famous for insulting the Prophet Mohammed, Islam and Muslims, he has attracted most media attention and criticism for insulting Jews.)
3. During the Gaza massacres this past summer, Mr. Valls banned a demonstration in Paris in sympathy and solidarity with the people of Gaza.
4. Needless to say (although one hesitates to mention it), no one would dare to suggest publicly that any aspect of the received wisdom regarding the Holocaust might possibly be less than 100% historically accurate and correct. Doing so would produce not simply social ostracism but prosecution for the crime of “denial”.
One may hope that the shock of this week’s events will lead to more, rather than less, freedom of expression in France, ideally of a less discriminatory, more consistent and more constructive and non-insulting-for-the-sake-of-insulting nature.
I was alarmed this week to see a front page of Le Monde headlined “FRANCE’S SEPTEMBER 11”. I hope and trust that France will not, like the United States after 9/11, go berserk, transforming its former democracy into a fear-driven surveillance state with strong totalitarian tendencies, lashing out at perceived enemies at home and abroad and thereby creating more enemies and greater hatred directed toward it and its people. (The Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, had previously attributed their personal radicalization to the American torture and humiliation program at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.)
In this context, I cannot help recalling (and retransmitting below) the concluding paragraphs of the long-form version of my December 2001 op-ed article on the use and abuse of the word “terrorism”, which was published in the spring of 2002 by Global Dialogue (Nicosia), Politica Exterior (Madrid), International (Vienna) and the Pugwash Newsletter (the semiannual magazine of the Council of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995) and which remains posted in full on a website of the U.S. Democratic Party:
“If the world is to avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule is “might makes right”, every “retaliation” provokes a “counter-retaliation” and a genuine “war of civilizations” is ignited, the world – and particularly the United States – must recognize that “terrorism” is simply a word, a subjective epithet, not an objective reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend all the rules of international law, domestic civil liberties and fundamental fairness which have, until now, made at least some parts of our planet decent places to live.
“The world – and particularly the United States – must also recognize that, in a world filled with injustice, violent outbursts by those hoping desperately for a better life or simply seeking to strike a blow against injustice or their tormentors before they die can never be eradicated. At best, the frequency and gravity of such outbursts can be diminished by seeking to alleviate (rather than to aggravate) the injustices and humiliations that give rise to them, by more consistent and universal application of the fundamental religious principle to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and of the fundamental principle of the founding fathers of American democracy that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, by treating all people (even one’s enemies) as human beings entitled to basic human rights and by striving to offer hope and human dignity to the miserable millions who have neither. A single-minded focus on increased military, “security” and “counter-terrorism” programs and spending will almost certainly prove counter-productive to its declared objective, diminishing both security and the quality of life not only for the poor, the weak and the oppressed but also for the rich, the strong and the oppressors.
“The trend since September 11 has been to aggravate, rather than to alleviate, the very problems which fueled the sense of humiliation and hatred behind that day’s attacks. However, it is not inevitable that this trend must continue – unless, of course, men and women of good will, compassion and ethical values, who share a well-founded fear as to where the world is heading and can see clearly that there must be, and is, a better way, permit themselves to be terrorized into silence.”
A FINAL THOUGHT: As might be expected, Bibi Netanyahu, who has been in Paris for today’s march, has sought to turn this week’s events in France to his own advantage. He has lectured Western leaders that “the terror of Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and Al-Qaida” won’t end “unless the West fights it physically, rather than fighting its false arguments” and has told French Jews that Israel is their country and that they will be welcomed if they choose to emigrate there. I also presume that it is at his initiative that the four Jews who died Friday evening are to be buried together in Jerusalem on Tuesday. At a time when the French nation is trying to come together around the principle that all French citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs or non-beliefs, are first and foremost French, I find this initiative, suggesting as it does that French Jews are first and foremost Jews (or even Israelis) and only secondarily French, profoundly counter-constructive.
John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.