In the wake of the Paris shootings, the Western world exalted in the euphoria of unity. Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu (the party crasher) held hands. Two doomed politicians, David Cameron and Francoise Hollande, kissed cheeks. Even the disgraced Nicolas Sarkozy seemed freshly polished for a miraculous second act. The left and the near right—though not the vexing Marine Le Pen—paraded together to the Place de la Republique in a revel of solidarity. Fractious France has united, the press cooed, the terrorists have failed.
But what at a distance seems like a spontaneous coalescence can also be interpreted as a deeply-encoded cultural reflex, a kind of collective defense of the superiority of so-called Western values and identity. This united front must surely have been viewed as a fearful solidarity to Europe’s Muslim community, a confirmation of their worst fears. The surging rallies in defense of free speech were simultaneously mass endorsements of intolerance. Even the slain editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo would likely have cringed at the sight of millions of people who had never read their scabrous magazine reflexively adopting the slogan “Je suis Charlie; nous somme tout Charlie.” It has all the hallmarks of an ominous outbreak of imperial groupthink.
No one paused for a moment to question what set off the killers, what kind of grievances they may have nursed, what kind of motives drove them to slaughter. Judgment was immediate. These were the people Bernard Henri-Levy and Michel Houellebecq warned against. The excitable Muslims, the irrational ones, the fanatics with Kalashnikovs. People who defy our understanding, whose stimulus to action is unworthy of contemplation.
But the Paris killers were French. The Kouachi brothers were, in fact, wards of the state for years, educated by the state, inculcated with French values, bemused by Asterix the Gaul cartoons, and fortified by French food. They were not born “others” or reared as outsiders. They wore French clothes and movies, they played French hip-hop and frequented Parisian clubs. At what point did they come to feel like aliens in their own land? What triggered their transformation into urban jihadis? Was it simply a sudden, irrational eruption over demeaning cartoons in a little-read French weekly?
The western elites would like you to think so, but Cherif Kouachi told those who would listen a much different story. His metamorphosis was sparked by other images, images of sadist degradation of Muslims in Iraq, the photos of American soldiers torturing Iraqis held in Abu Ghraib prison.
Here’s the first thing to know about the Kouachis. While the brothers were born in France, their parents were Algerians, who moved to France from war-torn North Africa while the stench of destruction, assassination and torture was fresh. The stories of those terrible days must have been relayed, again and again to the Kouachi children. They knew better than most that the French torturers of their relatives in Algeria had written the how-to-manual for the American torturers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here was visual proof for the bloody continuity of colonialism. If you’re looking for an ignition point, you might find that the fuse was lit, decades ago, in the abattoirs of Algiers.
Back in Paris, as the transcontinental celebration of tolerance for bigotry reached a frenzied pitch of self-congratulation, French police arrested the acerbic black comedian Dieudonné for making piquant jokes about Benjamin Netanyahu. His routines were deemed anti-Semitic. His post-massacre tweets cited as offensive, a transgression of French laws. Dieudonné had touched the third rail of tolerance.
While Dieudonné was being hauled off to a post-modern Bastille for thought crimes, 10,000 French troops swarmed the streets of Paris, Lyons and Marseilles, dressed in black ops gear, armed with automatic weapons, infused with sweeping new powers of domestic surveillance–a bracing reminder of just how swiftly the feted freedoms of French republic could transform into a police state, poised to crush unauthorized dissent, such as the newly banned protests for Palestinian rights.
One can ignore the cries of rage and despair simmering in the banlieues at your own peril, which, naturally, is exactly what French politicians did, as the National Assembly voted 488-1 to expand its role in the war on ISIS, only a week after the shootings. There was no room for debate. No to march in lockstep was viewed as a measure of seditious disloyalty. The French just put the smirk back on George W. Bush’s face.
Voltaire, France’s fiercest satirist, repeatedly admonished his coterie of radicals to: “Get the laughter on our side.” Chris Rock pithily translated Voltaire’s advice this way: “Satire should be punching upward.” It is a call to use our pens and keypads to puncture the pretensions and prejudices of the powerful.
And here we confront Charlie Hebdo’s greatest failing, not that its cartoonists mocked the Prophet or skewered the Mullahs, but that the magazine became a tool of the ruling order, aiming its most savage work at the most vulnerable citizens of France: the weak, the marginalized and the dispossessed. In the end, Charlie Hebdo, like much of the French intelligentsia, became an agent of orthodoxy, a persecutor of the poor and the powerless, deaf to their desperation.
One person’s euphoria is another’s worst nightmare.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: email@example.com.