Notes From the Margins…

Us and Them: Reflections on the Paris Terror-Siege

  • January 10, 2015
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Like a B movie thriller that you’ve seen too many times before, the Paris terror-spectacle has reached its predictable conclusion.     All the familiar elements of jihadist noir were present: atrocity and murder followed by manhunts, hold ups, and quasi-military sweeps; neighborhood lockdowns, hostages, sieges, gun fights and explosions, culminating in a glorious act of suicide-by-cop with the two hero-martyrs coming out with guns blazing like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

From the point of view of the perpetrators at least, it had a happy ending.   Both the Kouachi brothers and their accomplice Ahmed Coulibaly got to go to heaven, as far as they knew, after taking some of their hostages with them.

Naturally their victims were Jewish, because Coulibaly ‘targeted’ a kosher supermarket in revenge for the treatment of ‘oppressed Muslims’ in Palestine – a noble and selfless act of solidarity that the Palestinians will no doubt be eternally grateful for.

I didn’t watch the ‘denouement’, partly because it was so brutally predictable, and also because I always feel that the actors/auteurs who create such spectacles want as many people to be watching their movie as possible, just as the Islamic State beheading moviemakers do, and   I refuse to give them that satisfaction.

And it isn’t only them.   Because even as the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly were making the use of their fifteen minutes of fame to project their ‘statement’ to a global audience, other scripts were also being written on newspaper front pages, Internet sites and rolling news tickers with titles like   ‘terror in France’, or ‘terror in Paris: a blow against freedom’ or ‘three days of terror’ or ‘France’s 9/11’.

These terror-movie scripts also contained depressingly familiar components; the politicians talking in terror-cliches and exuding innocence and outrage as they pledge to ‘stand firm’ and ‘unite against terror’; the inane proclamation of ‘our’ values,; the binary distinctions between us and them, civilisation and barbarism; the validation of our global state of emergency and the threat we face etc.etc.

And now the smoke is clearing, the credits are rolling, and the audience is leaving the cinema, and we must await the aftermath.

Already some of its dimensions are becoming clear: grenade attacks on mosques and Muslim shops and restaurants; Marine Le Pen blaming ‘immigration’ and calling for a referendum on the death penalty, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the guys who carry out crimes like this don’t actually mind dying and even make a virtue of it.

Nor has it occurred to our dear old Sun, which gleefully celebrated the deaths of the two brothers today like a world cup goal or a torpedoed Argentinian ship.   And that thoughtful sage Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers have gleefully supported every bloody imperial adventure of the century and all the others that preceded it, has drawn deeply on his store of wisdom to tweet:

Deep thoughts from Rupert there, that we would do best to ignore completely.   Elsewhere Internet comments pages and anti-Muslim websites are boiling over with genocidal fantasies of punishment, deportations, repression and war.

And this talk of war isn’t limited to the fervent upholders of freedom of speech and other values that define us from them.     Now ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’, which has its own ‘them’, has come out with the usual inane Bin Ladenesque warning to ‘ stop your aggression against the Muslims, so perhaps you will live safely. If you refuse but to wage war, then wait for the glad tiding.’

From the liberal commentariat there have been calls for ‘moral clarity’ that used to come from neoconservatives, and exhortations to be ‘ruthless’ in extirpating the ‘death cult’ responsible for last week’s horror-spectacle.

Yesterday the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was quoting Pastor Niemoller to place the ‘murderous cult’ within a ‘ long line of murderous fascists, defined as such by their choice of targets. They hate dissent, they hate satire and, as fascist tradition demands, they loathe Jews.’

And in today’s Gruniad, Ian McEwan   takes consolation from the observation that’ a cult rooted in hate is a frail thing and cannot last; the fact that the psychopaths are vastly outnumbered.’

This is comforting, but it is also drivel.   For a ‘cult’ rooted in ‘hate’ AQ and its offshoots have lasted a surprisingly long time, and one of the reasons why they have done so is because of the catastrophic response to them, responses that also contained a great deal of ‘hate’ – even though we like to think of our wars as motivated by something more inherently noble.

I also subscribed to the ‘ I am Charlie’ meme for reasons that I explained in an earlier post, that doesn’t mean  I accept McEwan’s notion that that ‘ the brave and lively staff of Charlie Hebdo…hoped to face down hatred with laughter.’

Does he seriously think that pictures of a hook-nosed Mohammad looking like a Muslim version of a Der Sturmer caricature was an act of love intended to ‘face down hatred?’

Murder should not confer a halo on its victims, and nor should it lead to shallow and incoherent depictions of their perpetrators.  For Freedland the Paris killers were just a ‘fascist death cult fighting a dirty little war’.   I don’t know what a ‘death cult’ is, but it is not the same thing as fascism.

In using the adjective ‘fascist’ as a pejorative epithet  that means ‘bad people’ Freedland appears to have forgotten that fascism was a political movement with political objectives that went beyond the hatred of satire, and so is the modern jihad.

From what we know, one of the Kouachi brothers once claimed that Abu Ghraib and the invasion of Iraq was a major reason for his ‘radicalization.’    Yesterday Amedy Coulibaly defended his actions on the grounds of French participation in the wars in Mali and against Islamic State in Syria.

When one of his hostages said that he was not responsible for the actions of his government, Coulibaly replied ‘ You’re the ones who elected your governments, and the governments never hid their intentions to be at war in Mali or elsewhere.’

This is not a very good argument, morally speaking, for slaughtering cartoonists or Jewish shoppers.

But the fact that Coulibaly made it suggests a wider political context and motivation that is almost always absent from terror-movie ‘us and them’ scripts.   He and his comrades were able to convince themselves that their actions had a certain legitimacy, according to the primitive moral logic that ‘you did this to us so we can do what we like to you’.

Whatever you think of that justification it clearly wasn’t just their interpretation of religion that led them to accept it.

It’s too reductionist to attribute their actions entirely to Western foreign policy or to Western actions in the Middle East,   but nor can they be separated from the wider continuum of violence that was wrought such havoc in the region over the last quarter of a century, in which Western states have been active protagonists.

Though our leaders like to present the 9/11 terror wars as a clash between peaceloving democratic states and terrorists intent on violence and terror for their own sake,  the experience of the last fourteen years makes it clear that militarism and terrorism reinforce, legitimize, and perpetuate each other.

Though France did not support the Iraq ‘pivot’ it has been an avid participant in the ‘war on terror’ in pretty much everything else.

Hollande the socialist has taken to war with a boyish enthusiasm that makes Sarkozy look like a pacifist.   A hyper-militarist with an almost pathetic desire to hurl France into any war, coupled with a willingness to sell jets to any Gulf tyranny, the former schoolteacher has often appeared willing to bomb anything, anywhere, particularly in France’s former colonies, ever since he got elected.

Clearly, to some extent at least, what happened last week is a form of ‘blowback’ from these actions.

Recognizing these connections does not mean that jihadism would simply vanish if the West ‘withdrew’ from the Middle East.   But we shouldn’t imagine that our governments can carry out wars in which hundreds of thousands of people are killed and whole societies ripped to shreds and think that no one will want to kill us or take revenge.

People often forget that al Qaeda was a marginalized and weak organization even when it carried out the 9/11 attacks, whose heroic ‘resistance’ was not nearly as popular in global Muslim society as it thought it would be.   The Bush and Blair wars changed that.   The ‘us versus them’ rhetoric that they used back then ushered in a series of wars and occupations that provided AQ and its cohorts with a continued flow of new recruits.

The world – and the Middle East in particular – is still paying the price for these conflicts.

So it might be comforting to talk once again of civilizational war and use the Charlie Henbo murders to return to post 9/11 depictions of the 21st century as a cosmic struggle between good and evil.   But that didn’t get us very far then and it won’t work now.

No, the West was not the sole cause of the violence that is driving global society towards disaster.  But the actions of our governments have been a major contributing factor to that violence.

And at least at the level of civil society, we should not evade our share of that responsibility by talking about ‘us and them’, death cults’ and ‘psychopaths’, let alone by blaming ‘Muslims’ or Islam.

As long we refuse to recognize the violence in which our governments have been complicit, there always will be young men – and women – who are going to want to kill us and feel justified in doing so.

And we will be forced to watch the movie that we saw last week over and over again, with the same plot and the same script, until one day we end up getting the great civilizational war that too many people on both ‘sides’ seem to want.









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  1. Nik

    11th Jan 2015 - 12:24 pm

    As a responsible native german speaker and confessing grammar Nazi I cannot help but point out that Schleichers “Newspaper” was called “Der Stürmer” 🙂

    • Matt

      11th Jan 2015 - 1:09 pm

      And I very much appreciate your pedantry! Changed. I did know this in fact, but the neural pathways get clogged…

      • Nik

        11th Jan 2015 - 10:33 pm

        Always glad to help. And talking about clogged pathways of course the guys name was Streicher, not Schleicher!

  2. Charlie Hebdo, free speech, us-and-them thinking | Equalities, Connections, Religion, Belief

    30th Jan 2016 - 3:28 pm

    […] 28. Us and them by Matt Carr […]

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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