Misunderstanding Terrorism: Charlie Hebdo Didn't Provoke the Killers

By Jane Chong
Monday, January 12, 2015, 3:01 PM

Some commentators who have condemned the Charlie Hebdo killings have, in the same breath, criticized the publication for being unnecessarily provocative. Last Wednesday over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat countered the “unnecessary” half of this characterization, writing: “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”

I don’t disagree. I would only add that to charge the slain with provoking violence is to misunderstand how terrorism works.

To those inclined to accuse Charlie Hebdo of “the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction” or to blast the publication for its “goading stand,” I point out the following: the 12 Charlie Hebdo editors and staffers killed on Wednesday were not targeted by otherwise peaceable fundamentalists pushed over the edge by editorial insult. They were targeted by terrorists seeking optimal targets. The gunmen were not driven to kill by depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, but driven to kill by their own personal psychoses, combined with convoluted political, economic and cultural forces that together persuaded them that theirs was a righteous act of war.

Perhaps you believe, in some drop-in-the-bucket or oil-on-the-fire sense, that the cartoonists played their own small role in contributing to these forces. Perhaps that is what the prominent cartoonist Joe Sacco meant when, in a cartoon responding to Wednesday’s attacks, he prodded Charlie Hebdo’s “vapid” approach to the hot-button issues of the day, alluded to Abu Ghraib and urged us to consider the complexities of extremist anger.

And yet there is something wholly unreasonable about the criticism espoused by, for example, the Financial Times’s Europe editor Tony Barber, who is rightly receiving backlash for accusing Charlie Hebdo of “baiting” French Muslims and “just being stupid” (his column has since been edited). Not because, as his detractors contend, his language minimizes or misconstrues the value of free speech. But because this sort of framing implies that with their work, with their disrespect, with their “foolishness,” the cartoonists to some extent engendered violence---that is, brought into being violence that might have otherwise remained formless.

Everything we know so far about this case points to the opposite conclusion. It appears that the main suspects, Chérif and Said Kouachi, settled on murder before they settled on the identity of the people to be murdered. Indeed, as is usually the case in a terrorist attack, the identity of the murdered remained incidental all the way through. Hence the brutal, point-blank shooting of Ahmed Merabet, the already-incapacitated Muslim police officer writhing on the sidewalk outside the Charlie Hebdo offices. Hence the hostage-taking and killings at a kosher supermarket in Paris two days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

According to court testimony following his arrest a decade ago, Chérif Kouachi long dreamed of attacking Jews in France; later he conceived of fighting Americans troops in Iraq. Authorities believe that he and his brother Said were declared adherents of Al Qaeda, an organization that we all presumably understand systematically blows up innocents irrespective of whether those innocents happen to have penned controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, in the five days since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, thousands of such people---mostly Muslims---have been killed by Islamic extremists, in brutal slaughters conducted by the Al Nusra Front in Lebanon, by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Taliban in Pakistan, and by Boko Haram in what is being described as its deadliest-ever attack in Nigeria.

Assessing the significance and judging the wisdom of Charlie Hebdo’s satire vis-à-vis whether and to what extent the slain cartoonists “provoked” their own murders is perverse in that it turns all of these facts on their head. The identity of the victims and the value of their speech become the lens through which we seek to understand the killers, when the killers’ fury by all accounts extended far beyond the satirical publication upon which they happened to exercise their bid for global attention.

To borrow a legal distinction, using the language of “provocation” in connection with these attacks amounts to treating them as though they were heat-of-passion killings, rather than symbolic executions. It is important that we recognize and emphasize the symbolic---and thus attenuated and premeditated---nature of these killings (and of terrorist attacks generally), because it prevents us from conflating the culpability that, yes, may be properly assigned to larger society, with the culpability that the fools among us seek to assign to the individual victims.

Whatever your assessment of the publication’s choice of satire, the fact remains that the people of Charlie Hebdo made their points despite recurring evidence that in doing so, they were becoming increasingly attractive targets through which terrorists already set on symbolic, messy, maximalist murder might decide to make theirs. Not unlike other courageous figures, including those whose causes command more universal, less controversial admiration---Malala Yousafzai being the standout of our generation---the editors and staff members of Charlie Hebdo eschewed the relative safety that comes of invisibility and anonymity.

Like yeast under stress conditions, every big social media movement encapsulated by a hashtag soon thereafter splits: into those who are for the hashtag, and those who deride the hashtag for promoting the oversimplification of a complex event. So it has proven for #JeSuisCharlie. Nous ne sommes pas tous Charlie, the pushback goes, because we are not as brave as the cartoonists who knowingly risked their lives with their very vocations---or because our chosen modes of expression are not as“lazy and cheap.” Or we should carefully assess our claims that we are Charlie because it makes little sense to redistribute Charlie Hebdo's cartoons under the banner of freedom of speech without first considering the geopolitical context that gives the cartoons their content. Or because by expressing solidarity in this way we run the risk of feeding into a mindless us-versus-other binary.

All points worth consideration. On the other hand, perhaps this hashtag can be understood as a collective attempt to express the particular horror that we feel whenever people are specifically and symbolically killed for their choices. For on these occasions we are reminded that the brave do not “provoke” violence. They only disproportionately shoulder the blow.