A SPECIAL DOSSIER: ANALYSIS AND OPINION
TAKE NO. 1
What to Say When You Have Nothing to Say?
What do you say when you have nothing to say?
That is the dilemma suddenly thrust on political leaders and editorialists in France since three masked gunmen entered the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and massacred a dozen people.
The assassins got away. But not for long. The men were well-armed killers. Charlie Hebdo regularly received death threats since publishing derisive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed several years ago. But the controversy seemed to be largely forgotten, the weekly’s circulation had declined (like the press in general) and police protection had been relaxed. The two policemen still on guard were easily shot by the gunmen before they entered the offices in the midst of an editorial meeting. Rarely were so many cartoonists and writers present at once. Twelve people were slaughtered with automatic weapons, and eleven others wounded, some critically.
VIDEO: Shooting at Charlie Hebdo Satirical Magazine Office, Charlie Hebdo Attaque
In addition to the cartoonist known as Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier, age 47) who was current editor in chief of the magazine, the victims included the two best-known cartoonists in France: Cabu (Jean Cabut, age 76), Georges Wolinski (80 years old). A couple of generations have grown up with Cabu and Wolinski, gentle mirrors of the sentiments of the French left.
As they left, one killer came back to finish off a policeman who lay wounded in the street. They stopped to shout: “The Prophet is avenged!” Then they fled toward the northeastern suburbs.
Crowds gathered spontaneously in the Place de la République in Paris, not far from the tiny street where the Charlie Hebdo had its offices. Brave, false slogans spread: “We are Charlie!” But they are not. “Charlie lives!” No, it doesn’t. It has been just about wiped out.
Everyone is shocked. That goes without saying. This was cold-blooded murder, an unpardonable crime. That also goes without saying, but everyone will be saying it. And there is a lot more that everyone will be saying, such as “we will not allow Islamic extremists to intimidate us and take away our freedom of speech”, and so on. President François Hollande naturally stressed that France is united against the assassins. Initial reactions to an atrocity of this sort are predictable. “We will not be intimidated! We will not give up our freedoms!”
Charlie Hebdo was an extreme example of what is wrong with the “politically correct” line of the current French left.
Yes and no. Surely even the most crazed religious fanatic could not imagine that this massacre of humorists would convert France to Islam. The result is certain to be quite the opposite: a reinforcement of growing anti-Muslim sentiment. If this is a provocation, what did it mean to provoke? And what will it provoke? The obvious danger is that, like 9/11, it may strengthen police surveillance, and indeed weaken French liberties, not in the way that the killers allegedly seek (limiting freedom to criticize Islam) but in the way liberties have been restricted in post-9/11 America, by some imitation of the Patriot Act.
Personally, I never liked the provocative covers of Charlie Hebdo, where the cartoons insulting the Prophet – or for that matter Jesus – tended to be displayed. A matter of taste. I don’t consider scatological, obscene drawings to be effective arguments, whether against religion or authority in general. Not my cup of tea.
The individuals who were murdered were more than Charlie Hebdo. The drawings of Cabu and Wolinski appeared in many publications, and were known to a public that never bought Charlie Hebdo. The artists and writers at that editorial meeting all had their talents and qualities which had nothing to do with the “blasphemic” cartoons. Freedom of the press is also freedom to be vulgar and stupid from time to time.
The new slogan, which imagines the attack is all about “freedom of expression” is as dumb in not questioning the deeper roots of these acts as the plague of the “yellow ribbons,” that at one time swamped the Western world and especially the US.
Charlie Hebdo was not in reality a model of freedom of speech. It has ended up, like so much of the “human rights left”, defending U.S.-led wars against “dictators”.
In 2002, Philippe Val, who was editor in chief at the time, denounced Noam Chomsky for anti-Americanism and excessive criticism of Israel and of mainstream media. In 2008, another of Charlie Hebdo’s famous cartoonists, Siné, wrote a short note citing a news item that President Sarkozy’s son Jean was going to convert to Judaism to marry the heiress of a prosperous appliance chain. Siné added the comment, “He’ll go far, this lad.” For that, Siné was fired by Philippe Val on grounds of “anti-Semitism”. Siné promptly founded a rival paper which stole a number of Charlie Hebdo readers, revolted by CH’s double standards.
In short, Charlie Hebdo was an extreme example of what is wrong with the “politically correct” line of the current French left. The irony is that the murderous attack by the apparently Islamist killers has suddenly sanctified this fading expression of extended adolescent revolt, which was losing its popular appeal, into the eternal banner of a Free Press and Liberty of Expression. Whatever the murderers intended, this is what they have achieved. Along with taking innocent lives, they have surely deepened the sense of brutal chaos in this world, aggravated distrust between ethnic groups in France and in Europe, and no doubt accomplished other evil results as well. In this age of suspicion, conspiracy theories are certain to proliferate.
Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book, Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton, will be published by CounterPunch in 2015. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
TAKE NO. 2
Alex Lantier & Bill Van Auken
Twelve dead in terrorist shooting at Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo
Twelve people are dead and eight wounded, including four who are fighting for their lives, after a massacre yesterday morning by masked men armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and bulletproof vests at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The cartoonists Charb, Cabu, Tignous, and Wolinski were among the dead.
Protests were held against the killings in Paris, Toulouse, Strasbourg, and other French cities, as well as in cities across Europe, including London, Berlin, and Rome.
Paris police Wednesday night announced that they had identified three suspects in the attack. The suspects were named as Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, two brothers, both French and in their early 30s, and 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad. Mourad subsequently walked into a police station about 145 kilometres from Paris and is now in custody.
The identification of the alleged attackers raises more questions than it answers. Cherif Kouachi, in particular, is well-known to the French and American intelligence and police agencies. In 2005, the New York Timesreported that he was arrested in France on charges of intending to travel to Iraq to join the insurgency against the US occupation. In 2008, he was convicted by French courts of terrorism charges and sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly attempting to send French Muslims to Iraq. At the time, he told the Associated Press that he had been driven to act by the images of torture from the US prison at Abu Ghraib.
Kouachi served 18 months of his sentence and remained under close surveillance by the French secret services. The French government will have to explain how such an individual—if police claims that he was the gunman are true—was able to obtain a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and automatic weapons and organize a highly professional and deadly attack in the middle of Paris without being prevented or detected.
Moreover, the site of the attack was itself well known to French authorities as a target. The magazine’s headquarters had been placed under police guard when it was fire-bombed in 2011 after publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed. Charb was under police protection, as he was reportedly on a death list drawn up by Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, the gunmen succeeding in gaining access to the building shortly before 11 a.m., by threatening one of its employees at gunpoint.
The Paris atrocity conforms to the pattern of virtually every major case of terrorism internationally, stretching from the September 11, 2001 attacks to the present. They have not been carried out by people off the security services’ radar, but by individuals who were well-known and purportedly under scrutiny. Invariably, the authorities asserted that the atrocities were not prevented due to “intelligence failures.”
Long experience shows that the political forces that set such operations into motion are inevitably more complex and more sinister than they first appear. Nonetheless, the political purposes to which this latest atrocity will be put were readily apparent well before anyone had claimed to identify its authors. It was seized upon as an act that would strengthen the most reactionary political forces in Europe and internationally.
This was the immediate reaction, for example, of the New York Times, which affirmed that the mass killing was “sure to accelerate the growth of anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe, feeding far-right nationalist parties like France’s National Front.”
The attack in Paris unfolded in the context of growing right-wing, xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agitation across the continent, from the mass rallies organized in Germany under the banner of “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West” to the growth of right-wing nationalist parties like UKIP in Britain. As the media reaction makes clear, the carnage in Paris will be exploited to strengthen these reactionary tendencies.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the neo-fascist National Front, exploited the attack as a means of legitimizing her party’s poisonous chauvinist politics. “It’s my responsibility to say that fear must be overcome and we must say that this attack should on the contrary free us in how we talk about Islamic fundamentalism,” she declared. In other words, the gloves were off in terms of whipping up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.
Whoever carried out this massacre, such terrorist actions can only play into the hands of the most reactionary forces in the state, and the growing constituency in the ruling elite for stepped-up military intervention abroad and police-state measures at home. As the aftermath of 9/11 conclusively demonstrated, these actions horrify and disorient the public, and provide an opportunity for the state to implement policies for which—except for the terrorist actions—there is no broad-based popular support.
Predictably, the widely-despised French President, François Hollande, appeared at the site of the shooting at 12:30 p.m. to announce a large-scale police operation and appeal for national unity. With his government’s involvement in Middle East wars growing, despite the overwhelming hostility of the French public, Hollande—France’s most unpopular president of the post-World War II period—seized upon the attack for its political utility.
All accounts of Wednesday’s attack indicate it was carried out in a highly organised and ruthless fashion.
Corinne Rey, a cartoonist at the paper, told L’Humanité: “I had gone to pick up my daughter in child care and, when we arrived in front of the paper’s headquarters, masked and armed men brutally threatened us. They wanted to get in and go upstairs. I entered the code. They shot Wolinski, Cabu … It lasted five minutes. I had hidden myself under a desk…They spoke perfect French, they said they were with Al Qaeda.”
Significantly, the attackers appeared to have detailed intelligence as to the operations of Charlie Hebdo. “The attackers were well informed and knew the weekly editorial board meeting was Wednesday at 10 a.m. Otherwise, the rest of the week, people aren’t around so much,” another Charlie Hebdo journalist told Le Monde.
Witnesses said that the gunmen moved calmly and methodically. They shouted “Allah Akbar” while beginning to shoot. They identified the journalists as they shot them and apparently also said they would not kill women. As they left the building, they engaged in a running gun battle with police. By then, ten people were dead inside the building and two outside, including two policemen.
They attacked several police cars during their escape, shouting “Allah Akbar.” They stopped to execute one wounded policeman with a shot to the head. They then exploited traffic to evade police and abandoned their car near the Porte de Pantin. They commandeered a new vehicle, holding the driver at gunpoint, and escaped into the northern suburbs of Paris.
Anchors on BFM-TV compared the shooting to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and speculated that the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) was responsible. Predicting a major change between “a period before and a period after” the Charlie Hebdo shooting, they added: “January 7 will unfortunately mark France in this beginning of the 21st century.”
During the day, over 3,000 policemen were mobilized for a manhunt in the north Paris suburbs into which the gunmen had disappeared. Heavily armed police were also deployed to train stations, public buildings and monuments in Paris and throughout France.
Alain Chouet, a former security director for France’s General Directorate of Exterior Security (DGSE), told Atlantico: “These are professionals, dressed in black with ski masks so as not to be recognized. They acted in the style of highly-trained criminals.”
Asked whether this meant that Islamist groups like IS were now working with French organized crime, he replied: “It remains to be seen whether the attackers have any foreign ties…They could be one of two types of professionals of violence: criminals who carried out this action for one reason or another, or professionals trained abroad and sent to France for this purpose. However, if the Islamic State had controlled the operation from beginning to end, it seems likely they would have chosen a more symbolic target, more directly representing the French state.”
At this stage, no claims by media or the French state about the attack and who carried it out can be accepted uncritically.
It is possible that the attack was carried out by deeply disoriented and socially alienated French-Muslims, who are embittered by the combination of deplorable conditions in France, anti-Muslim discrimination, their own treatment by the authorities and the bloody consequences of years of US and European military operations in the Middle East. However, this scenario does not exclude the possibility that their actions were facilitated, and even instigated, by agencies and interests of which the actual perpetrators were not aware.
Whatever the case, the political intention and effect of the attack is clear: to polarize society along national, ethnic and religious lines, dividing the working class and strengthening the drive to war, social reaction and repression.
The main danger arising from this horrible attack is the political purpose to which it will be put. In that sense, the media’s initial comparisons of the Charlie Hebdo shooting with the September 11 attacks are a sharp warning to the working class. That tragedy was exploited to embroil the American people in unpopular wars across the Middle East, above all in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to build up US intelligence agencies as a massive domestic spying apparatus, combined with paramilitary forces operating an unaccountable global network of torture and drone murder.
Class-conscious workers will oppose any attempt by the state to exploit the Charlie Hebdo murders to justify stepped-up wars in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East, and further attacks on democratic rights.
TAKE NO. 3
From Syria to Paris
There is a feeling of inevitability about the attack in Paris.
The likelihood must be that the killers were Islamic fanatics, the murder of the journalists and police underlining the degree to which the ferocious religious war being waged in Iraq and Syria now affects all of the world. Regardless of whether or not those who attacked the Charlie Hebdo office have any direct connection with this conflict, it has provided an ideal seedbed for Islamic extremism.
It was culpably naïve to imagine that sparks from the Iraq-Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, would not spread explosive violence to Western Europe. With thousands of young Sunni Muslims making the difficult journey to Syria and Iraq to fight for Isis, it has always been probable that some of them would choose to give a demonstration of their religious faith by attacking targets they deem anti-Islamic closer to home.
One way of measuring the spread of al-Qaeda-type groups is to look at suicide bombings over the last week. Several of them have inflicted heavier casualties than at Charlie Hebdo. For instance, in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, today, a suicide bomber driving a minibus packed with explosives killed 33 police cadets. On Tuesday, another suicide bomber killed 23 Iraqi soldiers and pro-government Sunni tribesmen in a town in Anbar province north-west of Baghdad.
The day before, gunfire and a suicide bombing killed the general heading the Saudi border control force and two others on the Saudi-Iraq frontier. A week earlier, on 30 December, a suicide bomb blew up outside the internationally recognised anti-jihadi Libyan government building in Tobruk.
In this widening sea of violence, regardless of who carried out the Paris massacre, it would be surprising if Western European states remained unaffected. One of the characteristics of the modern jihadi movement has been to commit highly public atrocities both as a method of intimidation and as a demonstration of the religious commitment of those carrying them out.
This was a feature of 9/11, suicide bombings in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and the ritualised murder of journalists and aid workers on camera. An added benefit from the jihadis’ point of view comes if they can tempt the government into an overreaction that helps spread their cause.
Thus George Bush and Tony Blair played straight into the hands of al-Qaeda by responding to 9/11 by sending armies in. The prison wardens of Abu Ghraib, by mistreating prisoners, and the CIA by torturing them, acted as recruiting sergeants. The counter-effectiveness of that strategy is demonstrated by the growth of al-Qaeda-type jihadi movements 14 years after 9/11.
Can anything be done to reverse the trend towards the spread of Islamic fanaticism? Catching and punishing those responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre is not going to deter people who have martyrdom as a central feature of their faith. But bringing to an end, or even just de-escalating the war in Syria, would begin to drain the waters in which violent jihadism flourishes.
Such a de-escalation means the US, Britain, France and their allies accepting that they are not going to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and Assad accepting that he is not going to win back all of Syria. There should be ceasefires between government and non-jihadi rebels. Power would be divided within Syria and, for the first time, governments in Damascus, Baghdad and Paris could unite against violent Sunni jihadism.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.
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