The Problems with Being Charlie

It’s one thing to decry all terrorism and defend the principle of free expression; it’s another to show disproportionate concern for some victims over others and to embrace offensive or irresponsible media content, troubling issues from the Charlie Hebdo case, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The responses, outside as well as inside France, to the recent attacks in Paris have become a bigger phenomenon, at least as worthy of analysis and explanation, as the attacks themselves. This pattern is hardly unprecedented regarding reactions, or overreactions, to terrorist incidents, but what has been going on over the past week exhibits several twists and dimensions that are especially misleading or misdirected.

Scale of the attacks vs. scale of the reaction. Seventeen people, not counting the perpetrators, died in the Paris incidents. With the usual caveat that the death of even a single innocent as a result of malevolently applied violence is a tragedy and an outrage, the response has been far out of proportion to the stimulus.

Islamic terrorists prepare to execute a wounded policeman after their attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, 2015.

Islamic terrorists prepare to execute a wounded policeman after their attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, 2015.

The magnitude of what the Paris attackers did was modest by the standards even of international terrorism, let alone by the standards of all malevolently applied violence or of political violence in general. By way of comparison, about the same time as the Paris attacks the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram conducted a massacre in a town in which probably several hundred, and possibly as many as 2,000, died. The international attention to this incident was minuscule compared to the Paris story.

Of course anything disturbing that happens in a major Western capital is bound to get more attention than an even bloodier happening in a remote part of an African country. Probably another reason why press coverage of the Paris story was enormous from the beginning was that the target of the first attack was part of the media, and that ipso facto makes the story of greater interest to the press itself.

But much of what we have been seeing over the past week is an example of how public and political attention to something, regardless of what that something is, tends to feed on itself. Once a certain level of salience is reached and enough people are talking and writing about a subject or an event, then for that very reason other people start talking and writing about it too.

As the attention snowballs, political leaders feel obligated to weigh in and to appear responsive, regardless of their private assessment of whatever started the crescendo of public attention. Thus in the current instance even the White House feels obligated to answer for the President or Vice President of the United States not having flown off to join a crowd in Paris.

Consistency vs. inconsistency in upholding free speech. With the initial attack being against the staff of a magazine, the whole story quickly became couched as one of upholding the right of free speech and freedom of the press (a particular reason for the interest of the press itself and thus the extensive coverage the press devoted to the story).

Lost sight of amid the swell of street-marching champions of such civil liberties is the inconsistency in getting so worked up about this one affront to free speech but not to others. Surely we ought to be worked up as much about other, comparable limitations on free expression, especially when the power of the state is used to enforce those limitations. In France itself the state enforces a variety of such limitations, some of which might be offensive to those who were offended by what the magazine published, and some of which are apt to be offensive to other groups, often with criminal penalties attached.

Of course, glaring examples become even easier to find outside Western liberal democracies. One thinks, for example, of the outrageous blasphemy laws in Pakistan. And last Friday Saudi Arabia administered the first 50 of 1,000 lashes as part of the punishment of a human rights advocate accused of “insulting Islam” because he established an online forum for discussing matters of faith. Some international protest was heard in response, but nothing remotely comparable to the outpouring in Paris.

Right to free speech vs. responsibility in exercising that right. The exerciser of free speech in question in Paris was a satirical magazine that seems to specialize in cartoons that are bound to offend a lot of people. It is fair to say that in the centuries of struggles for civil liberties, this is probably not one of the nobler vehicles for the cause. We are not talking Thomas Paine here.

What is that “je suis Charlie” stuff supposed to mean? That we are all dedicated to putting down religious prophets? With most rights also go responsibilities, and prudence in the exercise of those rights, with an honest effort to bear in mind the consequences of what one does or says. Responsible, prudent exercise of a right does nothing to diminish or compromise that right.

We in the United States should have had occasion to think hard about such matters recently with the episode involving a comedic Hollywood movie that offended the North Koreans, and ordinary North Koreans, not only the regime, were offended. If North Korea conducts computer sabotage against an American company, we certainly should strongly object to that. But we also might imagine how we would react if a North Korean film company, or any other film company for that matter, were to produce a movie with a plot centered around assassinating the President of the United States. We would understandably object, and it is unlikely that we would be discussing the issue primarily in terms of artistic freedom or a right of free speech.

Unity vs. disunity among world leaders. That image of foreign leaders locking arms with French President Francois Hollande and each other suggests that they are of one mind about whatever they were marching down the avenue about. Don’t believe it. It was a phony show of unity.

Each one of those leaders had his or her own reasons for being there, involving politics back home as well as international politics, and not just to show solidarity and good will toward the French. This may have been most apparent with the graceless Benjamin Netanyahu, who rebuffed the French government’s request for him to stay away rather than inserting his own agenda, but he was not unique in having an agenda. (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas initially acceded to a similar French request for him to stay away, before Netanyahu’s decision to crash the event made it politically necessary for him to come as well.)

If President Obama had attended, it mainly would have been to avoid subsequent political criticism at home for not having attended. That is a bad basis for deciding how to apportion the President’s time.

Debate about Islam. The Paris events have rekindled an old debate about whether the seeds of violent Islamist extremism can be found in the content of Islam itself. That debate had a surge a couple of decades ago when Samuel Huntington was writing about a clash of civilizations and about how Islam has “bloody borders.” The debate gets a renewed surge whenever, say, Congressman Peter King says something on the subject or events such as those in Paris transpire. The debate will never be resolved.

The debate as commonly framed is not very useful because even if those who argue that the content of Islam explains the motivations of those who commit violent acts in its name were right, and they are more wrong than right, that would not take us very far toward any implied policy recommendations.

There still would be the fact that the great majority of adherents to the same religion are not violent and are not terrorists. There still would be nonviolent Islamist parties, movements and regimes to deal with, and there still would be large Muslim populations whose emotions and preferences would have to be taken into account.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt spoke the other day about the need for a reformation of Islam. Maybe he’s right, but it certainly would not be up to Western governments to accomplish, push, or otherwise influence any such reformation. There probably isn’t much else al-Sisi himself could do to accomplish it.

One of the essential policy-relevant points that Western governments do need to understand is that Islam provides a vocabulary for expressing a wide variety of ideologies (a fringe subset of which is used to justify violence).

Another essential point is that notwithstanding the very wide array of ideologies and objectives found under the banner of Islam, there is a widespread sense of a single Muslim community or umma; what happens to one part of that community can become a grievance or inspiration for actions of another part, including a violent part.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “The Problems with Being Charlie

  1. January 17, 2015 at 11:48

    Great Comments, regardless of what happened, the story is being used by the enemies of the people to further divide us and pass more orwellian surveillance and anti-Habeus legislation in order to further their preparations toward their end, perpetual control under their banner of evil. strange how even on progressive websites the arguments are limited to a official narratives and fail to mention the patriot act style legislation introduced days after the Hebdo, Australian, and Canadian Parliament building “terror attacks” many of the readers however dig deeper, as evidenced in the above comments, and thats why we have hope, many people are aware and actively working against this system.

    Most think it was MOSSAD/CIA and the power they represent, we won’t know that until the end, but we do know who benefits and who loses from calculate use of these events to strip our rights and further militarize our governments against us right before the largest economic decline in world history. The writing is on the wall.

    Unite and Fight, the Clock is ticking!

  2. rose day
    January 17, 2015 at 00:13

    Reasoned rhetoric on “being Charlie”, a paradigm rife with inconsistencies.

    Are all Muslims to blame for a fringe element that may be nothing more than pawns in controlled manipulation designed to keep the masses on edge and create a common foe? (Were all Russians to blame for Stalin…all Germans for Hitler?)

    To the concept regarding this act as a flaw within Muslim precepts one may ask…
    Was the Inquisition the result of flawed precepts? The hypocrisy is astounding.

    “Je suis Charlie” as a paradigm will begin to ring ‘true’ when we awaken to this crass
    manipulation and non-Muslims hit the streets with placards proclaiming “Je suis Muslim”.

  3. January 16, 2015 at 16:20

    The floodgates had begun to open across Europe on recognition of Palestinian statehood. Britain, France,Germany, Luxembourg and Chile broke ranks with the US in favor of the Israel-Palestine peace draft resolution tabled by Jordan and France at the UN, to make a point against the Israeli hardliners. Read: Former Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr:

    Something needed to be done about Europe.

    The entire show is simply another example of how anyone who opposes the US/Israeli Imperial Alliance and does not join the Willing Coalition is either discredited, demonized or demolished by fraud, falsehood and fear, all at the hands of the US/Israeli Disinformation Industry.

    We wage war by deceit. And, if that doesn’t work we will get NATO to bomb the hell out of you!

    PS: To quote Dr. Paul Craig Roberts : “… the recent statement by the President of France that the economic sanctions against Russia should be terminated, clearly, France was showing too much foreign policy independence. The attack on Charlie Hebdo serves to cow France and place France back under Washington’s thumb.”

  4. January 15, 2015 at 23:43

    Dear Paul,

    while I agree to most of your article, I think this artcile misses an important point. Like in every other religious community, be it Christian or evangelical right wing exemists or Neocon Jewish extremists, there exist similar problems within the Muslim community.

    So I tend to disagree with this sentence:

    Another essential point is that notwithstanding the very wide array of ideoologies and objectives found under the banner of Islam, there is a widespread sense of a single Muslim community or umma

    While I think it’s true that most Muslims sense of a single Muslim community or umma, I think there are serious problems in this umma, and most Muslims do think so, too. Regarding terror and extremism, one single current in the Muslim community is outstanding: the poison of the Salafi / Wahabi / Takfiri / Jihadi ideology – name it like you want. Almost all of the terror in recent years, of which mostly Muslims are victims, but sometimes Westeners, too, can be traced back to this fringe branch of Islam. It doesn’t help anyone to keep this problem under the carpet, and most Muslims are the last to want this.

    What is so striking in this Salafi / Wahabi / Takfiri / Jihadi extremist ideology is that it can be traced back to one single major point of where it’s coming from: Saudi Arabia, and some smaller neighbors in the same region like Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.

    So, instead of saying that such terror has nothing to do with Islam, I would suggest to highlight instead that it has indeed something to to with Islam, and that – largely – a single souce for this terror ideology in islamic garb can be identified: Saudi Arabia.

    What the mass media hide about the Charlie Hebdo terror attack: Wahhabism, Takfirism, and Saudi Arabia

    So, inresult, instead of saying that this terror has nothing to do with Islam, but with western aggressions against Islamic countries, social conditions and so on, what is not false, I’ld see besides all this to change what also must change is western policy regarding Saudi Arabia. It would benefit most Muslims and Westeners alike to have changes of foreign policy regarding the unconditional western support for the Saudi regime, and it’s neighbors like Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.

  5. Jacob
    January 15, 2015 at 20:31

    The photo shown in this article, and the writer’s description of what’s happening in the photo, is misleading. In this photo, the terrorist appears to be aiming at the policeman’s head, but, as shown in the original, unedited video, he subsequently lifted the gun’s barrel slightly and shot at the sidewalk about 2-3 feet away from the police officer’s head, and then ran away. In the original, unedited video, the policeman was not hit by the bullet and there was no blood – anywhere. If this policeman actually died, the cause was not from the particular event shown in this photo but perhaps from flying debris from the bullet hitting the sidewalk or from whatever injury caused him to be lying on the sidewalk. This event was edited out of the original video. The public is being shown an edited video designed to deceive.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 15, 2015 at 23:53

      Jacob, here is a link to the video you are talking about;

    • F. G. Sanford
      January 16, 2015 at 18:44

      I wonder why nobody has pointed out the obvious comparison to be drawn from public domain sources. The Zapruder film comes to mind. We are asked to believe that a low muzzle velocity 6.5mm Mannlicher Carcano round produces a cloud of blood and brain matter which splatters bystanders and scatters bone fragments over a wide radius, but a Kalashnikov 7.62mm high muzzle velocity round produces no blood, no splatter, and no visible reaction from the victim. Curious indeed.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 16, 2015 at 20:10

      This whole thing smells of JFK implement of form fit & function… Like Oswald patsies were in & out & then back in to out…. Who grooms these guys, a parol officer?

      F.G. You are right pointing to JFK for the how to do it format …. Why did Lee Harvey Oswald carry current rods to work that morning….who told him to go that a break in the break room….so many questions & yet the answers are hidden in plan site.

    • Analysis
      January 20, 2015 at 21:34

      All of this analysis is speculation without foundation. Most appears based on familiarity with Sam Pekinpah movie effects. Number 1: Different ammos do different things in different strike situatios. Number 2: Thesame ammo, and same weapon, will do different things in different situations. A lot depends on the available hydraulics in the area or material hit. A lot depends on the velocity and the jacketing of the projectile. A jacketed military bullet will usually not expand a lot. A hypersonic bullet will do more hydraulic damage. A 7.62 is not anespecially lethal bullet. Below hypersonic faster does less damage than slow. Expanding, explosive and dumdum do the big blow-outs, as in the Kennedy case. A .45 does more than a .38 ecause it is slow and heavy. You can’t tell anything by the amount of blood, or lack of spill. You can’t tell by spall-dust fly where any previous bullets struck. You can’t tell by low-res video where ricochets went, and ricochets kill as effectively as direct shots.
      When I read these kinds of analyses I immediately think propaganda: Somebody has an agenda and is trying to bend perspective. In the Charlie Hebdo shooting case there is a huge amount wrong and that does not add up, but it does not include the ballistics, or lack of evidence provided in videos and media.

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