Wednesday, January 07, 2015


It's inspiring to see a global roster of cartoonists tweeting drawings in support of Charlie Hebdo, workers in the offices of the French news agency AFP holding up "Je Suis Charlie" signs, and ordinary citizens in Avignon doing the same -- but the fact is that people determined to intimidate satirists and others in the media have a natural advantage in a market culture: inevitably, a tiny number of them can effectively terrorize, but a small number of us simply can't back them down.

Freedom of speech, capitalist choice, and a rich, varied marketplace mean that we don't unite as a society around the sort of material Charlie Hebdo publishes -- consumers can buy it or pass it up, and if most people simply don't buy it, that means its consumers and (primarily) producers are an easy target for those who'd intimidate them, while non-consumers remain uninvolved. We saw that even with a mass-market Hollywood movie, The Interview, back when a lot of people of people believed that showing the film could lead to violence: it was just too simple to keep oneself safe by shunning The Interview, by not screening it, by not releasing it. If moviegoers were going to shun the film, that was understandable -- a trip to the theater might be fun, but did anyone actually want to die for a Seth Rogen movie, or, worse, a Seth Rogen movie other people were watching? Seeing the movie wasn't a unifying national ritual -- we weren't all going to do it in any case. So either we had to expand the alleged terrorists' target list (by making attendance a civic duty) or some of us had to stick our necks out. Eventually, the latter happened -- but most of the time it seems risky to make oneself the target, and easier to avoid the fight. That's why most of the media won't publish irreverent material about the Prophet Muhammad. Why endanger lives, including the lives of employees and fellow tenants of office buildings, when there's a choice not to? Why run the risk?

That's just the nature of this sort of asymmetric warfare. A nation-state isn't bombing a nation-state; instead, intimidators can pick their targets -- and sometimes they make clear how you can stay off at least one target list.

I don't have answers for how to deal with this. I'm just pointing out the fact that terrorists of this kind have at least one tactical advantage. Minimizing that advantage isn't easy, because someday there'll be another target, and we won't all be Charlie, and the haters of the next Charlie know that.


aimai said...

The thing is that in picking cartoonists--or any individual writer--"the terrorists" are not really trying to eliminate disrespectful anti-mohammed or anti muslim sentiment/expression. Those sentiments and expressions go on all the time, person to person and in print and on tv, without being affected at all. The goal of these murders is simply to terrorize and show force. If the cartoonists didn't exist they would simply be manufactured as a cause of complaint. The attackers have to have something to attack.

What makes these things perennial isn't the existence of a perennial provocation such as this or that "insult" to the prophet but the fact that the larger Islamic community and the specific communities of the terrorists aren't repulsed and angered by the action supposedly taken on their behalf. They don't, in fact, denounce these acts as unislamic and, worse, absurdly pointless.

Pointless because: The position of a deceased prophet can neither be attacked nor enhanced--he's dead. His followers can't be seduced or threatened or humiliated away from following him, and what other people see or read is of no consequence to the religion or the religious. In a modern, secular, world the very idea of blasphemy has been (rightly) abandoned.

I'm not talking about formal denunciations and fatwas against the killers--though those would be nice. But the fact of the matter is that this kind of violence against (for fuck's sake, cartoonists?) is not seen by their own community--their own family and friends--as nonsensical, nearly random violence for its own sake. No one in their community points and laughs and makes fun of these guys. Because this act, this attentat still makes sense to more than just those three guys.

We won't come to the end of this violence against the word and the writer until the immiediate family and friends of the killers tell them to knock it off because they are making the entire islamic community look like bullies, buffoons, fools and murderers.

Steve M. said...

I disagree with this. There are regular denunciations of this sort of thing by other Muslims. The problem is that the angry don't listen to the reasonable.

aimai said...

I don't mean denunciations from distant people, I mean denunciations and renunciations from their immieidate social circles, family, and friends. But its also possible that these guys have cut themselves off from family and friends and move entirely in revolutionary circles. That's why I called it an "attentat" which is the french word for the acts of violence that french (and other) anarchists used to draw attention to their political causes. Bombing and killing person or building X has always been an activity that revolutionaries have used--whether or not it makes sense to the wider society and whether or not the killed or destroyed person has anything at all to do with the cause.

Steve M. said...

Aimai, how would you know what they hear "from their immediate social circles, family, and friends"? Are you privy to that information?

Meanwhile, I'm trying to ignore the resemblance of what you're saying to a favorite right-wing talking point. The right loves to tell us that those swarthy savages (African-Americans, Muslims) never criticize the violent people in their midst. I hope that's not what you're saying.

Steve M. said...

I guess these are the "distant people" Aimai refers to. There do seem to be a fair number of them: