George Packer’s New Yorker essay on the Paris killings, posted quickly after the attack, insisted that we can’t put the murderers in context, that we can’t compare them to, say the white-supremacist mass murderer in Oslo who killed seventy-seven Norwegians or nihilist school shooters in the United States, like the one at Newton who killed twenty children and six adults. Do not, Packer instructed, try to understand their action as a reaction to the invasion of Iraq or some other colonial or neocolonial intervention. We can’t, for instance, relate the rise of Nigeria’s Boko Haram to the lethal confluence of climate crisis, starvation, drought, poverty, and geopolitics, as this essay does. There is nothing to be “understood” about Islamist ideology. It just is.
Packer’s essay achieves the opposite of its intent: it makes you want to relativize, contextualize, historicize and sociologize, or at least it did me. I guess that’s the cost of life during (endless) wartime: the forfeiture of the ability to let the horror sink in, to take a moment to learn about the individuals who lost their lives, before receiving a lecture on how to force-fit those lives into the crusade. Teju Cole, also in The New Yorker, and Joe Sacco implicitly answer Packer’s insistence on the incommensurability of the Paris attack. “The suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists,” writes Cole, “is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers.”
I thought of Mexico, and the disappearance of forty-three activist-students in Guerrero. If one really wanted to fight a war between the forces of light and those of death and darkness, a good place to start would be to demand that Washington do three things: demilitarize the border (a policy Bill Clinton started around the exact time he signed NAFTA into law); implement a fair trade policy (one that doesn’t sacrifice rural peasants to US agroindustry and that doesn’t drive down Mexican—and Central American—wages to among the lowest rates in the world); and, most importantly, stop funding Mexico’s security forces.
As Christy Thornton wrote in The New York Times, since 2008, “the U.S. government has spent nearly $3 billion on security aid to Mexico through the Merida Initiative and the departments of defense and justice, much of it going to contracts with U.S.-based defense firms. This aid comes in addition to the direct sales of arms and other equipment to Mexico authorized by the State Department, which totaled $1.2 billion in 2012 alone.” This aid has continued even despite the “thousands of reports of soldiers and the police committing extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and disappearances, and torture—with impunity.”