For most of us, the mass murder at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent killings at a Paris kosher supermarket inspired shock, horror and sadness. These feelings were not, however, universal. Among politicians with a direct interest in exploiting nihilistic violence for personal gain, the tragedy was quickly assimilated into just another bullet point. “We’ve been predicting this for a long time,” explained the neofascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose daughter Marine could very well finish first in the initial round of France’s next presidential election. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the midst of a fierce re-election campaign, was also unsurprised by the attack, which he attributed, with impressive indiscrimination, to a combination of Israel’s enemies—the “terrorist fanatics of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda”—adding that “radical Islamic terrorism knows no bounds, and therefore the struggle…must know no borders.”
At the extreme opposite end of the political spectrum, Greta Berlin, a co-founder of and spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, also knew exactly who and what were responsible for the attack: “MOSSAD [the Israeli intelligence agency] just hit the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo in a clumsy false flag designed to damage the accord between Palestine and France,” she posted on Facebook, quoting an acquaintance. “Here’s hoping the French police will be able to tell a well executed hit by a well trained Israeli intelligence service.” The quote concluded, correctly, that “A four year old could see who is responsible for this terrible attack.” Her colleague, Free Gaza co-founder Mary-Hughes Thompson, added on Twitter: “#Hebdo killings indefensible. Can’t help thinking #JSIL Mossad false flag though.” (“#JSIL” is the term that moral idiots use to refer to Israel, or what they call the “Jewish State of Israel in the Levant.” One hopes that James Abourezk and Noam Chomsky, both on Free Gaza’s board of advisers, soon disassociate themselves from this hateful organization.)
Just as the politicians and activists immediately deployed the murders in their rhetorical tool kits, so too did our pundits explain that the killing demonstrated what each had been saying in the first place. Naturally, Fox led the pack: The Five host Eric Bolling equated both campus political correctness and Bill de Blasio’s attempts to end racial profiling in the NYPD with these acts of mass murder. Another lunatic Fox analyst, Tom McInerney, insisted that de Blasio, New York’s “communist mayor,” was asking for the same thing to happen here. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were also among the culprits held responsible for the attack: the former is too “soft on radical Islam” (Fox analyst Ralph Peters), while the latter “wants you to empathize” with the killers (Fox contributor Richard Grenell).
Such statements proved to be uncontroversial on a station that, in the following few days, hosted guests and regulars blaming the attack on police “who second-guess themselves,” journalists who “censor themselves” and citizens who refuse to “arm themselves.” Other arguments on Fox, including those in favor of more waterboarding and stricter immigration laws, were reinforced by the incendiary, Islamophobic tweet sent out over the weekend by the station’s owner, Rupert Murdoch: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.”
Among the (slightly) left-of-center elite pundits—including Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and New York’s Jonathan Chait—the notion took hold that in order to defend free speech, it was necessary not only to defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to mock and offend religious people but also “to escalate blasphemous satire” (in Weisberg’s words) to “defend…the practice” (in Chait’s). These comments then inspired a bizarre riposte by Glenn Greenwald on the Intercept, which appeared to complain of an insufficient amount of Jew-baiting material in Charlie Hebdo and then obliged that imaginary need by commissioning and publishing a series of deliberately anti-Semitic cartoons. (I swear I’m not making this up.)
Hardly less bizarre was the fact that among the most simple and sensible comments one could find in the aftermath of the attack came from two conservative pundits, The New York Times’s David Brooks and Ross Douthat. The former noted that “The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.” The latter added, “The right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order,” with the qualifier that “There is no duty to blaspheme, a society’s liberty is not proportional to the quantity of blasphemy it produces, and under many circumstances the choice to give offense (religious and otherwise) can be reasonably criticized as pointlessly antagonizing, needlessly cruel, or simply stupid.” In a rational political discourse, these points would not even need to be said, much less celebrated.
Personally, I share the view of Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, who told Le Monde that the attacks, and the support they’ve received, represent “a war of jihad against the West, whose targets are journalists, the liberty of expression and Jews.” (The three categories are often collapsed among their respective opponents.)
How one responds to this daunting challenge is obviously a matter of debate—a debate that we appear to be incapable of carrying out. It ought to be obvious to any sentient being that jihadi terrorists are a minority in the Muslim world. This fact could hardly be better symbolized than by Lassana Bathily, the Malian Muslim who worked in the stockroom of the supermarket that was attacked and risked his life to save the Jewish shoppers. “They congratulated me,” Bathily reportedly said. “They told me ‘Thank you, really.’ I said, ‘It’s nothing. That’s life.’” Perhaps, but it’s more than our discourse can handle.
Editor’s Note: This article originally said Greta Berlin “wrote on her Facebook page” that “‘MOSSAD [the Israeli intelligence agency] just hit the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo in a clumsy false flag…'” Berlin actually re-posted the comment from an acquaintance. The article has been updated to reflect that.