The Attack on ‘Charlie Hebdo’

This past week, at least a dozen French people, most of them journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, were gunned down during an editorial meeting by the brothers Chérif and Said Kouachi, two French Muslims who may have returned recently from waging jihad in Syria. French citizens crowded into public squares across the country to vent their grief and wave signs reading “I am Charlie.” Foreign leaders professed their willingness to rally behind the values that France shares with the West. President Obama described France as “the culture and the civilization that is so central to our imaginations.”

The events of January 7 were indeed an attack on French values. But, more important, they were an attack on France. The two terms are used as if they were interchangeable. They are not. The big difference is that states can fight back against terrorism. “Values” cannot. Values matter, but to invoke them too eagerly risks leaving the impression that one lacks the stomach for an antiterrorist fight. 

The state depends, according to the classic definition of sociologist Max Weber, on its “monopoly on the legitimate use of force.” This is the case no matter what a state’s values are. Terrorists are a special kind of threat to states. They don’t just break the rules the way ordinary criminals do. They compete with states in a business where there is not supposed to be any competition. That is why the United States has traditionally responded to acts of terrorism by reasserting its monopoly on force. This does not mean the state has to use violence. But it must signal a willingness to do so. In the wake of the September 11 bombings, George W. Bush’s response was muscular to the point of controversy. It should be remembered that Bill Clinton responded to the 1995 bombings of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City with a similar forwardness, even supporting an expansion in the use of the death penalty for terrorists. The bombing was the turning point of his presidency.

At least since the firebombing and destruction of Charlie Hebdo’s old offices by angry Muslims in 2011, protecting the magazine’s premises has been a benchmark of the French government’s competence. Last week’s attack—the realization of a long-announced jihadist objective—is a blow to the national prestige. No state is perfect or clairvoyant, but all have a responsibility to pick up the pieces. French president François Hollande is poorly positioned to do so. 

This is not all his fault. France’s membership in the multinational European Union makes it less than a fully sovereign country. It must defer to its neighbors even in matters of self-defense. No pro-European politician has ever frankly admitted this to French voters. France, for instance, has no death penalty to expand the way Clinton did—and it will not get one as long as it remains a member of the EU. The National Front, a party with roots in right-wing opposition to France’s withdrawal from its North African empire, became the country’s largest party in European elections last spring. That rise will now be retrospectively attributed to leader Marine Le Pen’s stance on immigration and Islam—wrongly. The party’s rise is due to its attitudes on sovereignty. 

Nations exist, in the final analysis, to protect their citizens and their culture. The more such protection is deemed necessary, the more the EU appears feeble and unloved. Its leaders must sense that they are being ousted from the European public’s hearts. In response to the latest attack, EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said that action was necessary on terrorism, but not yet, since “you can get it wrong by going too far or not going far enough.” The EU’s unelected defense chief, Federica Mogherini, urged calm. “Press freedom is a fundamental value of Europe,” she said at a conference in Riga. “Fighting terrorism is a key challenge, not just in terms of politics and security, but [as] a cultural challenge.” 

Such values do indeed unify the countries of Europe, but at a level too shallow to permit the forging of action. It is inspiring to see protesters in the United States and Europe rallying behind the slogan “I am Charlie,” but this unity is also shallow. If the Frenchmen marching through their city squares really were like the martyred editors of Charlie Hebdo, then the terrorists of the future would no longer have any reason to fear them. To say “I am Charlie” risks sounding like an assertion of one’s innocence and harmlessness. The terrorists, meanwhile, are plotting their next attack. 

On September 12, 2001, the front-page headline in the New York Times read: “U.S. Attacked.” Such a headline is hard to imagine today. The prevailing sentiment would be: “U.S. Values Attacked.” American and European leaders, Obama and Secretary of State Kerry included, now think of a war as a misunderstanding or a poorly conducted discussion. If we could only identify the breakdown in communication that led people to disagree, if we could maybe phrase things in a different way .  .  . well, then we could get somewhere. They do not accept that anything could be too important to negotiate over, or anybody too impatient. They practice what Raymond Aron’s Alsatian protégé, the sociologist Julien Freund, called denial of the enemy: “A nihilist in politics,” Freund wrote in 1965, “is one who believes in absolute security and absolute prosperity, who denies the enemy and, whether out of weakness or heedlessness, delivers a people up to the mercy of its rivals.”

It would be better for all of us if this were an attack on France’s values. Then the appropriate thing would be to return to our coffeehouses and debate what France’s values are. But this was not an attack on France’s values. It was an attack on France. That calls for stronger measures.


This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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