Charlie Hebdo: Terrorist Acts Are Just Criminal Acts, So Let’s Treat Them That Way

Charlie Hebdo

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The recent Charlie Hebdo attacks were despicable, and have been rightly denounced by the international community as well as the Muslim community. Unfortunately (and predictably), the reaction to this attack has been the usual response to any act of terrorism: more fear-mongering, and more excuses to restrict our freedom.

On the right, we have people saying we need to shut down our borders, support the troops, give the government more surveillance powers, and eradicate radical Islamic beliefs. On the left, we have people saying that “we’ll never give up our freedom of speech!” all while advocating censorship for the sake of political correctness.

Meanwhile, the US killed hundreds of Muslims in drone strikes in 2014. The media dutifully and falsely reports that nearly all of them are “militants” or “terrorists”, which in this case is defined as a young male who hasn’t been proven to not be a terrorist. We rightly express moral outrage at the attacks in Paris, but refuse to turn that critical eye back on our own government. (See this great article comparing the media coverage of drone strikes to that of the Paris ones).

There are plenty of reasons for this perceptual double standard, but a particularly nefarious one is the term “terrorism” itself. Since 9/11, we’ve been involved in a “war on terror” – a war that, like all other war-on-adjectives (war on drugs, war on poverty, etc.), can never be won. We are endlessly warned of “the terrorist threat”, told that “we will never give in to terrorism”, or that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

There is no doubt that the acts that most in the Western world consider “terrorism” are in fact immoral, barbaric acts. But what is it that makes the act an act of terrorism as opposed to, say, a criminal act, such as any other mass murder? There is little, if any; the term “terrorism” is simply a propaganda device.

When you call a criminal action “terrorism”, it causes a change in peoples’ psyches. Most people tend to interpret a “terrorist act” completely differently from that of an equivalent criminal act that has not been dubbed the same way. It makes people afraid, which is exactly what all parties involved want (except for innocent civilians, of course). A scared population is easy to control.

“Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.” — Herman Göring at the Nuremberg trials

The deaths of a dozen cartoonists and other media personnel is a tragedy, and the perpetrators should be brought to justice. There is a part of me that feels ashamed to “use” their death as an opportunity to get on my soapbox, but it is merely to counter the sadly much more effective way these deaths are being used in the mainstream.

Because this was a “terrorist” act, we will be reminded that “they hate us for our freedom”. There will be no mention of their hating us because we invade their countries, bomb their weddings and funerals, and support their dictatorial regimes, despite them making that clear.

Because “they hate us for our freedom”, we will be told that it is necessary to grant the NSA, FBI, and CIA more latitude to spy on us and torture us. Out one side of the mouth we will be told that we must never give up our freedom of speech to these monsters, and out the other side they will continue to arrest and jail people for having certain opinions.

Of course, all of this is just a repeat of the bitter cycle that has plagued us since 9/11. The end result is a downward spiral into more and more tyranny and aggressive, unjust warfare.

It needs to stop. If we want to defeat “terrorism”, we need to start treating it the same way we treat all criminal acts. We can still express moral outrage over crimes, but most crimes don’t result in us collectively losing our wits.

People respond to crime by taking action in order to minimize their risk of being a victim – buying locks, getting a gun for self-defense, not walking alone late at night. These are common sense behavioral changes that will reduce, but can never eliminate, the risk of being a victim of crime.

With acts of “terrorism”, people get whipped up into a frenzy and demand to eliminate the risk, for instance, by trying to annihilate the ideology of “Islamofascism”. Of course, it is an impossible task to eliminate the risk, and any attempt to do so just tosses cost-benefit analysis out the window. (As an aside, the risk of dying in a terrorist attack is already very, very low).

The fact is, by responding to terrorism the way we have continually done for the past 13 years or so, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy that terrorism works:

“The attacks of September 11 were a spectacular success. Is there any other honest interpretation? They were a success not because of the Americans they killed that day, but because we chose to spend the next decade mired in hopeless, counterproductive global wars that cost us trillions of dollars and killed thousands more Americans and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Terrorists wanted to show the world that we were brutal and unjust, and we did our best to help them do that. Terrorists wanted a war, and we gave them one. And we lost. We lost by giving them the stupid, fearful, angry response that they wanted…

…Our collective insistence on treating terrorist acts as something categorically different than crime—as something harder to understand, something scarier, something perpetrated not by humans but by monsters—feeds the ultimate goals of terrorists. It makes us dumb. It makes us primitive. It is our boogeyman, and no amount of rational talk will drive it out of our minds.”

Precisely. Remember that there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq until we toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. And Juan Cole has some more penetrating analysis, suggesting that al-Qaeda is just trying to “sharpen the contradictions” in France:

“The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.”

By drawing an arbitrary and false distinction between terrorist acts and acts of crime, we play right into their hands. We are drawn into adopting precisely the policies that lead to more terrorist attacks. These are the very same policies that destroy our civil liberties and cause us to lose the moral high ground by stooping to their level and butchering many more innocent people in aggressive wars.

My condolences go out to the families of those who died in this tragedy, as well as all the rest who will suffer as a consequence of this act.

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