The most dangerous moment for any society is the moment France, and everyone who feels solidarity with its citizens, is now going through: when we are trying to process and respond to terrorist acts.
Because it is when our grief and our sorrow and our justifiable rage are at their peak that we are most vulnerable to the seductions of foggy, simplistic, emotion-driven thinking and to the acceptance of reactionary policies that, as we learned during a long and bloody 13 years in this country, don’t necessarily make things better, no matter how much we want them to.It has been inspirational to watch the courage and resilience of the French people taking to the streets in response to these horrific attacks, and the pluralistic message offered by people like Malek Merabet, the brother of the slain Muslim police officer, who condemned the killers as false Muslims and called for tolerance.
But we are also seeing all the familiar no good, horrible, bad thinking, once again, rush to the fore.
Whether it’s the French far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, who warns of a creeping Islamization of France that threatens civilization and whose message is seen by many as one of the chief beneficiaries of the violence, or the bad thinking of powerful News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch, the man behind Fox News, who tweeted what, I shudder to think, a whole a lot of people are thinking: That while most Muslims may be peaceful, they still, quote, “must be held responsible” for the actions of terrorists.
The tweet prompted responses from J.K. Rowling and comedian Aziz Ansari, among many others, with Ansari sarcastically tweeting that Murdoch is responsible for pedophilia committed by anyone Catholic and asking why he is pro-pedophile, complete with sad emoticon.
The thinking reflected in Murdoch’s tweet suggests we are in the midst of some sort of clash of civilizations, with the West on one side and Islam on the other. It is precisely the sort of thinking that took hold after the September 11th terrorist attacks and led to a set of world-historical miscalculations and horrible mistakes and horrific death and destruction.
France is already on a war footing, with its defense minister proclaiming that ISIS must be wiped out and the country deploying 10,000 troops to boost security. France’s lower house of Parliament voted 488-to-one to extend French airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Four hundred and eighty-eight to one.
I recognize those kind of margins. It’s the sort of margin that the Patriot Act passed by, and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to invade Afghanistan.
This past Sunday, on Murdoch’s network, Fox News, a terrorism expert named Steve Emerson took anti-Muslim fear-mongering to a new low, claiming there are no-go zones throughout Europe where non-Muslims cannot visit, including one entire British city:
“In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in.”
Birmingham is actually only about 22% Muslim and Emerson’s bit of idiocy prompted a twitter hashtag, #foxnewsfacts, in which people made jokes like: ”Birmingham has a chain of fast food restaurants called ‘Burqa King.’”
Emerson later apologized profusely, though not before the British Prime Minister called him, quote, “clearly a complete idiot.”
And Emerson’s comment wasn’t even the dumbest to come out of all this. That honor belongs, sadly, to a member of Congress.
Representative Randy Weber, Republican of Texas, tweeted in response to President Obama not joining the Paris unity rally, ”Even Adolph Hitler thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris. (For all the wrong reasons.) Obama couldn’t do it for right reasons.” You’ll notice he didn’t bother with the spell check.
Weber offered a rambling and semi-incoherent apology saying he was not trying to trivialize the Holocaust nor to compare the president to Hitler.
When we see the blood spattered on the floor of the Charlie Hebdo offices, the mourners at the funeral of the French Jews killed solely because they were Jews, we naturally reach for words like evil, and conjure figures like Hitler and feel for a moment that the crimes we have witnessed have suddenly clarified everything. But that clarity is a trap. It’s the terrorists’ own lie, the one they wish to peddle to us all. The propaganda of fools and butchers.
These moments call for rigor, for resolve and the courage to be clear-eyed and to resist the tug of cheap sentiment. The terrorists want us not to think – they want us to cower, to rage, to fight.
But thinking is always our best weapon.