The fateful question, rarely asked, about atrocities like the recent massacre in Paris, is: what did the perpetrators expect to accomplish? The answer may seem intuitive. These men were terrorists. They obviously expected to achieve their political goals by terrifying the population.
But what were the goals? And how could three gunmen terrify a nation of 65 million? Here the solid world of guns and bullets, life and death, intersects with the phantom realm of information.
The strategic political objective of every small gang of violent persons is to appear powerful and important. That was true of Al Qaeda even in its heyday, and remains true of AQ spinoffs today. One way to appear powerful and important is to seize the attention of the world, and force presidents and prime ministers of great nations into making statements about you. To achieve this, you need only commit an act of barbaric violence, then let the media – mainstream and social – do what the media does.
Terror is only incidentally about bloodshed. If that sounds cold, it’s because it reflects the calculation of cruel minds. Terror is mostly about information, about writing a message in blood, about communicating a frightening, far-reaching capacity in images reproduced by the news media and cellphone cameras.
Accomplishing this this strategic goal makes any tactical demand – censoring cartoons of Muhammad, for instance – a much simpler task to achieve.
The moral and political dilemma is that murder, conducted in public, will go viral. Violence, in a sufficiently large scale, will make headlines. Given an open society, this is impossible to prevent. The terrorists in Paris may advocate a tightly controlled society, but they understand the ways of liberal democracy well enough. They know us without illusions, better than we know ourselves.
Murder of innocents in the West: that is the medium. We then wonder why we should applaud the message. But I repeat: we – our dead and wounded – are the medium, we are not the intended audience. The audience is elsewhere.
Look on the images of the killers, pouring out of Paris. They seem straight out of an action film: black-clad, ninja-looking, gun-toting, full of self-conscious swagger and mysterious hand signs. Virginia Postrel has written of the “glamour” of the Islamic State’s recruiting imagery:
Videos, magazine features and Twitter memes mirror the glamour of action movies, shooter video games and gangsta rap. They make killing look effortless, righteous and triumphant. They promise to make the jihadist manly and important.
The audience for the Paris terrorists’ message is among young people, mostly but not exclusively male and Muslim, in the Middle East but also in the West, who find the cinematic costumes and poses and clichés difficult to resist. The slaughter of unarmed journalists translates, for this group, into an exhilarating adventure. Brutality is never excused or explained: it’s central to the seductiveness of the message.
Why are Westerners targeted? After 9/11, President Bush guessed that it was because “they hate our freedoms.” But, as we have seen, Islamists have been able to exploit Western freedoms of movement and speech to advantage. They conspire using Western technology, sample Western entertainment, emulate Western cool.
Western governments they hate quite sincerely, however.
Osama bin Laden’s explanation for 9/11 turned the freedom argument on its head. Since the people elected the US government, he reasoned, the American people “in its entirety” were fair game.
But terror is an information strategy, and there are practicalities involved. Killing Westerners makes news. If the goal is to grab the world’s attention, a dozen victims in Paris will generate more media noise than tens of thousands bombed and shot to pieces around Damascus. This, too, is the cold calculation of bloody-minded men.
People ask about the proper response to such incidents. I won’t pretend to have the answer. Elite opinion in Europe favors greater sensitivity to Muslim grievance – this sometimes veers into making the murdered dead responsible for their condition. BBC, for one, frowns on the word “terrorist,” will not link “Muslim” or “Islam” to perpetrators, and often refuses to publish their names for fear of revealing their religion.
I can’t imagine that killers will ever be influenced for good or evil by the sensitivities of media organizations.
Expressions of solidarity come naturally but seem hollow unless they are made facing the barrel of a gun. I can identify with the murdered journalists and shout “I am Charlie Hebdo,” but I’m really not. I’m another person in another place, and I can only hope, in anti-solidarity, never to be in the same fatal predicament as the Charlie Hebdo victims.
Public proclamations of support collide directly with the dilemma of information. Twitterstorms and crowded vigils, for example, will appear to the murderers as proof that they have become world-historical characters.
The only suggestion an old analyst like me can offer is that we hold fast to our perspective. We should see the Paris attack with our own eyes, assess it with our own minds, not through CNN or the latest trending hashtag. Terrorists can inflict suffering and death at any moment. Whether they pose an existential threat is up to us, not them, to decide. The degree to which we mobilize for self-protection is also our decision. We shouldn’t accept these contemptible people on their own terms.
Since the conflict is over control of information, we should take care of how we behave in the battlefield. Will the next anti-Islamist satire be aborted by fear? That question, I submit, should haunt every one of us, the privileged children of liberal democracy.