Yesterday at least two very bad things that happened made the news: in Yemen, at least 37 people died in a bomb attack on a bus; and in France, 12 people died in a gun attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Both of these attacks may have been carried out by the same group – but only one of them appeared among the top stories on major news outlets. So let’s talk about the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Yesterday most of the response was shock, sadness and solidarity with the murdered journalists and cartoonists. Today, the emphasis seems to have moved towards the killers, who, as I write, remain at large.
On Facebook and Twitter I’ve seen posts calling for extreme punishments for the killers – death, torture, mutilation, burning. I’ve seen questions about the extent to which “Islam” is responsible for the attack – and I’ve seen calls for “moderate Muslims” to condemn this attack.
In the (British) papers, there are questions about Muslims’ understanding of or commitment to “freedom of speech”, along with discussion of the “deadly mutation at the heart of Islam” by none other than Salman Rushdie. Now there’s also news of firebomb attacks against French mosques.
What I haven’t seen are any stories about Muslims celebrating this attack – except as a theoretical concept mooted by non-Muslim commenters. What I HAVE seen, at least among my Muslim friends on Facebook, is absolute, unconditional condemnation of this attack.
So it seems we have a problem. Two problems, in fact.
First, as a society and its media, we are too ready to ascribe this attack, either in execution or in support, to Muslims as a general class of people – despite no evidence for this.
As others have noted, when the fanatical “Christian” organisation the Westboro Baptist Church issued its vile interpretations of “god’s word”, no-one demanded condemnation from “moderate Christians”. When Anders Breivik, an extreme-right-wing Christian, killed 77 people in Norway, no-one opined on the “deadly mutation at the heart of Christianity”.
And while I’m prepared to admit there are probably people out there who are celebrating the attacks – in the same way as I’m sure there were people celebrating Breivik’s attacks – none of them have been particularly public about it. I’d also wager a large sum of money that a section of news outlets across the world are busy hunting for someone praising the attackers – and yet, no stories.
The second problem, which is linked to the first, is the fetishisation of the Charlie Hebdo attackers. Their pictures are front and centre on every news website, their backgrounds are even now being combed through – and people are lining up to demand ever-more extreme punishments for them when they are finally caught (I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to people calling for this stuff and assume they’d allow the accused to be tried first).
This is the enemy, we are told – these people here, with the brown skin and the Muslim names. Hate these people, punish these people, make them suffer – die, die, die.
Make no mistake, the killers are very bad people, and they should face the full force of justice. But that’s all they should face. They are criminals – nothing more, nothing less.
To make them more than criminals, to build them up as some sort of ultimate monsters, has two effects, I would argue.
The first is to make them whipping boys for a whole culture which in fact rejects their actions completely. This simply has the effect of “othering” the entire culture, increasing whatever distance exists between it and “white” society – and leading to feelings of resentment and mistrust on both sides.
The second is to make other attacks of this kind more likely. These attacks were about attention – and every time we talk about it (I am aware I am contributing), and every time we flash the accused men’s faces on the news and call them history’s greatest monsters, someone, somewhere else, starts thinking that this is a good idea. (This happens with many other attacks, particularly school shootings.)
The whole point of terrorism is to spread terror – and now the arseholes that seek these ends have confirmation, yet again, that attacks of this kind work.
So let’s stop for a moment, and recalibrate. Let us mourn the dead, and celebrate their lives, and celebrate the cause in the name of which they died.
But let’s ignore the people who did this – let’s not talk about them, rant about them, demand exotic punishments. Let them sit in the anonymity of a jail cell somewhere, after a fair trial and all due process
And let’s not pretend they’re anything other than a few random arseholes, who were stupid enough to do a very bad thing. Because to think of them as anything else gives them far too much credit.