Juan Cole has some insightful words on the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. As he points out, the shooters were neither “attacking free speech” nor “defending Mohammed”; they were using a time-honored tactic of radical extremists (of all stripes): “sharpening the contradictions,” hoping to provoke an overreaction that would lead to repression and persecution of Muslims in general — thus helping the extremists recruit new members. This is what bin Laden did with such spectacular success with 9/11: provoking an endless global war, with Western “interventions” and “targeted assassinations” and drone strikes that have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people — all of which, as our own security services tell us, have fed the flames of extremism and made the situation worse.
It would be nice if we tried a different approach, but this is not going to happen. By this time, the symbiosis between the West’s military-industrial-security complex and the extremists it purports to fight is virtually complete. The MISC holds the commanding heights of society now, and it is utterly dependent on a steady supply of terrorist attacks (and the constant production of new terrorist entities to fight) in order to keep its power, privileges — and profits — going strong. It is probably not too far-fetched to say that the modern American system — a militarist state protecting the interests of a small, rapacious elite — would collapse without terrorism. “Security” is the only “legitimacy” this system has. Its power rests entirely on the belief — the completely unfounded, hysterical, hallucinated belief — that only the System (with its wars, its death squads, its torture, its mass surveillance, etc. etc.) can protect “us” from terrorism … the very terrorism that the System itself foments and creates with its depredations. And organized terror depends on the System feeding it recruits. (And of course, in many cases, feeding it directly with arms and money when it suits the System’s agenda, as in the stoking of jihad in Syria, just to take one example.)
The horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.
The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. .. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world. … 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 …
This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim. …
For those who require unrelated people to take responsibility for those who claim to be their co-religionists (not a demand ever made of Christians), the al-Azhar Seminary, seat of Sunni Muslim learning and fatwas, condemned the attack, as did the Arab League that comprises 22 Muslim-majority states.
While putting this together, hoping to add a few more thoughts, I ran across Tom Englehardt’s latest piece, which deals with these same themes: the way the “War on Terror” is producing more terrorism — to the benefit of our powerful national security profiteers and terrorist organisations … while the rest of us have to live with the growing chaos, insecurity, lack of liberty, depleted treasuries and broken economies this deadly symbiosis keeps producing. Rather than reinvent the wheel, here are some excerpts from his article that underscore and expand upon many of the points I was making above. The frame of Englehardt’s piece is imagining how a visitor from January 1963, just months after the Cuban missile crisis, would confront the bizarro world of today. He writes:
… In these years the national security state triumphed in the nation’s capital in a way that the U.S. military and allied intelligence outfits were incapable of doing anywhere else on Earth … They had been engorged by literally trillions of taxpayer dollars. A new domestic version of the Pentagon called the Department of Homeland Security had been set up in 2002. An “intelligence community” made up of 17 major agencies and outfits, bolstered by hundreds of thousands of private security contractors, had expanded endlessly and in the process created a global surveillance state that went beyond the wildest imaginings of the totalitarian powers of the twentieth century.
… Its officials increasingly existed in a crime-free zone, beyond the reach of accountability, the law, courts, or jail. Homeland security and intelligence complexes grew up around the national security state in the way that the military-industrial complex had once grown up around the Pentagon and similarly engorged themselves. In these years, Washington filled with newly constructed billion-dollar intelligence headquarters and building complexes dedicated to secret work — and that only begins to tell the tale of how twenty-first-century “security” triumphed.
This vast investment of American treasure has been used to construct an edifice dedicated in a passionate way to dealing with a single danger to Americans, one that would have been unknown in 1963: Islamic terrorism. Despite the several thousand Americans who died on September 11, 2001, the dangers of terrorism rate above shark attacks but not much else in American life. Even more remarkably, the national security state has been built on a foundation of almost total failure. Think of failure, in fact, as the spark that repeatedly sets the further expansion of its apparatus in motion, funds it, and allows it to thrive.
It works something like this: start with the fact that, on September 10, 2001, global jihadism was a microscopic movement on this planet. Since 9/11, under the pressure of American military power, it has exploded geographically, while the number of jihadist organizations has multiplied, and the number of people joining such groups has regularly and repeatedly increased, a growth rate that seems to correlate with the efforts of Washington to destroy terrorism and its infrastructure. In other words, the Global War on Terror has been and remains a global war for the production of terror. And terror groups know it.
It was Osama bin Laden’s greatest insight and is now a commonplace that drawing Washington into military action against you increases your credibility in the world that matters to you and so makes recruiting easier. At the same time, American actions, from invasions to drone strikes, and their “collateral damage,” create pools of people desperate for revenge. If you want to thrive and grow, in other words, you need the U.S. as an enemy. … This has, in other words, proved to be a deeply symbiotic and mutually profitable relationship.
From the point of view of the national security state, each failure, each little disaster, acts as another shot of fear in the American body politic, and the response to failure is predictable: never less of what doesn’t work, but more. More money, more bodies hired, more new outfits formed, more elaborate defenses, more offensive weaponry. Each failure with its accompanying jolt of fear (and often hysteria) predictably results in further funding for the national security state to develop newer, even more elaborate versions of what it’s been doing these last 13 years. Failure, in other words, is the key to success.
In this sense, think of Washington’s national security structure as a self-perpetuating machine that works like a dream, since those who oversee its continued expansion are never penalized for its inability to accomplish any of its goals. On the contrary, they are invariably promoted, honored, and assured of a golden-parachute-style retirement or — far more likely — a golden journey through one of Washington’s revolving doors onto some corporate board or into some cushy post in one complex or another where they can essentially lobby their former colleagues for private warrior corporations, rent-a-gun outfits, weapons makers, and the like. And there is nothing either in Washington or in American life that seems likely to change any of this in the near future.
… Official Washington has … invented a system so dumb, so extreme, so fundamentalist, and so deeply entrenched in our world that changing it will surely prove a stunningly difficult task.
Welcome to the new world of American insecurity and to the nightmarish inheritance we are preparing for our children and grandchildren.