LONDON, MONDAY: People often feel the most profound question they can ask after a senseless killing is “why”? It speaks not only to bafflement faced with the apparent meaningless of the particular act, but also to our more existential need to find explanations for the things that happen to us and around us, and ultimately our search for a meaning for life (and death) itself.
On Saturday afternoon, someone unfurled a huge banner in Paris’s Place de la République saying, “Pourquoi?” Perhaps the literal translation, “for what”, is better here than “why”. Because “why” doesn’t seem a particularly useful question to ask about something like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The killers would have no difficultly answering it, and we know more or less what they would say. “For what?” or “to what end?” would be a more difficult question and a truthful answer would be revealing. What these people wanted could range from the utterly delusional (a global Islamic caliphate), through the implausible (civil war in France) to the much more terrifyingly possible (permanent alienation between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe). My gut feeling is that jihadist “leaders” will tend towards the more realistic (and dangerous) end of that spectrum; the actual killers are more likely to be delusional in their motives. But who knows?
Rather than (metaphorically) asking the killers why they did it, we might more usefully ask ourselves why these people think so differently to us. Why do they not recognise and respect free speech? Why do they not see religious observance as a private matter and not something to be imposed on other people? Why do they see ISIL’s statelet in Syria and Iraq, where life is indeed “nasty, brutish and short”, as preferable to free, prosperous and cultured France? Why do they believe evident fantasies? Why do they believe them with such fervour that they are prepared to kill for them? And why do they hold their own lives so cheap?
This has nothing to do with responsibility for the killings, which rest squarely with the gunmen and those who aided, abetted and encouraged them. But when we start to look at why they thought they way they did, it ought to be clear that the responsibility for that is much wider.
We might look at the characteristics and training of imams in French mosques, at the responsibilities of parents and the care system involved in their upbringing, at the way radical Islamism functions as a nihilist death cult, with a particular appeal to alienated and psychologically disturbed youth. We might also look at the French prison system (two of the Paris gunmen were apparently further “radicalised” at the notorious Fleury-Mérogis prison south of Paris, though it didn’t start there), at the way “ordinary” Muslim criminals are rehabilitated, at the culture of the banlieus (the often-desolate suburban zones that ring most large French cities), at youth unemployment, ghettoisation on housing estates, even mental health services. The list could go on and on, but we can’t simply walk away from this and pretend that having people who are primarily and viscerally motivated by a hatred for the society they live in has nothing to do with the way that society works.
If we hadn’t realised it before, the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Casher attacks have revealed that violent jihadism, particularly in Western countries, is an extremely complex problem with many, many causes. There are religious and geopolitical aspects, of course, but also personal and psychological ones. Many of the jihadist terrorists who have perpetrated atrocities in Western countries seem to show signs of psychological disturbance. A 2002 court psychiatric report on the Hyper Casher gunman, Amédy Coulibaly, found an “immature and psychopathic personality” (and one thing jihadist terrorists seem to have in common is an enormous capacity for self-delusion). It could be that this, combined with a sense of racial and religious grievance, instruction from manipulative and “hate-filled” preachers (such as the Kouachi brothers’ “guru” Faris Benyettou), connections with “ordinary” criminal gangs into drugs and petty theft, and a sense of nihilism and alienation to set against the perverted glamour of killing and dying for a cause, produces this murderous cocktail. Or it could be even more complicated than that.
It’s not good enough to pin everything on mass immigration or the impossibility of different traditions living side by side. It’s not good enough to put it all down to handful of “radical imams” and internet “hate preachers”. Still less to common criminality. But neither is it good enough to blame it all on George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and poverty and unemployment on bleak housing estates.
All these factors and more need to be carefully unpicked and dealt with, both ruthlessly and sensitively (a difficult but not impossible balancing act). Are we up to it? We will have to be.