Publisher's Note — December 15, 2015, 12:24 pm

Something to Cry About

“I was confident the French weren’t going to follow the bad example from overseas and start a ‘war on terror’ à l’américaine. But November 13 changed the equation.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on December 7, 2015. Translated and adapted from the French by Ryann Liebenthal. 

The ideal time to stroll through Paris is certainly not while the City of Lights is suffering from the shock of fanatical Islamic violence. But so it was that for the second time this year I found myself wandering around my usual haunts—in the neighborhoods where my mother’s family has lived for nearly a century—in the aftermath of attacks made against the “certain idea” I have of France, to borrow an expression from Charles de Gaulle.

For me, this idea of France has always been colored by its contrast with the idea of America—which is a country that is statistically and psychologically more violent—torn apart by racism, ignorance, and aggression toward foreigners. I see France as a veritable refuge against insanity. During my visit in February, in the aftermath of the attacks targeting the staff of Charlie Hebdo, I was reassured that my “certain idea” of Paris continued to rest on a sturdy foundation. Above and beyond the presence of soldiers stationed in front of various media offices and studios, a spirit of solidarity was in evidence everywhere. I was on a promotional tour for the French translation (for which I coauthored the preface) of Congress’s report on the CIA’s torture practices following 9/11, and I was confident the French weren’t going to follow the bad example from overseas and start a “war on terror” à l’américaine.

But November 13 changed the equation.

Which isn’t to say that the political realities have changed: George W. Bush and Tony Blair remain in large measure the architects of the Islamic State’s success. Their great Iraq escapade of 2003 opened the doors to the worst elements of radical Islamism—a radicalization already encouraged by the first president Bush in 1991, when he stationed American armed forces on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia in order to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi citizen and onetime CIA asset during the Taliban insurrection against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, was outraged by what he viewed as the betrayal of Islam by King Fahd, guardian of Mecca, in alliance with Western infidels. The removal of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (who, like Saddam and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, was essentially a secular dictator) by Nicolas Sarkozy, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton did nothing but expand the void now filled by the monstrous leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What extraordinary irony! By invading Iraq, the neocolonialists Bush and Blair destroyed the 1916 Sykes–Picot agreement between France and Britain—the carving up of territory that led to the creation of Iraq and Syria. It’s not surprising that al-Baghdadi, by no means a stupid man, has pronounced the death of those artificial boundaries drawn by imperialist functionaries.

Yes, I think that airstrikes against the Islamic State (with inevitable civilian casualties) will strengthen the terrorists. Yes, I still think that François Hollande’s decision to mimic Barack Obama’s foreign policy and insist on Assad’s abdication as the precondition for negotiations was counterproductive. Yes, I suspect that the Saudis are complicit in the financing of the Islamic State. Yes, I think that a new Middle East strategy must begin both with the distancing of France and the United States from Saudi Arabia and with the condemnation of that country’s subsidies for the construction of Wahhabi, radically orthodox madrasas and mosques across the Muslim world. According to Le Monde, these “sites preach an intolerant doctrine, the ideological foundation for the abuses practiced by al-Baghdadi’s henchmen.” And yes, I think a prolonged state of emergency is as dangerous for French democracy as it is absurd in the context of a liberal, borderless Europe.

Nevertheless, a classic leftist critique will neither revive nor avenge the victims gunned down on the terraces of Parisian cafés (nor will it explain why they were killed). The sad reality is that France bled from the violence of at least four assassins who were born in France. Like the America of Columbine and Newtown—and of Oklahoma City, Umpqua Community College, Charleston, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino—the virus seems to be at least in part internally generated. Elsa, a Bataclan survivor quoted in Le Journal du Dimanche, described the third shooter as “a white man wearing glasses, with light, crew cut hair … he reminded me of the killer in Bowling for Columbine. I thought, now here’s a guy who lost it all on his own.” As it turns out he was ethnically Arab, but one need be neither Arab nor Caucasian—or be trained abroad by religious extremists—to become a self-appointed crusader for violent purification on behalf of radical Islam or any other fundamentalist ideology. You don’t need massive subsidies from Persian Gulf potentates to obtain a Kalashnikov. For the first time, I sense a kind of nihilism connecting my two countries. My beloved Paris Americanized—now that’s something to cry about.

On Thursday, November 19, I went to the Café Bonne Bière, near the Place de la République, where five innocent people were killed. It was encircled by a police cordon, the sidewalk in front strewn with flowers. Affixed to the wall on the other side of the street, directly across from the café’s windows, where two bullet holes were clearly visible, two posters proclaimed, “Long live the Republic, long live MY France,” between which had been placed a sort of mural of a young blonde woman. (Perhaps a personal memorial?) On Saturday night I returned to the area. I wanted to pay my respects at the Auberge de Pyrénées Cévennes, a restaurant on the rue de la Folie-Méricourt, 160 yards or so from the Bonne Bière, where by chance one of my young employees, on a visit to Paris, had been trapped during the attack. I wanted to thank the owners for having sheltered him for six hours, but when I introduced myself to Françoise Constantin, she did a double take, as if she needed to be prompted. “Oh of course,” she said with a big smile. “It was an attack against the young. The young need protection and moral support.” The place was lively and full of people, and from behind the bar, Madame Constantin cheerfully told me that the Bonne Bière’s managers, her competitors, were already busy cleaning up and planning to reopen soon.  Inside the warm glow of the establishment, run by Francoise and her husband, Daniel, the mayhem of the previous week felt remote. One can always dream.


Original text (as published by Le Devoir):

Paris sous le choc du fanatisme violent, ce n’est certes pas le meilleur moment pour se promener dans la Ville lumière. Mais voilà que, pour la deuxième fois cette année, je me suis retrouvé errant dans mes quartiers habituels — ceux de ma famille maternelle — juste après les attentats contre cette « certaine idée » que j’ai de la France, pour reprendre une expression de Charles de Gaulle.

Cette idée a toujours été colorée par le contraste avec une Amérique statistiquement et psychologiquement bien plus violente. Une Amérique déchirée par le racisme, l’ignorance et l’agressivité envers l’autre qui fait de la France, pour moi, une culture tout à fait différente, un véritable refuge contre la déraison. Lors de ma visite en février, au lendemain de l’attaque ciblant mes confrères de Charlie Hebdo, j’étais rassuré sur le fait que le socle de mon rêve parisien français tenait bon. L’esprit de solidarité était affiché de toutes parts, au-delà de la présence des soldats postés devant des bureaux et les studios des médias. En tournée de promotion pour la traduction française du rapport du Congrès sur la torture pratiquée par la CIA après le 11-Septembre (dont j’avais coécrit la préface), j’avais l’assurance que les Français n’allaient pas suivre le mauvais exemple venu d’outre-mer en faisant la « guerre contre la terreur » à l’américaine.

Mais le 13 novembre a changé la donne.

Grandiose sottise

En revanche, les faits politiques n’ont pas changé : George W. Bush et Tony Blair restent dans une large mesure les architectes de la réussite du groupe armé État islamique. Leur grandiose sottise de 2003 a ouvert les portes aux pires éléments de l’islamisme radical — une radicalisation déjà encouragée par le précédent président Bush en 1990 alors qu’il avait installé des militaires américains sur la terre sainte de l’Arabie saoudite afin de chasser Saddam Hussein du Koweït. Oussama ben Laden, citoyen saoudien et ancien actif de la CIA dans l’insurrection des talibans contre l’Union soviétique en Afghanistan, était outré de cette trahison du wahhabisme par le roi Fahd, gardien de La Mecque, aux côtés de ses alliés infidèles.

Le renversement de Mouammar Kadhafi en Libye (qui, comme Saddam et Bachar al-Assad, était un dictateur essentiellement laïque) par Nicolas Sarkozy, Barack Obama et Hillary Clinton n’a fait qu’élargir le vide aujourd’hui rempli par le monstre Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi. Ironie extraordinaire : en envahissant l’Irak, les néocolonialistes Bush et Blair ont détruit le consensus colonial créé par la France et le Royaume-Uni en 1916 et consigné dans l’accord de partage de territoire Sykes-Picot, qui mènera à l’invention de l’Irak et la Syrie. Pas étonnant qu’Abou Bakr, loin d’être bête, ait prononcé la mort de ces frontières artificielles dessinées par des fonctionnaires impérialistes.

Oui, je pense que les frappes aériennes contre le groupe EI (avec les inévitables victimes civiles) alimentent les terroristes ; oui, le choix de François Hollande de singer Barack Obama dans sa politique étrangère et d’insister sur la démission d’Assad comme préalable aux négociations a été contre-productif ; oui, je soupçonne la complicité des Saoudiens dans le financement du groupe EI ; oui, je pense qu’une nouvelle stratégie au Moyen-Orient doit commencer par l’éloignement de la France et de l’Amérique de l’Arabie saoudite et par la condamnation de ses subventions à la construction de madrasas et mosquées à travers le monde musulman. Selon Le Monde, ces « lieux […] prêchent une vulgate intolérante, soubassement idéologique des exactions pratiquées par les séides d’Al-Baghdadi ». Et oui, je pense qu’un état d’urgence prolongé est aussi dangereux pour la France démocratique qu’absurde dans le contexte d’une Europe libérale sans frontières. 

Virus interne

Toutefois, une critique classique de gauche ne va pas expliquer les attentats, pas plus que ranimer ou venger les innocents atteints sur la terrasse du café À la bonne bière, où je me suis rendu jeudi 19 novembre. La triste réalité est que Paris a saigné sous la violence d’au moins trois assassins qui sont nés en France. Comme pour l’Amérique de Columbine et de Newtown — mais aussi d’Oklahoma City, Roseburg, Charleston, Colorado Springs et San Bernardino —, le virus semble en partie être interne.

Citée dans Le Journal du dimanche, Elsa, survivante du Bataclan, a décrit le troisième tireur comme « un homme blanc portant des lunettes, les cheveux clairs et coupés en brosse… Je pense au tueur de Bowling for Columbine, je me dis qu’on a affaire à un type qui a pété un plomb tout seul ». Arabe ou Caucasien, il n’est pas nécessaire pour un voyou d’être formé à l’étranger par des terroristes religieux pour qu’il devienne un chevalier de l’islam. On n’a pas besoin de subvention pharaonique du Golfe pour obtenir une kalachnikov. Il y aurait là un néonihilisme qui raccorde mes deux pays ; il y aurait là de quoi pleurer. Mon Paris bien-aimé, tétanisé et américanisé. Quelle horreur !

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