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The Killers Who Didn’t Believe?

This post is unrelated to the normal subjects discussed at Smart Drug Smarts.  It’s just something I wanted to write.  – Jesse

Aside from a few areas of interest peculiar to me, I don’t really follow the news closely most of the time.

Which isn’t to say that bad things are happening in the world and I prefer to hide from them, but more that I don’t trust or enjoy the way on which our world is typically reported.  The hybridization between slasher-movie shock spectacle and over-emoted OMG hyperbole doesn’t do much for my fandom of the species.

That said, I still get major news by way of cultural osmosis, and every now and then a story gets under my skin.

The Charlie Hebdo disaster this past week was such a story.

A ton has been said already and will continue to be said as this brutal story and its cops-and-bad-guys aftermath winds to its conclusion.

It’s terrible for all the reasons we already know intuitively — and that the 24-hour news media remind us like a terror metronome.

I, no less than anyone, am sickened by this crime and feel an obligatory sense of loss, despite the attack being half-a-world away on a small number of people I’d never heard of before.

But why does this story still chew on me after the initial “Damn, that’s awful” washed over? It’s sad to say, but horrible things happen daily in our multi-billion passenger world — from time immemorial, and likely for quite some time to come.

I puzzled about it, and I think my ongoing stomach-churn is a devil’s brew of revulsion both at the crime itself and the way it will be distilled in the mainstream discourse.

We’ll hear the grisly story of the slain journalists, and their killers.  The background of the comics that prompted the attack, the details of the firefight with the French police.  We’ll see the justifiable grief and outrage from mourners and protesters, and finally segue to the latest details of the manhunt for the killers…  And when that invariably concludes, to the masterminds and organizations who trained and fomented them.

Who, What, When, Where…

I remember, drilled into my head at some very early age, my father’s bullet-points for how a “news article” could and should be written.  Five Ws and an H.

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?

“Answer all these questions, Jesse, and you’ve got yourself an article.”  A clear sentence or two responding to each would almost certainly fill the two-thirds of a lined notebook page that my teacher would expect.  Mind my spelling and punctuation, don’t smudge the cursive, and an A could be mine – a B at worst.

I can only assume that our major news media’s fathers and mothers imbued them with similar how-to lessons.  And I hear the echoes of this pattern in the Charlie Hebdo news coverage.

Who were these killers?

What sort of people are they, that they could do this?

When and Where did they commit their crimes?

The problem is, it’s a fading echo that I hear, of my grade-school bullet-list.  The first few questions are answered loudly, repeatedly, all-consumingly…  But we barely approach the last couple.

Why did the killers think this act was the best thing they could spend their lives on?

How were they so profoundly misguided?

And How come this will inevitably happen again?  And again and again.

These Hows are the most interesting — and ultimately, the most consequential — of all of the questions we could pose.  And they’re barely addressed in the majority of the pre-digested “we did your thinking for you, and by the way, here’s your emotional response; no need to thank us” media.

If we’re lucky enough to get a How, it’s: “How can we prevent future attacks by Islamic extremists on journalists?”  A legitimate question, sure.  But legitimate in the same way that swatting a mosquito is a legitimate reflex, but of little result if you built your house in a subtropical swamp.

Everyone reading this, at some point, has been held up for ridicule.  But few, probably none of us, have emptied Kalashnikovs into our ridiculers.

I’m on a plane as I type this, with nearly two hundred other people, all of whom endured the obnoxious ritual of having to de-shoe and be frisked by everything-detectors (our tax dollars paying for the privilege), in commemoration of an airplane-related event some 14 years ago.  This same proliferation of minor, maybe-effective-maybe-not inconveniences happens constantly, innumerable times, worldwide, daily.

Are we to now construct similar protective dikes around the political satire industry as we have around airlines?  And when the next disaster strikes, born of extremist insanity, will we mount ad hoc defenses on yet another element of society, then another, then another?

What We “Learn” From the Mainstream Coverage

It’s a sad irony that we’re mostly given cartoonish coverage of the deaths of these cartoonists.

The stories, maybe by necessity (since it’s what the public has been trained to hear), play like an Islamic extremism Mad-Lib.  Our TVs sparkle with scary mugshots, the killers’ nationalities, and repetitious details of the crime itself.

And if/when we finally “zoom out” to the broader implications, the topics are “Who else might be on the fatwa list?”  Or even “How can the West help the Islamic world reform and self-police its believers, without (gulp) offending anyone as it does so?” 

But mostly, it’s Who, What, When, Where, Rinse, Repeat.  Until the story flames out and the next news cycle begins.

Imagine for a moment that you are my friend, and you sit me down and tell me: “Jesse, I just met the most amazing woman, and I’m deeply in love.”  And I respond: “What’s her hair color?  Please show me several photos of her in provocative poses, and how big are her boobs?”

I would be completely, despicably missing the the point.  Whatever has you deeply in love, her physical topography is a side note, at best.  What makes this particular woman amazing?

I submit to you that this absurd missing-of-the-point is what the mainstream Charlie Hebdo coverage is doing.

Like your theoretical love interest, there is something amazing about the main characters in this story — the killers.  It’s a bad amazing.  But it’s what really deserves pondering over, not the case’s superficial details.  Let’s leave that stuff to the French cops.  What society needs to think about, long and hard, is this tragic incident’s Whys and Hows.

Why were these people so threatened by cartoonists that they were willing to take lives (and very likely sacrifice their own) to “solve” a perceived problem?

How do human beings get so remarkably misguided?

I find the latter question absolutely fascinating. 

And to be fair, the mainstream always does address it — sort of — but the answers are as superficial as my interest in your new girlfriend’s hair color.

“How can we prevent future attacks by on journalists?” is a legitimate question in the same way that swatting a mosquito is a legitimate reflex — but of little result if you built your house in a swamp.

“The killers are misguided because fundamentalist Islam is a lousy religion.”

Yeah, okay.  I’ll give you that, but can we go a little deeper?

“They’re misguided because Islam, like it or not, is inherently violent and what we politely call ‘fundamentalism’ is shirking the fact that the whole religion is rotten to the core.”

(At this point, the news anchors generally bring on rival experts to debate the merits of this stance, and we never delve further.)

Or a militant atheist might say: “They’re misguided because of Islam, sure — but are they any more misguided than Christian bombers of abortion clinics, whose actions are a pretty close parallel to what happened in Paris?”

This is a fair point.

But I still feel that fundamentalism-bashing, Islam-bashing, even religion-bashing, are all kind of looking at symptoms rather than an underlying problem.

I try to put myself into the heads of these killers and ask “what would it take to make me think, out of all the things I could do with my life, that killing some cartoonists is my best next move?”

The Story of a Sickeningly Awful Overreaction

I think we can all agree that the victims at Charlie Hebdo were never going to up the ante beyond drawing cartoons.  Certainly their killers were under no direct threat — other than to be, I guess, laughingstocks among the Charlie Hebdo readership.

So why bring guns to a pencil-fight?

The answer to that question is the seed of all overreactions:  Wounded pride.

Every one of us has had our pride attacked, and we know what it feels like.  We’ve all been held up for ridicule.  But few, probably none of us, have emptied Kalashnikovs into our ridiculers.  I think there are two general reasons for this:

1)  Revenge wasn’t worth it to us.  Either the punishment of society, or our own self-flagellation for venturing into such black moral territory, kept us cowed into a lesser response.

Or, that failing:

2)  Despite our pride in our beliefs, we also had confidence in them.  We were so sure we were right, that someone else’s mockery just didn’t matter that much.  Complete certitude has a way of deflecting ego-jabs.  Copernicus got mocked plenty for his wacky “beliefs” about the arrangement of the solar system.  But his pride had the psychic safety-net of confidence backing it.

Mock me all you want, Copernicus could think to himself.  I’ve got an internally-consistent framework for my ideas, matching all the available evidence.  I’m as right as I can be, given my limitations.  And I’m certainly righter than you.

I know that some televised experts examining the Charlie Hebdo story will lean on Islamic doctrine, and say that (maybe) these killers were Quranic literalists, and were thus compelled to act in a certain way — that their own emotions were essentially irrelevant.

To this I say: hooey.

It’s our emotions, largely, that make our decisions for us — and if emotions didn’t compel us, no one would choose to be, for example, a Quranic literalist.  (People who make this choice certainly aren’t doing so on the strength of demonstrable physical evidence.)


I think what we have here — pathetically — is a group of killers with an abundance of pride, and a complete lack of confidence.

If they believed — really, really believed — in the truth of their religion, and that the cartoonists were misguided and idiotic heretics, would they have felt so threatened that they’d choose to sacrifice their own lives just to snuff out Charlie Hebdo?

I’m no psychologist.

And I’m not a religious scholar either.

But I am a guy who has been mocked, and has wanted to lash out.  And I know that my compulsion to anger is profoundly more powerful when I sort of suspect that what I’m being mocked for is actually kind of accurate.

You see what I’m getting at?

What if the killers’ almost-certain “martyrdom” (e.g. suicide-by-cop) is a psychic escape hatch to avoid confronting the profoundly unconvincing worldview their religion dictates?

I don’t think the so-called fundamentalists believed their own schtick.

European cartoonists mocked them, and the best they could come back with was “Shut up, or I’ll hurt you.”

[Mockery continues…]

“Okay, hurting you now.”

While this kind of response is emotionally satisfying in a really juvenile way — it’s never intellectually persuasive.

Not even to the person committing the violence.

We’ve all been kids.  We’ve all been in arguments where the best comeback we could muster was “shut up.”  And we all know, when “shut up” is all we’re left with, that we’ve lost the argument — unless we choose a weapon other than words, and take it to blows.

The horror at the root of this story isn’t that the Parisian killers “took it to blows.”

It’s that adult human beings, even today, live trapped in world-views so unconvincing that when challenged, the only retort they’ve got is “shut up.”  Violence like we saw this past week is the ugliest, and most newsworthy, response to this sort of anger — but anger isn’t even a necessary emotion when a person’s beliefs are backed by true confidence.

We all owe it to ourselves, and our fellow humans, to constantly challenge, and re-challenge, our beliefs.  Ideas that cannot withstand scrutiny — indeed, that cannot withstand open satire and mockery — do not deserve to be embraced.

We should fear and distrust any institutions — religious, cultural, or otherwise — that try to insulate or exempt themselves from the public acid-test of humor.

Failure to do so will lead to more Charlie Hebdos, of a greater or lesser degree, again and again and again.

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