I should have sensed that something was amiss that dim Parisian night in May. It was 2012—the place, the historic site of a prison break and genuine revolutionary moment—and between the riot squad, the rock ‘n roll and the redolent whiffs of weed, one could be forgiven if one felt a desultory throb of popular resistance. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d never have guessed that I was witnessing the election jubilee of a centrist demagogue whose campaign hedged its bets on “At least I’m not the other guy.” Perhaps I’d given too much credit to the grandchildren of 1968. But the truly hysterical thing, that should have given the game away, was that the protest and the police were on the same damn side; they were gathered, after all, for the sake of the selfsame head of State.
That was nearly half a decade ago. It was still possible then to speak of “Occupy Wall Street” with semi-serious intonations; the liberation of Libya had yet to devolve to the spoils of rival fiefdoms; the U.S. occupation had just withdrawn from Mesopotamia. It would be one year till Edward Snowden let us glimpse the scope and scale of our domestic voyeurism, and two before the judiciary gave its last imprimatur to the extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizens. It was, in other words, not yet a total farce to find long-haired rock stars and millenials among the cheerleaders of chiefs of hyper-militarized and imperial global Powers. (Back home, the reelection season of Barack Obama was in its fullest swing.)
So mark the sequel. It was not the embattled epicenter of revolution, but the royal chamber of l’ancien régime, where President François Hollande addressed to a rare joint session of parliament his plans for the shape of France to come. Curfews, warrantless searches, electronic surveillance, censorship, restrictions of movement, administrative detention…c’est la vie. Now, I can admit no expertise in French domestic constitutionalism, but I do know a bit about irony, and it looks a lot like the Premier secrétaire du Parti socialiste conducting a spontaneous mass rendition of La Marseillaise (the Chant de guerre pour l’armée du rhin): “To arms, citizens, form your battalions, let’s march, let’s march! Let an impure blood water our fields!”
Notice the rather sinister image of sanguinary irrigation. (I am reminded of that lurid scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket: “Blood makes the grass grow—kill, kill, kill!”) One almost can miss the atavistic reference to hematological “purity.” I understand La Marseillaise to be the Frenchmen’s revolutionary anthem; but if the topplers of aristocracy are singing now their battle hymn against a gang of maladapted criminals, we are in a sorry state indeed. And if one isn’t careful, one might forget that its composer was a royalist to the end, or that the republicans who had their way with his material are known to history for their own reign of Terror.
In any case, the implied equivalence between the “conspiratorial kings” of La Marseillaise and today’s “terrorisme djihadiste” is not just an insult to history; it is an admission of defeat. It is to normalize and make permanent the extralegal conflagration that made la Révolution exceptional, and to reduce a revolutionary legacy to the humdrum business of law-and-order. It also turns the revolutionary paradigm—of the citizenry against the extravagance of an absolutist executive—entirely on its head. “This was an attack on our free and open societies” is our President’s ready-made response; why then must we react by helping these illiberal thugs achieve precisely what they want? How dispiriting it is to see the French applaud their nation’s degradation to a bona fide police state.
To rehearse a theme to which we Americans have grown well-accustomed, it will be asked of us to remember where we were and what we were up to on the 13th of November. I was drinking at a bar in Tel Aviv (speaking of police states), listening to a recent émigré complain that France had lost its “culture.” What did my new acquaintance mean to say? “Too many damn Arabs,” naturally—and this was right before the news had broke of the rotten butchering in Paris. An hour later, I sat bewildered in the quiet fumes of another nearby patron, who mused ponderously that this should be “a wake-up call for France.” I didn’t press him further, but you can guess his dire intimations.
I mention Tel Aviv if only as a measure of a culture where security and self-righteousness have reached their zenith and nadir. It is also a place where a permanent état d’urgence, with all the ensuing derogations of human rights and obliterations of civil liberties that dear François demands, has been declared since 1948. The sense of victimhood is so pronounced, the xenophobia so ingrained (really a misnomer: the Arabs were there first), that it is possible to ignore five decades’ worth of military occupation and to ask, with oblivious sincerity, “Why do they hate us so?”
Think like this, and one can buy the inexpensive and deflective lie that we are facing here the clash between an Oriental “cult of death” and the Western joie de vivre. “They have guns,” says Charlie Hebdo: “Fuck them, we have champagne!” The orphans of Raqqa and Ramadi know France has an aircraft carrier, too.
Before the corpses had their chance to cool, I and many others criticized the cloying and selective grief dispensed reflexively from every corner of our beggared social media. Insensitive, one might say, and verging on vulgar whataboutism, to bring up Baghdad and Beirut in the wake of bodies on the streets of Saint-Denis. Yet the issue is not the required quota of pity from one mass murder to another, but rather the dehumanization that permits entire peoples (namely, brown ones) to amount in the Western psyche only to the renewable raw materials of collateral damage. Why is the spontaneous killing of Westerners more shocking and outrageous than the habitual daily slaughter of their former colonies? Because it disrupts the established rule that only backward and exotic lands exist to be the despoiled tributaries of violence.
This would be objectionable by itself. What makes it worse is France’s willfully infantile blindness both to history and to context—as if they’d just been sitting idly by a street café, minding their own existential business, when inexplicable horror came to ruin their soirée. It ignores the fact that France had been itching to wage war in Syria since 2013, or that its greatest regional ally is a fanatical theocracy—the granddaddy of Da’esh—whose government ideology occupies the liminal space between corporate oligarchy, murderous crime family and clerical fascism. Invisible, too, is the French complicity in carving up the carcass of the former Ottoman Empire (whose resulting borderlines became the target of the first grand gesture of Da’esh), and that François Hollande had little need for this month’s “acte de guerre” from Raqqa—France had been bombing them since last September. Mais non, non, non…this is about croissants and cigarettes and mini-skirts and cheap champagne. They hate our love of life.
When the United States took upon itself the task of thwarting Vietnamese liberation, it became the moral, as well as structural, inheritor of French dominion over Indochina. If not in an identical, then surely in a similar way, the Western war on the Islamic State is the mongrel stepchild of Europe’s colonial vivisection at the outset of the Great Loot. (Is it truly any wonder why these terrorists came from countries ruled by France?) But an instinctual pan-Occidental nationalism has found a splendid soil in collective amnesia, whose digital emissaries brandish now the tricolore of a militant police State, baying for Arab blood. If only half the empathy and solidarity expended Westward could be shared with the lives of savage Orientals—and with a simple shiver of historical and geopolitical consciousness—perhaps we would think twice before we send our boys and bombs to fertilize the training grounds of djihadisme.
Tel Aviv, 2015.