John Kerry on Paris: At least with the Charlie Hebdo attack, there was a legitimacy, I mean rationale, to it

In lieu of a “Quotes of the Day,” something even zestier.

What happened here, guys? What was the final destination for this train of thought?

“In the last days, obviously, that has been particularly put to the test. There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of — not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for. That’s not an exaggeration.”

Kerry continued, “It was to assault all sense of nationhood and nation-state and rule of law and decency, dignity, and just put fear into the community and say, ‘Here we are.’ And for what? What’s the platform? What’s the grievance? That we’re not who they are? They kill people because of who they are and they kill people because of what they believe. And it’s indiscriminate. They kill Shia. They kill Yezidis. They kill Christians. They kill Druze. They kill Ismaili. They kill anybody who isn’t them and doesn’t pledge to be that. And they carry with them the greatest public display of misogyny that I’ve ever seen, not to mention a false claim regarding Islam. It has nothing to do with Islam; it has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism — I mean, you name it.”

The word “legitimacy” hangs in the air like a rancid fart. Kerry smelled it instantly too and scrambled to rephrase, which is nice but doesn’t explain how he arrived at “legitimacy” when grasping for the right term to capture his thought. I guess we’ll have to wonder.

This guy, in case you need reminding, is the chief diplomat of the United States. Carefully choosing his words on matters of the utmost international sensitivity is sort of his core job description.

Nothing good can come from drawing a distinction between Charlie Hebdo’s editors and the kids killed at the Bataclan. What Kerry’s getting at, I assume, is the idea that the former were killed for a particular reason whereas the latter were killed randomly, and random killings are supposedly more frightening because they drive home the fact that you too could be targeted. Except that’s not true. Random killings aren’t more frightening; the idea that it’s now quite plausible you’ll be murdered in a western country by fanatics for refusing to observe their cultural norm against blasphemy is frightening. Instead of expressing solidarity with Charlie Hebdo for daring to defy that norm, Kerry’s suggesting that until this weekend the French could take comfort in the idea that as long as they didn’t insult Mohammed, they wouldn’t end up on anyone’s kill list. If you strain, you can analogize his view of the distinction between Hebdo and Friday’s victims to the distinction between soldiers and civilians. Satire of Islam is to the cartoonist what combat is to the soldier; we mourn the deaths of both but we accept that their professions are violent, deadly business. By distinguishing Charlie Hebdo from the other victims, Kerry’s further mainstreaming the sense that people who provoke Islam have knowingly assumed a certain inevitable risk that other civilians haven’t. That’s where his little “legitimacy” fart came from, I think: It’s not that Hebdo’s editors are legitimate targets, exactly, as that they’re not quite as illegitimate as the guy minding his own business at the Eagles of Death Metal concert.

Even worse, it’s also not true that there was no particular grievance behind Friday’s attack:

Why he can see the grievance clearly in the case of Charlie Hebdo but not in the case of Friday’s attack, even though jihadis at the Bataclan were yelling about Syria and Hollande, is curious. Look again at how he describes the latter: “It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for.” As opposed to … the Hebdo attack, which was about nothing more than avenging Mohammed? Maybe the worst part is that little note of surprise in Kerry’s words when he marvels that Friday’s attack was “absolutely indiscriminate.” (“That’s not an exaggeration.”) So was the attack on the World Trade Center. This is what they do, and what they’ve been doing in places like Madrid and London and Mumbai for years now. If anything, it’s Hebdo that was the outlier, not jihadis blowing up random soft targets. Why is the fact that the attack was indiscriminate noteworthy 15 years into the war on terror? And why suggest that the Charlie Hebdo attack was somehow less, rather than more, problematic? What is wrong with this person?

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