No one enters into the world fully formed. We are made and make our own history, but not under circumstances of our choosing as someone fairly influential once noted. That is true for you, me, and murderous scum who rampage through offices shooting journalists and cartoonists. Media comment has noted the so-called professionalism of the shooters - they knew when best to strike, where the staff would be, who to murder, and how to withdraw before the authorities arrived. How does one get to the point where, against the teachings of your own religion, you acquire automatic weapons and head out to kill people for writing critical words and printing disrespectful doodles?
We live in the age of spectacular terrorism, of atrocities committed with an eye to rolling news coverage and social media. If the September 11th attacks were acts of semiotic terrorism, as the late Jean Baudrillard argued, that has been the commonplace since. Bali, Madrid, London Underground, Utøya; public spaces, safe spaces forever burdened with the memory of mass murder. The killing of Lee Rigby and the slaying of hostages by the Islamic State rabble are no different. Maximum senselessness and over-the-top brutality puts a rocket booster under their propaganda ensuring it reaches a wide audience. In a sense, there might even be an arms race. Which group, which cell, which would-be martyr can pull off the most audacious outrage?
There is more to this than securing coverage, however. There's a display of macho narcissism - look at us, we're the real deal. As disgusting as it sounds, whatever the gunmen are doing now they will be proud. It's also about weakness. The crimes committed by IS fanatics in their desert boltholes substitute for not facing Western troops. It's a way of getting at the main enemy without getting at them, and conveying on themselves a sense of power that does not really exist. Something similar happened with today's thugs. They selected a soft target and all that stood between them and their massacre were two unarmed police. Theirs was - hopefully a vain - attempt to shut down a bête noire for Islamists, but one that nevertheless was a substitute, a stand-in because the centres of power in Paris, London, and Washington remain beyond their reach.
The attacks also smack of anarchist terror attacks, or what was once known as the propaganda of the deed. Fundamentalist Islam does not have a mass following in France, and those willing to countenance the murder of journalists count number far less than that. This mediaeval hocum is never getting traction - despite what the absurd-sounding novel Submission has to say about it - so our gunmen believe that their murdering journalists will act as a catalyst to cohere disaffected Muslims around their views. If, for example, in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo the Western presses reprint some of their anti-Islamic cartoons, the killers win because some Muslims will be antagonised by the move. If across the West the fires of Islamophobia are stoked, they win again. Especially in France where the fascists of the National Front won't miss the opportunity to whip up bigotry, hate, and fear. If Muslims come under siege, the thugs will feel it's been a job well done. If in the name of terror prevention governments act true to form and assume more swingeing, authoritarian powers it will be Muslim kids on the sharp end of police attention. It will be Muslims bearing the brunt of surveillance and petty interference in school and other education settings, the workplace, and so on. Again, they win.
We must refuse to play the jihadis' games. The mass demonstrations against terror and in solidarity with the slain are a poignant, beautiful, inspiring start. For them to open their arms to Muslims, to emphasise the common values the vast majority shares, whether they happen to be Christian, Muslim, or of no religion at all, and to ridicule, dismiss, ignore, and distance those for whom tragedy is an occasion for dog-whistling; to resist more draconian legislation, armed cops, and policing by profile; to live by liberty and fraternity - that's how the scum will lose.