Terrorist attacks, even more so than conventional war, are aimed at identity politics. Which makes #JeSuisCharlie and #JeNeSuisPasCharlie extremely political.
Immediately after the massacre in Paris, followed by the attack on a kosher supermarket, people started using a very peculiar way of expressing solidarity: “I am Charlie”, in dozens of different ways, with images, tweets, articles. However, as with any kind of group identity, this leads to the questions: Who, then, is not Charlie?
At first, it was simple. Everyone (including me, on a rainy London day, trying to focus while casually glimpsing at my phone) was shocked to hear the news. Two, or maybe three people gunning down journalists in Paris? It is a part of being a decent human being to be appalled by such a disgusting act of violence. Executing school children in Pakistan, abducting civil rights activists in Mexico, or killing French journalists: Everyone with the slightest sense of morality will be against it. So, it was no surprise when Millions protested in solidarity.
And for these initial one or two days, people were actually kind of united. The “Others” were the terrorists committing heinous crimes. Uniting against this “Other” was simple – apart from the attacks being obviously “evil”, solidarity amongst journalists guaranteed wide coverage, and the ones committing crimes were already easily distinguishable from society. We are talking about non-white French, who belong to a radical sect of Islam, and then to the 200 or so of those people who actually went to fight in Syria and came back. An enemy, kind of from abroad, not part of any mainstream society anywhere in the world. So Christians, Muslims and Jews, Leftists, Rightists and Liberals alike joined protests against them.
And then, “Othering” became more diversified. Because no real Leftie wants to be in the same group as Marine le Pen who wants to fight Schengen as well as introduce the death penalty. Similarly, The Daily Beast was happy to point fingers to anyone who would refrain from publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Others even made lists of who would not publish the cartoons.
Suddenly, anyone who would not show the cartoon in full (because they did not agree with them, or who did not feel like it fit their story) were also “bad guys”. As the german paper Jungle World put it: “The guys who shot as well“, citing criticism of Charlie Hebdo in the past, to finish with the line: “No, they are not Charlie Hebdo. They are the opposite”.
Meanwhile, “I am not Charlie” became popular: #JeNeSuisPasCharlie is a label for people who felt uncomfortable with the group dynamics. These people, however, are in a rather uncomfortable position: Being critical of people who died very recently is already hard (have you ever listed all mistakes of the deceased at a funeral?), doing so while everyone is trying to rally behind them in support means you have to show that you are not one of “them”, of the “bad guys”.
These group dynamics getting more and more absurd, to the point where families of the attackers have to position themselves: Are they one of “us” and condemn the attacks, or are they one of “them”, like their sons, brothers and husbands? Imagine losing someone from your family, but not being able to put them in any kind of heroic light; they killed innocent people, they are terrorists. And no, you may not have time to grief – we want you to position yourself NOW!
It is absurd: The big groups, the political right and left, they will negotiate who is NOT part of “us” but rather one of “them”. Meanwhile, all minorities – historically the “Other” – do their very best to be included. Jews and Muslims, French of Middle Eastern and African origin, Romani, all of them are showing support of #JeSuiCharlie, trying to show they are part of this group. Because they are very much aware of another truth about group identities: The “Other” is easy to attack, verbally and physically.
That is how insurgencies work: Create violence, forcing the state to react violently, creating more terrorists. In that way, French idiots reacting with violence are doing exactly what the attackers on Charlie Hebdo could have hope for – alienate French Muslims and white French. Not everyone has the sensitivity of Joe Sacco in dealing with this crisis.
How then will this end? Who will end up being “Chalie”, i.e. “us”, and who will end up being “them”, a.k.a. the “terrorists”? Only time will tell.