We Are All – Fill in the Blank

The world reacted with horror to the murderous attack on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo.  In the New York Times, veteran Europe correspondent Steven Erlanger graphically described the immediate aftermath, what many call France’s 9/11, as “a day of sirens, helicopters in the air, frantic news bulletins; of police cordons and anxious crowds; of young children led away from schools to safety. It was a day, like the previous two, of blood and horror in and around Paris.” The enormous outcry worldwide was accompanied by reflection about the deeper roots of the atrocity. “Many Perceive a Clash of Civilizations,” a New York Times headline read.

The reaction of horror and revulsion about the crime is justified, as is the search for deeper roots, as long as we keep some principles firmly in mind.  The reaction should be completely independent of what thinks about this journal and what it produces.  The passionate and ubiquitous chants “I am Charlie,” and the like, should not be meant to indicate, even hint at, any association with the journal, at least in the context of defense of freedom of speech.  Rather, they should express defense of the right of free expression whatever one thinks of the contents, even if they are regarded as hateful and depraved.

And the chants should also express condemnation for violence and terror.  The head of Israel’s Labor Party and the main challenger for the upcoming elections in Israel, Isaac Herzog, is quite right when he says that “Terrorism is terrorism.  There’s no two ways about it.” He is also right to say that “All the nations that seek peace and freedom [face] an enormous challenge” from murderous terrorism – putting aside his predictably selective interpretation of the challenge.

Erlanger vividly describes the scene of horror.  He quotes one surviving journalist as saying that “Everything crashed.  There was no way out. There was smoke everywhere. It was terrible. People were screaming. It was like a nightmare.” Another surviving journalist reported a “huge detonation, and everything went completely dark.” The scene, Erlanger reported, “was an increasingly familiar one of smashed glass, broken walls, twisted timbers, scorched paint and emotional devastation.” At least 10 people were reported at once to have died in the explosion, with 20 missing, “presumably buried in the rubble.”

These quotes, as the indefatigable David Peterson reminds us, are not, however, from January 2015.  Rather, they are from a story of Erlanger’s on April 24 1999, which made it only to page 6 of the New York Times, not reaching the significance of the Charlie Hebdo attack.  Erlanger was reporting on the NATO (meaning US) “missile attack on Serbian state television headquarters” that “knocked Radio Television Serbia off the air.”

There was an official justification. “NATO and American officials defended the attack,” Erlanger reports, “as an effort to undermine the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.” Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told a briefing in Washington that “Serb TV is as much a part of Milosevic’s murder machine as his military is,” hence a legitimate target of attack.

The Yugoslavian government said that “The entire nation is with our President, Slobodan Milosevic,” Erlanger reports, adding that “How the Government knows that with such precision was not clear.”

No such sardonic comments are in order when we read that France mourns the dead and the world is outraged by the atrocity.  There need also be no inquiry into the deeper roots, no profound questions about who stands for civilization, and who for barbarism.

Isaac Herzog, then, is mistaken when he says that “Terrorism is terrorism.  There’s no two ways about it.” There are quite definitely two ways about it: terrorism is not terrorism when a much more severe terrorist attack is carried out by those who are Righteous by virtue of their power.  Similarly, there is no assault against freedom of speech when the Righteous destroy a TV channel supportive of a government that they are attacking.

By the same token, we can readily comprehend the comment in the New York Times of civil rights lawyer Floyd Abrams, noted for his forceful defense of freedom of expression, that the Charlie Hebdo attack is “the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory.” He is quite correct about “living memory,” which carefully assigns assaults on journalism and acts of terror to their proper categories: Theirs, which are horrendous; and Ours, which are virtuous and easily dismissed from living memory.

We might recall as well that this is only one of many assaults by the Righteous on free expression.  To mention only one example that is easily erased from “living memory,” the assault on Falluja by US forces in November 2004, one of the worst crimes of the invasion of Iraq, opened with occupation of Falluja General Hospital.  Military occupation of a hospital is, of course, a serious war crime in itself, even apart from the manner in which it was carried out, blandly reported in a front-page story in the New York Times, accompanied with a photograph depicting the crime.  The story reported that “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” The crimes were reported as highly meritorious, and justified: “The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Falluja General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties.”

Evidently such a propaganda agency cannot be permitted to spew forth its vulgar obscenities.


  1. george patterson February 6, 2015 6:23 am 

    In having commended Noam Chomsky for his very wise comments in this article about how we must be consistent in rejecting all acts of violence and terror in order to achieve a global culture of peace and justice, I would like to dedicate this following poem – “Ode to our Laziness” – of mine to Noam Chomsky and this article, including the late Howard Zinn, for their noble, courageous efforts to create a global culture of peace and justice:

    Ode to our Laziness
    to Noam Chomsky & Howard Zinn
    By George Bradford Patterson II
    Yesterday we felt that our ode wouldn’t
    rise up off the ground.
    It was high time, it should
    at least
    gleam a green leaf.
    We smoothed the earth: “Rise up
    sister ode”
    -We said to her-
    “We promised to produce you,
    don’t be frightened of us,
    . we’re not going to tread on you,
    ode with four leaves,
    ode with four hands,
    you’ll have coffee with us
    Rise up,
    we will crown you among the odes,
    we’ll zoom to the seashore with you
    on our motorcycles.”
    No way.

    high up in the mango trees,
    appeared nude,
    she led us off bedazzled
    and sleepy,
    she showed us on the sand
    of material from the ocean,
    wood, wreathes, seaweed,
    stones, bracelet, necklaces,
    feathers of seabirds.
    We searched for green lapz lazulis
    but didn’t come upon any.
    The sea
    engulfed all spaces
    collapsing towers,
    the coasts of our country,
    surging forward
    succeeding disasters of foam.
    Deserted on the sand
    a ray revealed
    a ring of fire.
    We saw the silvered petrels
    glide and like white crosses
    the sea gulls
    nailed to the rocks.
    We let loose
    a butterfly writhing in a spider’s web,
    we placed two little stones
    in our pockets,
    they were smooth, very smooth
    like a dove’s breast,
    meantime on the coast,
    all morning,
    sun and fog tangled.
    At times
    the fog was fertile
    with light
    like a gold gem,
    at other time a misty
    ray of sun fell,
    and gold drops fell after it.

    At twilight
    meditating upon the duties of our
    fugitive ode,
    we took of our sandals
    amid the fire,
    sand spilled from them
    and at once we were falling

    Bicol Region, Philippines, 2009

  2. george patterson January 22, 2015 6:43 pm 

    i must commend Noam Chomsky for his very wise comments that we must be consistent in condemning all acts of violence and terror with the full force of our command. We must not be selective because if we do so, we undermine ourselves morally, and we become complicit with the perpetual cycle of violence and terror wittingly and unwittingly. We must learn to dignify life consistently, thereby avoiding a double standard. Thus, we must be thoroughly humanizing with each other and the whole world by embracing each other and the world with a non-violent ethos, that is to say a non-violent way of life if we truly expect to end this mayhem and carnage.and create a world of peace, justice, and blissfulness. The only way to peace is through peace.

  3. nabil moussallem January 15, 2015 12:40 am 

    When looking at the Western mainstream media round-the-clock coverage of events in Paris and comparing it to the almost nonexistent one for the massacres in Nigeria – with 20 victims in the first case and 2,000 in the latter – a rational person cannot but wonder whether the journalists are aware of the harm they are wreaking on the society as a whole on one hand, and the insult they are inflicting on their profession on the other.
    Moreover, professor Chomsky, more than anyone knows the limits of freedom of speech in France, having been himself the victim of a relentless campaign unleashed by French so-called intellectuals – with some of them going as far as claiming that professor Chomsky was a negationist – upon his signing of a petition defending Robert Faurisson’s freedom of expression, more than 30 years ago.

    • Nicole DeVault January 20, 2015 11:02 am 

      Mr. Moussallem’s comment warrants further investigation on the selective coverage of events by the media. Why is one event more tragic and deserving of our empathy than another?
      While we can look to the greater forces that be perhaps we are not examining the deeper roots of the problem. I have often questioned the intent of the media.
      “A rational person cannot but wonder whether the journalists are aware of the harm they are wreaking”, Mr. Moussallem writes. Let me ask you . . . are you aware?

  4. Danica Jorden January 11, 2015 7:15 pm 

    There was nothing in Charlie Hebdo that even approximates the daily onslaught of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and hatefulness exhibited by commercial television and media that continue to bombard us without any trace of Charlie Hebdo’s pointed criticism of organized religion and right-wing politics. So when I say Je suis Charlie, I am Charlie, I stand in honour of their persistent social critique expressed through the gentle medium of humour and caricature.
    However, the extreme display of firepower and military might, as well as breathless media coverage, in subduing the assailants and another attacker was vulgar, vengeful and contrary to all human rights laws, and counterproductive to ensuring peace and discovering the true reasons behind the attacks. So I do not stand with the conquerors triumphant march in Paris on Sunday in Charlie Hebdo’s name.
    I am not in a position to know or calculate the costs of the police and military operation, but when I noticed the article on the BBC website immediately following live coverage of the manhunt, entitled “We Are Slowly Dying,” I have to wonder if, from all the expended energy, the masses of Syrian refugees freezing to death depicted in that article could have had some respite from the cold instead.

  5. Thierry Blanc January 11, 2015 5:48 pm 

    Thank you so much for this piece. It clarified so much!

  6. Barbara Todish January 11, 2015 3:08 pm 

    Re: Charlie Hebdo, Kareem Abdul Jabar says:”Any religion that requires coercion is not about the community, but about the leaders wanting power.” time.com/3662152/kareem-abdul-jabar-paris-charlie-hebdo-terrorist-attacks-are-not-about-religion/
    We’re ALL more than our religion! We’re ALL more than our ethnicity,race, gender, etc! We’re especially ALL more than our language! When, “people” consider themselves ONLY their religion,ethnicity,race, gender, names, etc., they feel like less than the limitless human people that we’re ALL meant to be. Such “people”(murder ers, supporters, etc of the Charlie Hebdo journalists,)we re/are only semi existing because they (and WE ALL?) are dealing in/with FEAR of the future &/or regret of the past. We’re ALL responsible for the Paris murders because we are ALL part of the problem instead of being ALL of the solution. It’s possible to TRANSCEND the limitations of LANGUAGE. BLISS, LOVE, HUMOR CAN exist in limitless abundance for us all PROVIDED, that is, if we ALL have our basic needs met. Until then, however, how can anyone,even the 1% TRULY, AUTHENTICALLY, EXPERIENCE this bliss when there HAS to be an awareness. & the resultant DEFENSIVENESS that rears it’s ugly head in expressions like the murders in Paris when, to some degree, a large part of the world is without their basic physical needs for survival? “I recognized my kinship with all living things and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then and I say now that, while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it and while there is one soul in prison, I am not free” Eugene V. Debs

    Noam Chomsky will hardly read this comment, but, maybe he might, if others persuade him to.
    Please advise &/or email me 973 484-1023 btodish@kean.edu

  7. Laurence O'Bryan January 11, 2015 9:24 am 

    I admire your ability to place these recent deaths in context, Professor Chomsky.

    It is a reminder of the acts undertaken in all our names.

    The challenge goes deeper however. When confronted with an enemy determined to destroy, for reasons of revenge, how can one deal with the past, without abandoning western values?

    Reflections on history might lead us to discuss the long term suffering of Jews in Arab lands, over a thousand years, and include the Holocaust. Is revenge justified for those acts too, and for how long?

    Western connivance in the deaths of Jews over centuries, the responsibility of the Catholic Church in its reemergence a hundred years ago must be weighed on the scale of revenge too.

    The puzzle we are presented with must also reflect occasional Islamic state intolerance and murderous brutality. I agree with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, “we condemn all forms of terrorism, no matter whether in Lebanon or Palestine or in Paris and the United States.”

    To condemn all such acts must be the best way forward, no matter the list of grievances.

    • Robert Higgins January 13, 2015 10:31 pm 

      Your sentiments are thoughtful and well stated and I appreciate them. I think, however, missing is a subtle nuance to Chomsky’s thrust – one which should answer your question about how to deal with the perceived enemy out for revenge.

      The first step in dealing with the enemy out for revenge is to stop participation in the wrongdoing for which the revenge is sought. The reflection in Chomsky’s piece is not merely for the purpose of counting up past misdeeds. It is to demonstrate that the misdeeds continue. 1999 is so recent that the reporter who covered the Serbian bombing was the same reporter who wrote the Times piece on the Charlie Hebdo attack. It was not incidental that Professor Chomsky recalled this particular event. It is an indication that the transgressions continue and are not a thing of the past. But I think Professor Chomsky’s point is even deeper. What he appears to be saying is that equal energy and diligence (if not more) should be devoted to condemnation and analysis of atrocities committed by us (the West in the case of the Serbian state television attack) or we simply won’t be taken seriously. His recollection that the writer’s 1999 story made only page 6 is but one example among too many to count that this sort of proportionality is indeed not in effect. The atrocity in France has received wall to wall coverage from every news outlet in America because it was committed by “them”. If proportionality were in effect, there simply wouldn’t be enough networks and anchors and writers to cover our current crimes (see civilians killed in drone attacks, or weapons sales to brutal dictators, etc.). Such proportionality is not just an abstract philosophical construct with no place in these dangerous times. It is elemental morality and it is essential if you are going to be taken seriously in your condemnations. It’s just simple elementary morality to look at your own crimes before looking at the other guy’s. Just stop committing your crimes first. Then you can take a look at the other guy’s. Maybe then you’ll be taken seriously when you do.

      Your final statement was “To condemn all such acts must be the best way forward, no matter the list of grievances.” I think what Chomsky might say is our condemnations of the atrocities in France are running 24/7 on CNN and every other square inch of network news. When will the proportional condemnations of our atrocities begin? How long will they have to run 24/7 to reach equilibrium? Without that proportionality, we have no standing in our condemnations.

  8. Carlos Morales January 11, 2015 12:04 am 

    When Anders Brevik murdered 72 people in Norway, besides the strong condemnations from everywhere, it was ok to analyze the possible motivations that made him carry out such horrendous act. No one was accused of sympathizing with him by attempting to understand his thinking. His motivations appeared to be his deep hatred for foreigners, mixed societies etc. We can’t change the make up of Norwegian society because of murderers like him.

    Here it is also appropriate to attempt to comprehend the motivations of the attackers. By the same token, we should not be accused of sympathizing with the killers. Their motivations seem to have to do with the terrible violence unleashed by Western countries led by the US, but followed eagerly by France.

    The total catastrophe unleashed on Syria, with France arming terrorist groups to overthrow Assad, their leading role in the immoral and criminal attack on Syria or the genocide they carried out in Algeria not too long ago are but a few examples of French terrorism.

    Unlike changing Norwegian society to Brevik’s extremist and racist conception, stopping French terrorism is an attainable goal which we should all pursue.

    France’s renouncing to violence and embrace of peace are the best vaccine against future attacks like the horrible events we have witnessed.

    I hope the French people don’t remain in the same bubble the US was in in 2001: “they attacked us because of our freedoms” ignoring all the bloody history of the US in the Middle East. So far I see very little soul searching.

    • Charles Ho January 11, 2015 4:46 pm 

      Your comments are measured, sensible and very well expressed. They could as well be made with regard to the instant Greenwald essay. The West has created a “war of civilizations” when this was not in fact the case. The West must “stand down” and give the world a breather for restoration of peaceful resolution of disputes.

  9. Rick Langtree January 10, 2015 10:16 pm 

    Indeed, why should we be so surprised if people with links to currently war-torn countries ever try, and succeed, to unleash bloody mayhem in our neighbourhoods? We do it in theirs all the time.

Leave a comment