will depend on how people and powers choose to respond. And that leaves open a fearful range of possibilities.
As the worst terrorist attack on France since World War Two, at a moment when France and Europe are already torn between racist nationalism and more moderate forces, the shock of a massacre such as this could push things in any number of directions.
Like a tsunami that has yet to hit the shore, the massive crowds filling the streets in a "Je suis Charlie" outpouring of grief and outrage carry all of the clashing currents of current French political momentum: pent-up anti-immigrant fury, proud libertarianism, proto-fascist nationalism, progressive inclusionism, cynical racist populism, plain old dizzy fear. As with America's current battle between an entrenched and entitled police culture and the fight against police brutality, all kinds of things could happen.
What we must know, though, is that there is a huge amount at stake on either side of the Atlantic. Weimar Germany pivoted on traumatic national identity crises such as this. In France, the anti-immigrant National Front is already the third largest political party on the strength of widespread fear and anxiety about the economy, North African immigrants, and Muslims. Millions of scared voters in France – just as in the U.S. – are stumbling along the slippery edge of whatever-it-takes-to-protect-the-Homeland. These are times when armed soldiers on street corners can begin to feel ordinary, and when increasingly restricted rights for certain groups of people can start to feel okay. Or not. Time, and events, will tell.
But one of the gravest dangers is amnesia. Beneath the news coverage of the horrific Charlie Hebdo story, which begins with a series of satirical Muslim cartoons and culminates in 12 brutal murders, lies a much longer and unspoken history of rampages and massacres involving France, North Africa, and Muslims. This from a New York Times 2013 obituary containing the memoirs of famed French general Paul Aussaresses during France's 1954-62 attempt to crush rebellion against its colonial rule of Algeria:
He coolly recalled rounding up 1,500 unarmed prisoners — almost all of them Muslims — then selecting “the die-hards” and having them shot. He had the bodies taken to a Muslim cemetery and laid side by side facing Mecca in a 100-meter ditch that a backhoe had dug. Lime was shoveled onto the bodies to hasten decomposition.
He set up death squads, he said, and called them by that name. He ordered the assassinations of Algerian leaders and ordered the killings be disguised as suicides. When he got word Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the independence struggle and later Algeria’s first elected president, was aboard an airplane, he ordered it shot down, then changed his mind when he learned that the crew was French.
That history is just one stream in the current. Add to it the decades-old turmoil in France over the presence and underclass stature of waves of North African immigrants; the global inequities that fuel virulently anti-Western strands of fundamentalist Islam; and the recent French trends toward Islamophobia in dealing with religion.
Believe the dead French general when he suggests to us that this cataclysm is about much more than cartoons and freedom of speech.