The motivations of the Charlie Hebdo killers matter
The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris has led to anguished debates about terrorism, immigration, Islam, and the future of secularism. Ezra Klein, however, has the weirdest angle I've seen, arguing that it is wrong to investigate the motives of the attackers, since doing so would implicitly legitimize their crime:
[T]his isn't about Charlie Hebdo's cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking... Allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists' premises...
These murders can't be explained by a close read of an editorial product, and they needn't be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn't need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong. This is a tragedy. It is a crime. It is not a statement, or a controversy. [Vox]
This argument is extremely strange. Surely terrorism is categorically different from ordinary crime in that there is a political motivation. Investigating that obvious fact does not set the limits of any conversation, nor does it legitimize the perpetrators' perspective. On the contrary, a clear understanding of an enemy's motivation, as Robert McNamara once argued, is critical to formulating a wise and measured response.
Klein would seem to rule out the existence of Islamist terrorism altogether.
So what are the motivations at work here? No one can say with certainty, since the alleged attackers have not yet been investigated thoroughly. But we can make a few informed speculations. First of all, though the killers reportedly made reference to the Koran and Allah during their shooting spree, their motivations were not rooted in any mainstream reading of Islam. Like suicide bombing (the Koran forbids suicide categorically), murdering civilians for giving theological offense violates multiple key doctrines of Islam.
But it's likely that they did suffer from the curdled, paranoid identity politics of the kind shown by Anders Breivik, who killed dozens of people during a terrorist rampage in Norway in 2011. He believed that Muslims, leftists, and multiculturalists were poisoning Norwegian civilization, and so shot up a summer camp for young social democrats. Similarly, the Charlie Hebdo shootings could simply be the work of alienated people lashing out at a perceived slight to their identity.
Another, more troubling possibility is that the killers were attempting to spark an overreaction. This can fit with the first motivation, but is much more tactically sound — indeed, it often works. Bin Laden openly boasted this was his goal — to drive America into bankruptcy through military overreaction:
All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations. [CNN]
There are plenty of examples of secular terrorists using this tactic. Consider the Black Hand, a pan-Serbian ultra-nationalist group in the Kingdom of Serbia that helped touch off World War I. Formally organized around a group of conspirators who brutally murdered the Serbian king and queen in 1903, the Black Hand ended up well-placed in the Serbian state, with its leader Dragutin "Apis" Dimitrijević established as the chief of the intelligence department in the Serbian general staff.
Apis (probably) organized the conspiracy to murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary, which led directly to the outbreak of war. Ferdinand was known to be an ally of the Serbs, planning to strengthen the rights of national minorities. Fearing that improving the situation of Serbs in Austria-Hungary would undermine the pan-Serbian project of a Greater Serbia, Apis had Ferdinand killed — in other words, because he was a relative moderate.
Similarly, it's not hard to imagine Al Qaeda deliberately trying to make things worse for French Muslims by stoking discrimination against them by non-Muslims. Indeed, utter indifference to the lives of ordinary Muslims has always been Al Qaeda's thing — the group kills nearly 10 times as many Muslims as other people.
Whether or not this is the motivation, it still presents a major danger for the French and their allies, an invitation to descend into prejudice or ill-considered military action. As Juan Cole argues, the only sensible response is to hunt down any remaining perpetrators, treat them normally according to French law, and above all "resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few."
That, in itself, is a kind of counter-politics.
It is simply inarguable that these murders were a statement. Saying otherwise only hurts the causes of liberty and pluralism. Extreme rightists in France are already attempting to mark the attacks as their political territory. There have been at least 15 violent attacks against French Muslims. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, is calling for new border restrictions.
Stopping those reprisals is how to defeat Al Qaeda in the long run.