A French pen pal, responding to a friend of mine here in the U.S., noted a “link” between the “awful attack” in Paris and his country’s failure to “fully integrate” immigrants from Maghreb. Some of the children of these settlers from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—confronted with unemployment, poverty, and racism—are tempted “to listen to Imams of the most extremist Islamists.”
President Obama, responding to the violent attack on the headquarters of the French satirical newsweekly, Charlie Hebdo, said the U.S. must stand behind its “oldest ally” in the defense of “freedom” from this “kind of cowardly evil attacks,” this “senseless violence.” It is important for us to recognize that “these kinds of attacks can happen anywhere in the world” and to “stay vigilant” and resolute in our war on terrorist organizations.
A few days later, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, responding to further attacks in the French capital, declared “war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism, against everything that is intended to break fraternity, liberty, solidarity.” The scale of the fight ahead is large in the minds of French leaders, observed Washington Post reporter Michael Birnbaum, “even as profound questions were raised about the future of France’s status as a tolerant, multicultural nation.” The Prime Minister’s words were echoed in a senior French police official’s comment that “We are at war, and we will take the necessary measures,” which sounded a lot like the U.S. President’s vow “to hunt down and bring the specific perpetrators of this act to justice, and to roll up the networks that help to advance these kinds of plots.”
Freedom is a big word. Saying it is a grand gesture. It ideologizes the killings. The nation rallies under the sign of freedom. Hence, “France vowed to combat terrorism with ‘a cry for freedom’ in a giant rally for unity today after three days of bloodshed that horrified the world,” Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton reported.
Freedom is an example of what Kenneth Burke called a “god term” (A Rhetoric of Motives) and Richard Weaver labeled a “charismatic term” (The Ethics of Rhetoric). Its uncontested preeminence is a potent motivator that rises above the tangible acts of a specific time and place. It is an ultimate good opposed to ultimate evil, which sets in motion a ritualized, emotionally charged logic of war.
AP reporter, Gregory Katz, embeds this logic in his story about “Europe’s Nightmare.” The “military-style” attack in Paris demonstrates an evolving “terror threat,” which “security experts” say is “an Internet-driven generalized rage against Western society felt by radicalized Muslims.” This “hydra-headed beast bedevils security chiefs” attempting to foil another 9/11 by “killers intent on avenging perceived insults to their religion.” Freedom is especially vulnerable to this evolving threat. “Open societies everywhere have difficulty protecting against terrorism, whose perpetrators are aided by the very freedoms and openness that they often despise.” This amounts to a “generic threat that is shared by all Western countries,” according to Spain’s Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz.
The logical entailment of freedom’s fragility is more policing and better security measures—maybe less freedom—in the defense of Western civilization, all of this in the context of an ongoing global war on terror. When freedom serves as a call to arms, it functions as a dead metaphor, a vague concept, a truism chanted by the masses, a contradiction of itself, and an enemy rather than ally of democracy.