A French September 11?

The cover of Le Monde, the leading French newspaper, displayed a photo of the spontaneous rally at the place de la République on Wednesday evening, 7 January, following the horrific attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier in the day. Le Monde entitled its cover, “Le 11-septembre français.”


The editors of Le Monde were not the only ones to draw comparisons between the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the 11 September 2001 Attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, numerous French and European journalists seized on the attacks as resembling the 11 September Attacks.

The brutal shootings of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, their collaborators, and two police officers has shocked Parisians and the entire French public. The images of two gunmen shooting at a police car and yelling “Allah Akbar!” (God is Great!) are indeed terrifying. Understandably, comparisons with the horrific violence of 11 September and other episodes of Islamist religious terrorism have emerged.

Yet, the 7 January and 11 September attacks are very different in many ways.

The scale of the attacks and the magnitude of the carnage on 11 September simply dwarf the killings in Paris. Thousands of people, not dozens, were killed and wounded in the attacks themselves, and many more people were directly affected by the attacks. The soaring towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed and the immense Pentagon was seriously damaged.

The geographic scope and demographic impact of the 11 September Attacks was also much broader. Hundreds of thousands of people in New York City and Washington, D.C. were directly affected by the attacks, responding to emergencies or evacuating from entire portions of those cities. Entire neighborhoods were cordoned off and transportation systems shut down, forcing many to make long walks home. Several of the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan would remain closed off for months. Thousands of flights were rerouted or cancelled, stranding tens of thousands of passengers for days and disrupting air traffic for an extended period of time.

The geographic impact of the Charlie Hebdo attacks has been minimal. The Paris Métro, RER, and bus systems continued to function with almost no disruption on the day of the shootings. One of the most bizarre aspects of 7 January 2015 for me was hearing the nearly continuous wails of sirens, punctuated occassionally by blaring loudspeakers—as guides explained Parisian sites to tourists aboard bateaux mouches (scenic tourist boats) on the Seine below my office window on l’île Saint-Louis. I was simultaneously able to observe a stream of emergency vehicles racing along the Voie Georges Pompidou and the Quai des Célestins to respond to the scene of the attacks. I later walked home through the Marais, still filled with tourists and shoppers who had been taking advantage of the first day of the winter sales in Paris. The rhythms of everyday life in Paris were hardly affected, except for the victims of the violence, their immediate neighbors, and the emergency and government teams responding to the shootings.

The targets and methods of the attacks were also strikingly distinct. The Al Qaeda militants flew jumbo passenger jets into the skyscrapers of the World Trade Center, an economic and administrative target, but also a tourist site and multiuse building sure to be filled with diverse groups of civilians.  The Al Qaeda terrorists also flew a plane into the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, a military target. Another plane failed to reach its target, which may have been the White House or the Capitol. Many European journalists often present the 11 September Attacks as centered on the Twin Towers in New York, de-emphasizing the terrorists’ aims to strike the government and military of the United States in Washington, D.C.

The 11 September terrorists’ tactics of hijacking planes and flying them into buildings in spectacular displays that could be viewed and videoed is striking. Sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, who studies religious violence calls this tactic “performance violence” to refer to the theatrical nature of this sort of display that is meant to send searing visual messages to broad audiences. The 11 September attacks were deliberately intended to produce massive casualties and to kill indescriminately.

The gunmen who struck Charlie Hebdo, in contrast, struck at a non-descript office building on a small street in a quiet quarter of the 11 arrondissement in Paris, merely a few hundred meters from my current apartment. The targets were journalists and cartoonists in a conference room, not the administrative offices of the publication or the building itself. The shootings were brutal, but largely hidden from sight and not meant to be viewed by a broad audience. The gunmen were very descriminating in their attack, targeting certain individuals in the Charlie Hebdo offices, but spared others. All of the individuals killed and wounded were civilians, but the gunmen clearly regarded them as legitimate targets. The Charlie Hebdo attacks only became “performance violence” because several individuals managed to film their shooting of police officers during their flight from the scene.

The organization of the attacks also seem to have been very different. Hijacking multiple planes and flying them into different targets required very elaborate planning and administrative support from an extended terrorist organization. The gunmen at Charlie Hebdo were initially described as executing a “professional” attack, but details are already emerging that suggest ad-hoc improvisation in addition to some planning. The attackers at first went to the wrong building, for example.

For me, the most disturbing similarity between the 11 September 2001 and 7 January 2015 attacks is the reaction of journalists and politicians in the aftermath of horrific violence. American politicans and journalists quickly declared that the 11 September Attacks were attacks on “freedom” and French politicians and European journalists have already crafted a narrative that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an assault on liberté, and specifically liberté de la presse (freedom of speech, as Americans often put it). Many French citizens and people around the world have embraced the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) in order to show solidarity with the victims of the terrible shootings.

This reminiscent of the “We are all Americans” slogans in the aftermath of 11 September, but such solidarity evaporated as the United States began massive military operations in order to carry out vengeance through a so-called War on Terror. France and the entire European Union seem increasingly threatened by renewed militarism and anti-immigrant politics that could be exacerbated by launching their own vast anti-terrorist campaigns.

Interpreting the motives of militants and terrorists is always difficult, but studies of religious terrorism and religious violence caution against presuming that attackers would really be motivated to take away someone else’s “freedoms.”

The motives of the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo may bear some resemblance to those of the 11 September attackers, but it is too early to be certain. The few statements that we have so far from the Charlie Hebdo attackers themselves, recorded in videos and reported by survivors and witnesses, suggest that they were guided by other motives—such as blasphemy and iconoclasm. The attackers pointedly avoided a martyrdom action (or suicide attack), planning an escape route and indeed successfully managing to exit Paris.

At this point, we can only be sure that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were not a repeat of 11 September 2001. This is a comparison that is very dangerous indeed.

[This post is re-blogged from the Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog, which I also maintain.]

This entry was posted in Atrocities, Civilians and Refugees in War, European History, European Union, French History, History of Violence, Human Rights, Paris History, Political Culture, Religious Politics, Religious Violence, Strategy and International Politics, Terrorism, War, Culture, and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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