Murder by any other name.

A wartime lexicon.
Sept. 7 2004 2:31 PM

Murder by Any Other Name

The rest of the world may be tiring of jihad, but The Nation isn't.

Not to exaggerate or generalize or anything, but in the past week or so it seems to have become very slightly less OK to speak of jihad as an understandable reaction to underlying Muslim grievances. The murder of innocents in a Russian school may have been secondarily the result of a panic or a bungle by Vladimir Putin's "special forces," but nobody is claiming that the real responsibility lies anywhere but on the shoulders of the Muslim fanatics. And the French state's policy of defending secularism in its schools may have been clumsily and even "insensitively" applied, but nobody says that the kidnapping and threatened murder of two French reporters is thereby justified. As for the slaughter of the Nepalese workers in Iraq … you simply have to see the video and hear the Quranic incantations in the voice-over. (I use the words "murder" and "slaughter" by the way, and shall continue to do so, as I hope you will, too. How the New York Times can employ the term "execution" for these atrocities is beyond me.)

Even Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya television, was less euphemistic than that. In a column published under the unambiguous headline, "The Painful Truth: All the World Terrorists are Muslims!" he wrote, in the pan-Arab paper Al-Sharq al-Awsat: "Our terrorist sons are an end-product of our corrupted culture." According to a very interesting AP report from Maggie Michael, this was part of a wider refusal and denunciation across Arab and Muslim media. It wasn't all unambiguous—some critics said that the Chechen outrage was so bad that the Israelis must have been behind it—but it had a different tone from the usual trash about holy war and martyrdom. By the same token, nobody coerced the majority of French Muslim schoolchildren into turning up quiet and on time, almost all unveiled, on the day of the murder "deadline" set by the kidnappers in Iraq.

Often unspoken in commentary on attacks on America and Americans—and even worse, half-spoken—has been the veiled assumption that such things have a rough justice to them. The United States, with its globalizing blah-blah and its cowboy blah-blah, supposedly invites such wake-up calls. And the sorry fact is that French and Russian commentators and politicians have been noticeable for their promiscuity in this respect. It's also true that the French and Russian record could, if you looked at it in one way, be a real cause of sacred rage. (The French authorities have backed Saddam Hussein and many other regional despots, and the conduct of Russian soldiers in Chechnya makes Abu Ghraib look like a blip on the charts.) But no serious person would ever let these considerations obscure a full-out denunciation of those who deliberately make war on civilians. So let us ponder this serious moment, of solidarity with French and Russian victims, and hope to build upon it.

Any jeering can be saved for the strictly political, in which category I would include the recent speech of the new French foreign minister, Michel Barnier. In an address to the annual conference of French ambassadors on Aug. 26, Barnier pointedly warned the assembled envoys that "France is not great when it is arrogant. France is not strong when it is alone." He very noticeably did not mention America, or American policy, even once. All that was lacking from his address was a self-criticism for French "unilateralism" and a promise that in future he would seek to "build alliances." Intelligent French people understand that the Bonapartist policy of the Chirac-de Villepin regime has been deeply damaging: You can see this in any French newspaper. In pledging to shape his own policy to conciliate the Elysée Palace, in other words, John Kerry seems to have once again chosen to change ships on a falling tide.

Another small but interesting development has occurred among my former comrades at The Nation magazine. In its "GOP Convention Issue" dated Sept. 13, the editors decided to run a piece by Naomi Klein titled "Bring Najaf to New York." If you think this sounds suspiciously like an endorsement of Muqtada Sadr and his black-masked clerical bandits, you are not mistaken. The article, indeed, went somewhat further, and lower, than the headline did. Ms. Klein is known as a salient figure in the so-called antiglobalization movement, and for a book proclaiming her hostility to logos and other forms of oppression: She's not marginal to what remains of the left. Her nasty, stupid article has evoked two excellent blog responses from two pillars of the Nation family: Marc Cooper in Los Angeles and Doug Ireland in New York. What gives, they want to know, with a supposed socialist-feminist offering swooning support to theocratic fascists? It's a good question, and I understand that it's ignited quite a debate among the magazine's staff and periphery.

When I quit writing my column for TheNation a couple of years ago, I wrote semi-sarcastically that it had become an echo chamber for those who were more afraid of John Ashcroft than Osama Bin Laden. I honestly did not then expect to find it publishing actual endorsements of jihad. But, as Marxism taught me, the logic of history and politics is a pitiless one. The antiwar isolationist "left" started by being merely "status quo": opposing regime change and hinting at moral equivalence between Bush's "terrorism" and the other sort. This conservative position didn't take very long to metastasize into a flat-out reactionary one, with Michael Moore saying that the Iraqi "resistance" was the equivalent of the Revolutionary Minutemen, Tariq Ali calling for solidarity with the "insurgents," and now Ms. Klein, among many others, wanting to bring the war home because any kind of anti-Americanism is better than none at all. These fellow-travelers with fascism are also changing ships on a falling tide: Their applause for the holy warriors comes at a time when wide swathes of the Arab and Muslim world are sickening of the mindless blasphemy and the sectarian bigotry. It took an effort for American pseudo-radicals to be outflanked on the left by Ayatollah Sistani, but they managed it somehow.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor to Slate. His most recent book,Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, is out in paperback.



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