From Blacks­burg to Al­giers

Jim Hoagland

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

PARIS — By the stan­dards of Iraq’s sui­cide bombers, the ex­trem­ists who tar­geted their blasts on the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice and a po­lice sta­tion in Al­giers on April 11 were se­ri­ous un­der­achiev­ers. They mas­sa­cred “only” 33 Al­ge­ri­ans, a bloody to­tal that was nearly matched by a sin­gle gun­man at Vir­ginia Tech five days later.

The as­sas­sins in the Al­ge­rian cap­i­tal left their mark none­the­less. The fire­balls they touched off still re­ver­ber­ate po­lit­i­cally through North Africa and France as widely and deeply as the shock waves of the other, much more pub­li­cized events.

Ev­ery so­ci­ety has its own char­ac­ter­is­tic forms of vi­o­lence. But the sep­a­rate tragedies of Bagh­dad, Blacks­burg and Al­giers flow to­gether through the co­in­ci­dence of tim­ing here in T.S. Eliot’s cru­elest month and in the mag­ni­tude of death tolls pro­duced by the great power and wide avail­abil­ity of mod­ern weapons.

Oh, and one more thing — the ubiq­uity of in­stant, vis­ually graphic com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The taped images of Se­ung Hui Cho lec­tur­ing Amer­i­can so­ci­ety from the grave — in a par­cel posted to NBC — bear spooky re­sem­blance to those “you-made-me-doit” video wall posters posthu­mously re­leased by fe­day­een “mar­tyrs” who die in Is­rael, Iraq and else­where but speak on in­def­i­nitely through goreped­dling Arab satel­lite net­works.

For Cho, glory-seek­ing ji­hadists or the Al­ge­rian car bombers whose work has been shown promi­nently on French television, the im­age is mes­sage and mean­ing — even if it is hard for the ra­tio­nal mind to com­pre­hend that mean­ing in some­thing other than gut re­ac­tions of fear and re­vul­sion, which of course is the bombers’ in­tent.

In Iraq, it be­comes harder and harder to sep­a­rate one day’s death toll from an­other or to dis­tin­guish the com­pet­ing ter­ror­ist news re­leases and videos that em­bel­lish the coun­try’s in­com­pre­hen­si­ble butch­ery. Were the more than 160 peo­ple killed Wed­nes­day by car bombs an all-time Bagh­dad record, or just the high­est one-day toll since the Amer­i­can “surge” be­gan? And why do Sun­nis and Shi­ites kill each other with in­creas­ing aban­don? “Be­cause they can” is a great part of the an­swer by now.

Amer­i­cans have been quick to re­as­sure them­selves that the Vir­ginia Tech mas­sacre was the work of a sin­gle mad­man, en­abled by one state’s lack of any se­ri­ous con­trols on deadly firearms. That is not wrong: The lone gun­man has long played a dom­i­nant role in shap­ing Amer­ica’s tol­er­ant cul­ture of vi­o­lence. Euro­peans — so familiar with their own his­tory of or­ga­nized ide­o­log­i­cal and re­li­gious car­nage that can kill mil­lions — find this blood­splat­tered in­di­vid­u­al­ity so hard to un­der­stand in Amer­i­can-style mass mur­der .

But nei­ther is it the whole story. Cho’s bid to mod­ern­ize se­rial mur­der as one more YouTube mo­ment for his gen­er­a­tion sug­gests that television no longer merely records mas­sacres. It may now help fuel a blood lust that de­mands vis­ual recog­ni­tion of the basest mo­tives hu­mans pos­sess. Killers are join­ing in with those who say that if you haven’t been on television, you don’t ex­ist.

Scrupu­lously filmed be­head­ings and sui­cide bomb­ings that in­dis­crim­i­nately mur­der and maim chil­dren and adults, be­liev­ers and non­be­liev­ers, are rapidly be­com­ing the Arab world’s sig­na­ture form of may­hem and po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion com­bined. Ethno­g­ra­phers have a chal­leng­ing task in ex­plain­ing why we kill in our sep­a­rate ways and what we then do about it.

The blasts in Al­giers have been cred­i­bly claimed by al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb, a new­comer to the bizarre amal­gam of Is­lamic Salafists, Iraqi Sad­damists, Syr­ian and Ira­nian stooges, and oth­ers who bomb away for that all-im­por­tant rea­son: be­cause they can. And be­cause it drives up the blood lust es­sen­tial to much of their re­cruit­ing among Arab masses.

Al­ge­ria’s rulers are his­toric rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and pan-Ara­bists who live off the pre­sumed glo­ries of the 1960s, when their bombs helped drive the French out of North Africa. Now th­ese faded guer­ril­las are tar­gets of new bombers, as is the mod­ern­iz­ing monar­chy of Morocco, the re­pres­sive po­lice regime in Tu­nisia and any­one else who wan­ders by, es­pe­cially in cam­era range.

Th­ese three coun­tries have mil­lions of emi­gres liv­ing in France. If ji­hadist fa­nati­cism gains a se­cure foothold in North Africa, it will be able to threaten French in­ter­ests far more di­rectly. The con­cern here is not about al-Qaeda re­cruit­ing Al­ge­ri­ans and Moroc­cans to prac­tice ji­had in Iraq but to at­tack France it­self by tak­ing ad­van­tage of fam­ily net­works and the fa­mil­iar­ity of the peo­ples of the Maghreb with the West.

“Pow­der keg” is an over­worked jour­nal­is­tic cliche. But cliches spread be­cause they have ker­nels of truth in them, and North Africa fits the de­scrip­tion to­day.



An in­jured res­cue worker stands at the scene of the sui­cide car bomb that ex­ploded near the prime min­is­ter’s res­i­dence in Al­giers on April 11.

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