Collateral Damage


In Honduras, a country whose murder rate is 18 times that of the United States, citizens kill one another with impunity. In El Salvador, bodies lie in the street and get only a nervous glance from passers-by. In Guatemala, as well as Honduras, gangsters attack buses, robbing and even murdering the passengers. Throughout these three countries — they make up the Northern Triangle of Central America — members of such proliferating gangs as MS-13 and Barrio 18 do battle, leading to the death or disappearance of innumerable young people. The gangs specialize in kidnapping, extortion, and contract killing and often form alliances with the drug cartels.

In Mexico, which is supposedly peaceful, there have been deeply disturbing signs. In 2011, in Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico, police found 59 bodies in a pit near the place where, earlier, 72 bodies had been found — all of them the remains of Central American immigrants. These humble souls were forced off buses and shot when they refused to work for the Zetas, Mexico’s most pervasive drug cartel. In 2014, in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos murdered 43 college students, burned their bodies, put the residues in plastic bags, and tossed them into the San Juan River. The students had commandeered buses to take them to a political rally. The police pursued and captured them and, for some reason, turned them over to the cartel.

This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually.

And in 2015, along the road between the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and the city of Guadalajara, a motorized police column rode into an ambush that killed 15 of the officers and wounded five more. The incident occurred in the southwestern state of Jalisco, home of the New Generation, yet another drug cartel. This attack upon the police is a reminder of the choice given government officials by magisterial drug runners — plomo o plata, lead or silver. In other words, take a bribe or take a bullet. And to further intimidate them, the cartel hitmen have been known to place their victims before the public. Thus, in 2011, on a busy highway in Boca del Río, their agents halted traffic long enough to arrange 35 corpses for viewing by travelers.

As for the street gangs that cooperate with the cartels and practice their own style of intimidation — the biggest had their beginnings in the United States. Barrio 18 and MS-13 (properly named Mara Salvatrucha) were organized on the streets of Los Angeles. Subsequent criminal deportations sent some members back to their native El Salvador, where they found fertile ground, reorganized, and now filter back into this country. Barrio Azteca began in Texas prisons and became allies of the Juarez drug cartel. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Sureños began in prisons north of the border. Why did these gangs arise? What sustains them? Clearly, they were organized, not only for status and mutual defense, but also to gain a share of the enormous illegal drug market. And their territorial expansion and growth in membership indicate that they’ve succeeded.

Indeed, the entire network of gangs and cartels sits on the bedrock of America’s War on Drugs. This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually. Their huge markups have kept street prices high in the United States, making criminals wealthy and powerful and encouraging larceny, robbery, and even murder by desperate drug users. Added to these troubles are the sufferings inflicted on the people south of the border. There, the authorities — those who have avoided corruption — have little means to face the enormous crime wave created by the drug cartels and their street allies, whose crimes include the wanton murder of innocent citizens, including women and children.

All that I’ve described leads me to the obvious question — to what extent is the “immigration problem” simply more fallout from our War on Drugs? Of course, many Latino gangsters, with their tattoos and secret hand signals, have been sneaking northward, heading for cities to get those illegal-drug dollars. And along with them have come wandering misfits and ne’er-do-wells. But I suspect that conditions in Mexico and especially in Central America have so deteriorated that the soundest citizens are fleeing, searching for safe havens for themselves and their families. Is it the lure of our welfare state that attracts them? Or is it the all too visible cynicism and violence in their own countries that repels them? I don’t have precise answers, but I do know that wars consistently produce refugees — noncombatants who flee the battlegrounds. I doubt that our War on Drugs is an exception.


Further Reading

Adinolfi, Joseph. “Six Things You Need to Know about America’s Illegal Drug Trade: Who’s Using What, Where, and at What Cost — ConvergEx Study.” International Business Times, 29 Oct. 2013.

AP “59 Bodies Found Buried in a Series of Pits in Northern Mexico State of Tamaulipas.” New York Daily News, 7 Apr. 2011.

Barrio Azteca.” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas.

Brecher, Edward M., and the Editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Carroll, Rory. “Honduras: ‘We Are Burying Kids All the Time.’” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2010.

Castillo, Mariano. “Remains Could Be Those of Missing Mexican Students.” CNN, 11 November 2014.

Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report.” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

Crime in El Salvador.” Wikipedia.

Crime in Guatemala.” Ibid.

Crime in Honduras.” Ibid.

Crime in Mexico.” Ibid.

Daugherty, Arron. “MS 13, Barrio 18 Rivalry Increasing in Violence in Guatemala: President.” Insight Crime, 4 Feb. 2015.

DrugTraffickingintheUnitedStates. Washington DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004.

Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. Fwd. Kurt L. Schmoke. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1994.

Dyer, Zach. “Costa Rica Saw ‘Important Increase in Violence,’ says OIJ Director.” The Tico Times, 17 Feb. 2015.

El Salvador.” Insight Crime.

Gagne, David. “Guerreros Unidos, The New Face of Mexico Organized Crime?Insight Crime, 9 Oct. 2014.

___. “Mexico Drug Cartels Arming Gangs in Costa Rica.” Ibid., 17 Nov. 2014.

___. “Mexico Captures Sinaloa Cartel Head in Central America.” Ibid., 13 Apr. 2015.

Grillo, Ioan. “Mexican Gangsters Send a Grisly Message in Crime.” Time, 21 Sept. 2011.

Hargrove, Dorian. “Sinaloa Drug Cartel Controls 16 Mexican States, Including Baja California.” San Diego Reader, 3 Jan 2012.

Hastings, Deborah. “In Central America, Women Killed ‘With Impunity’ Just Because They’re Women.” New York Daily News, 10 Jan. 2014.

Honduras.” Insight Crime.

How Safe Is Mexico: A Travelers Guide to Safety Over Sensationalism.

Kilmer, Beau, et al. “How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation. 2014.

 ____. “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation, 7 March 2014.

Nicaragua.” Insight Crime.

Pelofsky, Jeremy. “Guns from U.S. Sting Found at Mexican Crime Scenes.” Reuters, 26 July 2011.

Police Officers Die in Mexico Roadside Ambush.” Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2015.

Riesenfeld, Loren. “ICE Raids Suggest Mexican Organized Crime Expanding Reach into U.S.Insight Crime, 9 Apr. 2015.

Romero, Simon. “Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City.” The New York Times, 22 May 2007.

Romo, Rafael. “Is the Case of 43 Missing Students in Mexico Closed?CNN, 28 Jan. 2015.

Stanford University. “The United States War on Drugs.”

2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping.” Wikipedia.

World Report: 2012.” Human Rights Watch.

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They Don’t Know What Everyone Else Knows


According to an AP report of July 17, the FBI is feverishly hunting for a motive for the terrorist massacre committed in Chattanooga by a radical Muslim named Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez:

Authorities “have not determined whether it was an act of terrorism or whether it was a criminal act,” Ed Reinhold, an FBI special agent in charge, told reporters. “We are looking at every possible avenue, whether it was terrorism — whether it was domestic, international — or whether it was a simple, criminal act.”

“We have no idea what his motivation was behind this shooting,” Reinhold said.

A leading Muslim imam did better, lots better. Suhaib Webb, who leads an Islamic institute in Washington DC, said, “It will probably be that he’s done this in the name of some radical Muslim group. . . . No official motive has been established, but sadly, I've seen this too many times. While millions are excited to celebrate Eid [the Muslim holiday], groups like ISIS, al-Qāidah and others continue to show that they have no regard for life or traditions, Muslim or not, young or old.”

But back to the FBI agent. For what reason would he possibly say such a preposterous thing? For what reason should anyone be paid for suggesting that he and his colleagues had “no idea” what they were doing? It used to be that we paid cops less, and they had more brains.

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Escape from Dannemora


I’m going to say something that many libertarians don’t want to hear: prisons need discipline, and plenty of it.

I’m reflecting on the big news item of the past three weeks, the escape of two convicts from the maximum-security prison in Dannemora, New York, an institution that used to be feared as “Siberia.” They escaped because they were allowed to live in an “honor” block, work with and have sex with civilians, cook their own meals, wear civilian clothes, and enjoy a level of control and discipline that permitted them to acquire power tools and use them to cut holes in their cells and escape. Power tools. Used by men sent to prison for vicious murders, including, in one instance, the dismemberment of the murder victim. Tools freely used, and undetected.

What’s that noise? Is that a guy cutting his way out of prison, or is that just a guy cutting up some other prisoner? Whatever. Have a nice night.

It is one thing to debate about whom to send to prison. It is another thing to screw around with the lives of the people we decide to send there. Because, make no mistake about it, the first victims of convicts who are not controlled are other convicts. If you want the rapes, murders, tortures, and gang aggressions that happen routinely in American prisons to continue to happen, all you need to do is let the bad guys act in whatever way they want. If that’s your “libertarian” philosophy, it will have a big impact, because just one of those bad guys in a prison unit can be enough to ensure the victimization of everybody else.

When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside.

The late Nathan Kantrowitz made this point very powerfully in his exacting study of prison life, Close Control. I followed Nathan’s lead in my own book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison. I added that, in my judgment, the sorry state of American penology is the result of a vicious convergence of modern liberal and modern conservative ideas. The conservatives want to lock people up, and do it on the cheap. And it’s true, you can get a lot of non-discipline and non-control, very cheaply indeed. The liberals believe that convicts are somehow rehabilitated by being allowed to wear their own clothes, cook their own meals, and wander about the joint, victimizing anyone who’s weaker than they are. (Unnoticed by the conservatives, the liberals also ordained that those who run the prison system would get paid enough to give them 15 degrees at Harvard. They’re unionized, after all, and they’re the biggest sinkhole in many state budgets.)

Libertarians ought to be smarter. When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside, and safe from victimizing or being victimized by other prisoners.

In the short run, whoever is running the New York prison system needs to be fired, immediately. (I’m afraid that the fix is already in, and this will never happen.) In the middle run, real investigations of penology — not ideological declarations about penology, from any vantage point — need to be conducted, so that people can learn what the few good scholars, such as Nathan Kantrowitz, have already established. In the long run, Americans should stop making savage jokes about rape in prison and start considering the steps that are necessary to keep rape and murder, and by the same token, escape, from happening in their supposedly secure institutions.

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A Collaboration With History


Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian are both familiar to readers of Liberty. Their most recent contribution, memories of Nathaniel Branden, appeared in these pages in February.

On April 17, their film, 1915 — co-written and co-directed by Alec and Garin — opened in theaters throughout the country. It concerns a mysterious director who, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, stages a play in Los Angeles to bring the ghosts of a forgotten tragedy back to life. Liberty interviewed Alec about this very independent film.

Liberty: Alec, will you give us a little perspective on recent events around this film?

Alec: On April 24, 2015, 160,000 people marched six miles on the streets of Los Angeles (and many hundreds of thousands more across the world). They were marching to commemorate and demand justice for an event that took place 100 years ago, on the other side of the world. You may be wondering whether such a thing has ever happened before, but something like it had just happened in 1915, which is set in 2015, on a day very much like the one this April. A few years ago, we saw this scene coming, even if few people thought we were sane when describing it. In our movie, you hear and see glimpses of approximately 160,000 people marching on the streets of Los Angeles, while inside the walls of one haunted, historic theater one man named Simon tries to recreate the reason for their marching, and contrive a destination for them.

Liberty: Why did you set the story in a Los Angeles theater?

Alec: In a theater, history is repeated night after night, with the same actors, each time with different results. So while it might seem on the surface like a fantastic, abstract setting for such a weighty subject, it is for our story an entirely genuine and even “realistic” one. The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

What makes an actor good or bad, a performance true or false or in between? We thought these were important mysteries, especially for a story about how the past carries on in the present, how memory and denial can affect a life in so many ways. The professional challenges of an actor seem very much aligned to the historical burdens of contemporary Armenians. Both inherit a script, a story, which they are impelled to enliven, to honor, to serve . . . or if they can’t handle it, to rather ostentatiously ignore.

The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

Certainly the sense that theater is dead, or dying, or is constantly said to be dead or dying, is not at all beside the point. Simon, the mastermind of the film, is a true believer in the magic of theater, and he is convinced that one great performance can actually change the course of history.

Liberty: Where did you find your actors?

Alec: All over the world. We knew of Simon Abkarian (Casino Royale, Gett, et al.) and Angela Sarafyan (Twilight, Paranoia), the two leads, and wrote and named their parts for them from the beginning. They were the first two to read the script and expressed an instant desire to assume their roles. There are only two things no actor can just pretend to have: intelligence and face. In Simon and Angela we found two faces no one is likely to forget.

Angela lives in Los Angeles. Simon, one of the top stage and screen actors in France, had to fly in from Paris. The vastly talented Nikolai Kinski, whose last name will be familiar to film buffs, cancelled all his gigs and flew in from his home in Berlin. We had admired Sam Page in Mad Men and House of Cards. Jim Piddock is a prolific and beloved comic actor who comes from England. The rest of our cast we discovered through auditions, set up by our sharp casting director. That is how we found eight-year old Sunny Suljic, who delivers a stunning performance in his feature film debut.

Liberty: How long did you work on this film?

Alec: We began to write the script in May of 2012. We began to raise financing in May of 2013. Our first day of shooting was April 27, 2014. We shot for 20 days. The film was released theatrically last month. On opening weekend it was the #2 debut film in the country, in terms of per-screen box office.

Liberty: What was your greatest difficulty?

Alec: That is like asking someone to choose his greatest ex-wife. All of our difficulties were great, great difficulties. Creatively, the biggest frustration in moviemaking is when you can’t afford to fix your mistakes. The author of a book can go back and rewrite a poor paragraph. He does not need $20,000 to buy a vowel — nor does he have to work around the fact that the letter F is stuck in a Belgian cop show until September.

Liberty: What was your greatest pleasure?

Alec: Those moments on set when our imagination was brought to life in surprising and superior ways — by the actors, the production designer, the cinematographer, the makeup artist, the costume designer, the composer. We had masters in each field and together they did a masterly job. They worked tirelessly, sleeplessly, and with an absolute passion and dedication, not to display their own virtuosity, but to make 1915. Thank God, too, because this was a fragile project that could not withstand any too-major outbreaks of idiocy. Knowing that various talented pros are working as hard as you are and thinking as deeply as you are about how best to realize your vision makes you feel good.

By the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

A note here for future filmmakers. The most important thing is not to experience glories on set, but for the audience to experience them on the screen. Too often the one does not lead to the other. You will realize this in the editing room and thus meet your greatest pain. But we were speaking here of pleasures, and I suppose the collaborative vitality and professional excellence I mentioned is the reason most directors never want to retire.

Liberty: How long have you and Garin been working together? What skills does each of you bring to the project? That is — who is better at camera work, editing, writing, directing, or whatever? Have you collaborated previously?

Alec: We have collaborated on a number of things since middle school: newspapers, screenplays, foreign presidential campaigns, revolutions, poker. We are both writers by origin and Garin is the author of an acclaimed memoir, Family of Shadows. This was our first fictional film. Our only prior experience in filmmaking was a series of TV ads we produced for a presidential campaign designed to overthrow a monstrous post-Soviet regime. Overthrowing a paying audience is an entirely different task.

Some directing duos specialize; we do not. We were equally involved in, and equally ignorant about, all technical matters. The writing process began by forming an outline and splitting scenes but by the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

Our vision was for a certain kind of film that had never been made before, to tell a certain kind of story that had never been told — that is, indeed, impossible to tell. So the only valuable skill we brought to the enterprise was that of how to bluff.

Liberty: How many times did you get into a fight?

Alec: Never in public. At this stage, even in private, our fights are mostly fought in silence. By the time one of us opens his mouth, the winner has already been decided, the loser wrapping tape, and what’s left is to clean up the mess.

Liberty: Why should libertarians be interested in 1915?

Alec: Because it is a unique, mysterious psychological thriller that ought to provoke them intellectually and possibly lead them to some deep surprises. It has a lot of layers and secrets and even humor. You might hate it, but you won’t be bored. You will want to find out what happens in the end. In short, it should be a rewarding dramatic ride that might awaken some new feelings and questions about the personal meaning of history.

And it is a controversial movie for almost anyone who watches it — not politically controversial, but spiritually. It poses a different challenge for almost every kind of viewer. One of the dramatic themes in the film is the quest for freedom in the face of trauma, and I’m sure that many libertarians have contended with this in their own lives, this case of reality assaulting an idea.

Liberty: If people aren’t near a theater where 1915 is shown, how can they see it?

Alec: Well, the HD digital version can be downloaded from and also from iTunes and Amazon, to be watched at home. I invite them to do so. Oh, and skeptics can even see a trailer. My policy is to only listen to unqualified praise, but Liberty readers who watch the film and run into me at the dog-track can cite the voucher code MENCKENISMYFATHER to tell me exactly what they think.

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Should Tsarnaev Be Put to Death?


The verdict in Boston — death to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — may cause some libertarians to reaffirm or reconsider their position on the death penalty.

To me, the arguments against the death penalty seem obvious.

  1. The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?
  2. While some crimes of passion can be excused as, well, crimes of passion, cold-blooded killing is always ugly and sickening.
  3. There is always the possibility that an executed person will later be found innocent. There is a somewhat larger possibility that even a person so worthless as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could change and become, in effect, another person.

But I confess: these arguments, though obvious, do not seem conclusive to me. They might seem conclusive if it weren’t for the weakness of the arguments that are often added to them by anti-death-penalty people:

  1. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s just as wrong to kill a killer as for the killer to have killed someone else.
  2. In proportion to the population, more black people than white people are executed.
  3. The incidence of murder in states that lack the death penalty is sometimes lower than the incidence of murder in states that have it.
  4. It costs a fortune to execute someone.

When I listen to these latter anti-death-penalty arguments, a strange thing happens to me. I get the feeling that the full ensemble of arguments is not as good as I thought it was — or why would the arguers (many of them professionally devoted to the cause) fill out their case with such weak and (I can’t help thinking) disingenuous pleas.

The Bible condones plenty of killings. The same biblical book that commands “Thou shalt not kill” also commands executions for various crimes. In the very next chapter, we find: “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” So “kill” in the first instance must mean “murder.” Even on non-biblical grounds, it seems very counterintuitive to suggest that it is as wrong for me to kill a man who casually murdered two teenagers and then happily ate the hamburgers they were carrying, as it is for the man to have killed the teenagers. Think of your own, doubtless even more horrible examples of crimes thought to merit the death penalty. Examples abound.

The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?

The question to be asked about “racially disproportionate use of the death penalty” is whether particular black people or white people received a fair trial — not whether those people were black or white. If you want an assurance of fairness, nothing will satisfy you if the elaborate provisions of the death penalty codes fail to do so.

Does it make sense to compare murder rates in Massachusetts (2.0 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but hasn’t executed anyone since 1947, with murder rates in Texas (4.3 per 100,000), which executes people all the time, or Vermont (1.6) and Maryland (6.4), which have no death penalty? A deterrent that is rarely used can hardly deter; but would the death penalty, even if frequently used, explain the difference in murder rates between, say, Utah (1.7 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but also has a lot of Mormons, and Michigan (6.4 per 100,000), which abolished the death penalty soon after statehood, but which also has Detroit? The argument on each side seems impossible to make, on such evidence. Yet is there any possibility that the lack of a death penalty would actually lower the murder rate? How could that be?

It is childishly easy to answer the fourth objection, “It costs a fortune to execute someone.” It costs a fortune because of the legal ploys of the same people who are making the objection — ploys that are, in most cases, as intellectually dishonest as the objection itself.

It appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown.

Where does this leave us? It leaves me acknowledging that there is something right, and something wrong, about the legitimate arguments on both sides. It leaves me with roughly the same questions that I think even anarchists would ask themselves about crime and punishment, if they succeeded in creating a society in which justice services were privatized.

Despite all attempted legal guarantees, is the death penalty sometimes wrongly carried out? Yes, probably it is, though it appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown. Yes, it’s possible that I will suddenly confuse the accelerator with the brake, but that’s not a reason for me to give up driving.

It seems certain that the real prospect of a death penalty would deter certain crimes, but not others. As libertarians, we must pay enough respect to individual psychology to admit that. We must also specify that killing is ugly, no matter who carries it out. Also, I think, we must specify that the world would be better off without some of its inhabitants, especially those who wantonly murder other people.

I’ve noticed that when there is about to be an execution, intense emotions are evoked by the idea that John Smith is about to suffer “the ultimate penalty.” John is said to be a changed person, or a brutally misjudged person, or a sad, wayward, confused person, and people cry out for him on the internet. School children are told to write letters supporting him. Meanwhile, would-be enforcers of the death penalty dwell with badly hidden glee on his awful deeds. But immediately after he is executed or has his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, he is forgotten. The issue wasn’t John Smith; nobody really thought he was worth talking about, as a real person who had done real things; the issue was an identity-making cause called the Death Penalty. That doesn’t mean that John was, in the end, truly worthless. It does suggest that the contestants may harbor motives that have little to do with truth or justice.

My suggestion is that I, and other people interested in this controversy, put aside our eager concern with our identity as judges or sympathizers, warriors or reconcilers, and marvel, for a moment, at the complexity of the issue. In other words, I think it would behoove all the ideological contestants to become a little more reflective and a little less self-righteous.

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Embodying Injustice


In our media-saturated culture, we tend to see the people in the news as embodiments of grand sociopolitical realities.Thus, for example, have the Baltimore police and Freddie Gray, Michael Slager and Walter Scott, and Darren Wilson and Michael Brown become figureheads for our pet causes. The big-government left tells us that the cops involved must be convicted and harshly punished, because otherwise there can be no recognition of police brutality or racism. The authoritarian right maintains that if, as in Wilson’s case, the officers are cleared of all charges, there is no problem with police brutality or racism. Then it is not the police themselves who are tried, in the minds of statists, but police brutality and racism.

But these men cannot be reduced to mere symbols. They don’t simply embody anything. They are (or were) individual human beings.

To turn police officers involved in suspects’ deaths into scapegoats — before they’ve been convicted of any crime — is barbaric. Such thinking predates civilization. It belongs to the Stone Age. As a society, we are not evolving, but devolving. We are taking a gigantic leap backwards.

What will become of our criminal justice system if people are no longer recognized as themselves? The mob may be content to do that to others, but would any of us want to be reduced to such a state ourselves? To be robbed of one’s individual identity is, indeed, to be dehumanized.

In the Michael Brown shooting, all available evidence suggests that Officer Wilson killed Brown in self-defense. That by no means negates the disturbing data that have come to light about the Ferguson police department. Far less does Wilson’s exoneration discount the problem of police brutality. The case in question says nothing about any fact except for the case in question. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

The anger of the demonstrators has ample justification. In many parts of the country, the police do behave, increasingly, as if they are an occupying army and the people they are sworn to protect a conquered enemy. Nor do racial minorities always receive anything approaching fair treatment by law enforcement officers.

But a mob is inspired, not byreason, but by raw emotion. It demands a sacrificial animal.To appease its feelings, it wants the offending cops convicted — regardless of whether they are guilty or not. That the mob would almost certainly be satisfied with such an outcome demonstrates its inhumanity. In their willingness to dehumanize other individuals, those who take part in it dehumanize themselves.

A guilty verdict against the apprehendingofficers would not bring Michael Brown, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray back to life. Nor would a single incident of police brutality likely be prevented. Far from being converted from their folly, actual racists would find legitimate cover for their rage. As it is, police departments nationwide are now declaring themselves effectively at war with the civilian population. Not only has further harm not been averted but more has been inflicted by mob action and its response.

If any lesson emerges from this unholy mess, it’s this: if we are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, our decisions, actions, and very lives can be snatched away from us. They can be twisted, like wet clay, into whatever shape suits the ambitions of a political faction. They become mere tokens in a contest for power. Under such a system, the concept of justice becomes a joke.

Justice is a strictly individual matter. It must be taken into account case by case. No nameless, faceless mass can be given “social” justice against any other. If Michael Brown was murdered, Walter Scott cold-bloodedly executed, or Freddie Gray brutalized off-camera inside that police vehicle, each act — however heinous — was a separate crime. None of them “embodied” anything, except a mother’s son or, for believers in the divine, a child of God.

Far from magnifying these men into anything larger than themselves, we have diminished them. In the process, we’ve diminished ourselves. And instead of making our country safer, we are turning it into an ever more frightening and treacherous place.

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Stevie, Dictator of Togo


I was a student at the Université du Bénin in Togo in 1983. With typical and, I think, admirable American disrespect for authority, my fellow exchange students and I enjoyed calling the president of Togo “Stevie,” because he had changed his name from Etienne (French for “Steven”) to Gnassingbé, to sound more African. Our Togolese friends did not find it funny. It wasn’t that they were offended. They were afraid when they heard us talking like that and told us of ditches where the tortured corpses of the president’s critics appeared overnight.

According to my sources, the legends about Eyadéma Gnassingbé were officially encouraged. One, the story of the plane crash, was the subject of an entire comic book that I read when I was in Togo. In the comic, the president of Togo figured as a superhero with metaphysical powers. It was meant to be taken literally.

It’s true that Eyadéma survived a plane crash in 1974. It’s also true that he credited his survival to his own mystical powers. In the comic book, the plane was sabotaged, and his survival was definitely the miraculous result of his personal magic. In a national monument built to commemorate the incident, Eyadéma’s statue towers over images of the heroic officials who apparently didn’t have enough magic of their own and died in the crash.

A vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and they usually ended up dead.

It’s also true that Eyadéma was a leader of the coup that unseated Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo. At the time of the coup, Eyadéma was called Etienne Eyadéma, and the legend is that he personally machine-gunned Olympio at the gates of the American embassy in Lomé, where the then-president was seeking asylum. By the way, that coup followed a common pattern in sub-Saharan, post-colonial Africa: colonial powers establish trading relations with coastal tribe (in Togo’s case, the Ewe). Colonial powers assert administrative control over a large inland area, making the coastal elite a minority within the colonial borders. At the time of independence, the coastal elite takes over. (Sylvanus Olympio was Ewe.) The army is dominated, numerically, by inland tribes. (In Togo’s case, they included the Kabye.) The soldiers get fed up and stage a coup. (Eyadéma was Kabye.)

One day, I was walking through the market with a Togolese friend when he told me another story about Stevie. I had pointed out to him a very pretty girl selling chocolate bars. The girl was about 13. She balanced an enameled tin platter on her head. The platter bore a perfect pyramid of scores of identical chocolate bars in white and red paper wrappers. And the grace note was the girl’s matching white and red dress. She had made herself into a lovely advertisement for dark chocolate. Clever and pretty. But it only reminded my friend of the legends about Eyadéma’s sexual powers. He said that a vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and that they usually ended up dead, not because of any abuse beyond presidential rape, but as a mere side effect of the great girth of his manhood.

Stevie died in office. At the time of his death in 2005, he was the longest serving head of state in all of Africa. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over and is still president.

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Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad


In the two days following and during the events I heard much nonsense about the context of the mass murders of 12 newspapermen and police officers, of a policewoman the next day, and of four Jewish hostages in Paris. The nonsense included the assertion by Rush Limbaugh that French cops are unarmed (90% false) and another, by a local conservative radio host, a good friend, that the French had imported North Africans to compensate for their demographic decline (false and absurd). Of course, NPR joined CNN in consistently misreporting the ongoing action without bothering to glance at Google Maps. Christiane Amanpour breathlessly contributed mistranslations of simple French words. Several media affirmed that there are "hundreds" of areas, including in Paris itself, where the French police won't venture, areas that are already under Sharia law. It's pure alarmist invention. (Fox News apologized about a week later; the Socialist Mayor of Paris is suing nonetheless.)

An American scholar reared in France, I have to add my voice, because I may in fact be better informed than most of those who commented in English. I will give you a short description of French society today (with few accordions), and I will try to address features relevant to its tolerance of the foundations of violent jihad. I will speculate on the nature of French Islam and then I will draw from my narrative a few implications for action.

The massacre of 12 people, including two police officers, at the satirical Charlie Hebdo was followed within hours by the cold blooded murder of a black female traffic officer somewhere else and then by a murderous attack on a kosher store right near Paris. The attackers were two brothers of North African origin, in one case, and a West African and perhaps his girlfriend, in the other. (There are reports that the girlfriend fled to Syria. It's not obvious as I write whether she was present at the murders or not.) All the terrorists had Muslim names, as does the girlfriend. The brothers who murdered at Charlie Hebdo were caught on film. According to survivors of the first massacre, they shouted "Allahu Akbar" and "We revenged the Prophet Muhammad." The terrorist of West African origin attacked and took control of an obviously Jewish establishment where housewives were likely to be shopping in large numbers before the Sabbath. Four shoppers were gunned down there. The three male terrorists were killed by the police. They will never be interrogated.

The French political class, for all its vices, is not especially supine, not much infected by the virus of political correctness.

It's useful to keep in mind that these events did not take place in a failed state or a place where the population lives in dire poverty. France is not Pakistan, or even Greece; it's not even close to the latter. A friend who travels a lot by road on business declares the French freeways the best in the world. Fifty years of observation suggest to me that all streets in France are cleaner than all streets in America. The French security forces are well trained. They put an end to the hot phase of the crisis with exemplary precision. No police officers were killed and no members of the general public, aside from the hostages in the grocery store. In general, French intelligence services are held in high regard by their counterparts elsewhere.[i] The French political class — for all its vices — is not especially supine, not much infected by the virus of political correctness. It held firm, Left to Right, on the issue of head veils for minor girls. (The hijab is prohibited in all public schools, along with visible crosses and stars of David.) It banned even more forcefully in public places the full facial covering that was becoming the fashion among French Muslim women, including converts. (The French government probably bought back hostages held by Islamists on several occasions though.)

There may be more Muslims in France than in most or in all other Western countries, but, as I will discuss below, they are on the whole better integrated there than elsewhere. What happened in France could happen in several other countries. The attacks were not due to some French idiosyncrasy. Rather, I will argue that they took place there in part because of the kind of society that is France. But there are many others like it. Below are some insider's images of relevant features of French society.

A Liberal Society

On Jan. 1, 2015 — a week before the mass murders — the French police authorities were in a celebratory mood. The reason for their glee was that the night before, New Year's Eve, only 930 cars had been burnt in all of France. That was a decline from previous years. I am referring here to the casual torching of strangers' cars parked in the street as an act of New Years celebration, but also when a favorite soccer team is victorious. These acts of mass vandalism are largely limited to what the American press improperly calls "suburbs." (See below.) Of course, many of the arsonists are probably young men with Muslim names. Why wouldn't they be? The burnings take place where they live. The celebrated center of Paris is too far away; so are the centers of many other French cities. The arsonists are said to be "marginalized" young people. They are seldom arrested; they are seldom convicted; they rarely spend time in jail. These facts alone don't make the habit of mass arson an Islamist act.

The areas right outside French cities are made up mostly of rings of low-density, fairly comfortable, largely unintended, and non-racial ghettos. They are geographically located where suburbs would be found around American cities. Yet, they are not "suburbs" with all the implied connotations of petty-bourgeois bliss. In a concerted effort — in which I participated (see my book of memoirs[ii]) in the ’60s and ’70s — most of the poor and even of the lower-middle class were moved out of the substandard, often slummy housing in the cities proper. They were offered brand new, decent high rises right outside the cities. Yet inside the cities there remain government-subsidized projects that were the forerunners of those of the massive urban reform of the sixties and seventies. I grew up in one such, the same area (the 19th Arrondissement) from which, by the way, the dead assassins of the Charlie Hebdo massacre came. Their extremist cell used to meet in the same park where I played as a child. It's not prosperous but it's not a slum.

The new housing or projects around the main French cities, including Paris, were and still are significantly subsidized by the government. People became used to paying low rents there for shelter that was not even close to their dream house, although it was salubrious. The relevant urban reform was all done hastily. The new projects made insufficient allowances for ordinary services. Going to the dry cleaner, for example, is a chore in some of the airy, low-density, originally park-like developments. In most projects, the number of cafés was kept deliberately down in an effort to improve public health. But the café is, has always been, where French people of different origins meet peacefully in all weathers. (Cafés serve many kinds of nonalcoholic beverages including coffee, hot chocolate, Coke, etc.) The transportation needs related to the new exurban projects were underestimated by government macroplanners. They were proud, nevertheless, because what was done — the Réseau Express Régional, around and into Paris, for example — seemed to have been done well: attractive, fast trains with a reasonably high frequency (but only during work hours, more or less). No one was trying to short-change the lower classes. On the contrary, a progressive social vision of both socialist and Catholic inspiration presided over this effort. “Urban planners" were all working with a pure zeal for the improvement of the condition of the masses. And yes, parking in Paris proper improved as well as parking inside other major cities. That was probably inadvertent. From a planner's standpoint, everyone should have been more contented than before.

The rural Algerian mother of eight arrived in France is not a conventional deliberate welfare parasite. She may want nothing better than to work, or for her husband to work. There is not enough work.

As I write (in January 2015), tens of thousands of French schoolchildren are happily preparing for their annual stay in the mountains. Those "snow classes" (classes de neige) are largely financed by local governments. In practice, no kid is held back because his family is not rich enough to send him (egalité). This institutionalized practice makes me envious, of course. When I was rearing my children in California, they never went skiing, although my family was solidly middle-class. For 20 years of her life, my sister-in-law received two monthly checks directly from the government, one for having four children, one for staying home to take care of them. And, no, my brother had not deserted her or the children. The payments were part of being French (fraternité). Her children's school lunch was free throughout. It was because the family had no visible income although it was near-rich. Any day, the school lunch would have honored the average restaurant in Santa Cruz, California. It's France we are talking about, after all. And yes, kosher food and halal food were always available (liberté).

In the past few months, there was a debate in the French parliament about whether emigrants should be allowed to arrive in France on a Monday and begin eating at the common trough and receiving social services on Tuesday, or whether a short waiting period should be imposed. I don't know whether any legislation was passed; the fact that the debate took place at all is instructive. And, yes, of course, many of the immigrants who partake of the French state's munificence are Muslims. Most immigrants to France today are Muslims, the product of colonial, and especially of postcolonial vicissitudes, much aided by the success of French efforts to spread the French language. (Few Moroccans schooled in French from first grade will learn Dutch or German in order to emigrate to any place in Europe other than France. Some do, obviously.) A rural Algerian mother of eight who manages to move to France sees her family's standard of living multiplied by ten shortly after they arrive, with or without a husband. She is not a conventional deliberate welfare parasite. She may want nothing better than to work, or for her husband to work. There is not enough work. (See below.)

Why would this situation not be irresistible, for poor Muslims as well as for poor anyone? Yet if there is something you abhor in French society, for whatever reason, including religious, it will be difficult to leave, because you will soon be addicted. (Technical note: immigration into France from outside the European Union is restricted, but there are ways, legal and other.)

This stereotypical imagery describes the truth, but only a small part of it. The complete truth is that people with Muslim names are present at all levels of French society, from street sweeping to cabinet posts, through university faculties. I am sure that most have jobs. Most give the impression of being thoroughly French. A young female lawyer with a Muslim name appears on French TV before the massacre. She defends two Islamists of Algerian nationality accused of terrorist acts. She wears long earrings pointing to a plunging neckline. She is not concerned that her attire would earn her 20 lashes under ISIS or even in Saudi Arabia; she is French, after all. The most beautiful recent tall building in Paris is the Institute of the Arab World. It's headed by an old theater man, a Jew. The police officer executed in the street by a Charlie Hebdo assassin had a Muslim name. He was buried in a Muslim cemetery. Many French nominal Muslims are highly visible and beloved in show business and in sports. The French national soccer hero is named "Zinedine Zidane," not "Pierre Dubois." In my necessarily subjective judgment, the only good popular music in France in the past 30 years is Rai, composed and sung by children of North African immigrants. (It's sung mostly in French.) The first French soldier killed during the NATO action in Bosnia in the nineties was named "El Hadji." Large numbers of people from predominantly or totally Muslim countries have lived in France (France narrowly defined) for more than 100 years. They are deeply rooted there. Tens of thousands of them lie in French military cemeteries. Muslims have not yet derailed French democracy. French non-Muslims with names like mine did, several times.

Religion as Culture

You will notice that I said above, "people with Muslim names," and "nominal Muslims." I am not eager to guess who among such people is a real Muslim and who is not, or not really, or only sometimes. If I had to bet I would bet that most French nominal Muslims are similar to their non-Muslim French contemporaries: religious in name, not devout, not practicing, not even minimally. Nothing is easier than spotting a North African-looking man in Paris lifting a theoretically forbidden beer in a café with his blue-eyed workmates. Like other French people, they probably receive little formal religious instruction except from Grandma and Grandpa. The fact is that there are few mosques in France outside the two monumental ones in Paris and Marseille, out of reach for most. Halal meat is widely available in France, which means that it's being consumed. It's likely that many French Muslims observe the annual Ramadan, which consists in going without water and fasting during the day and gorging and visiting at night.

I would guess that many French Muslims are Muslims in culture only, in the way I, an atheist, am a cultural Catholic. It's not much, but it's not nothing either. It's a vague tendency to see the world a certain way. I, for example, put off the tedious task of straightening out my desk because, I am fairly sure, the Virgin Mary, or one of her delegate saints, will give me a hand soon, at some point, in the undefined future. Naturally, that's a residue from the Catholic doctrine of grace with which I grew up: God wants you to help yourself but there is a good chance He will help you even if you don't deserve it.

A religious culture is often a fallback position in hard times. For many people, it's the built-in default option. That's the option that is activated when one faces difficult circumstances for which one is ill prepared. Thus, when my equally atheistic, free-thinking but Hindu-reared wife becomes frustrated, she often devolves, and strikingly, to transparently caste-contaminated vituperation. This, although she detests caste.

Hard Times in the Welfare State

There are many hard times in the French welfare paradise, and many causes for frustration. They are mostly smallish hard times, hard times that might pass below the radar, and mostly evanescent occasions for frustration. With a couple of important exceptions about which I don't know enough, welfare states rarely generate even moderate sustained economic growth and, therefore, employment. (The exceptions of which I am thinking are Denmark and Sweden.) It's a little difficult — perhaps also confusing — even for the neutral observer to spot the hardships in French society. Everyone there is decently fed (or well fed — see above.) Nearly everyone is reasonably well dressed, or adequately dressed. Healthcare is practically free. French men's life expectancy is actually two years longer than American men's. (I am not asserting that there is a connection — I don't know yet — but the socialized French health system works pretty well, I hate to admit.) All French public schooling is free, including at the university level. The meals of properly enrolled students, even in their thirties, are subsidized by the government. Many students even receive a stipend. In my judgment, French education at all levels is quite bad, with the exception of maybe 20 schools, but so? Why not keep going to school? The official workweek is still 35 hours; after that, overtime pay kicks in. Retirement age is 62. There are many more vacation days and holidays each year than in the US. Either you have a job and you don't work all that much (unless you are in business for yourself), or you don't have a job and you work even less, or not at all, and then still, life is tolerable. What's not to like about the ease of the current French lifestyle?

Muslims have not yet derailed French democracy. French non-Muslims with names like mine did, several times.

It's hard to put your finger on the answer. My shortcut is that it's a good way of life for mediocre people but it's the worst way of life for the best people. As I write, the bumbling and militantly secular Socialist government of François Hollande is secretly on its knees, praying that GDP growth will reach 0.8% in 2015. They are not confident it will happen; 0.5% is more realistic. It's an order of magnitude below the growth achieved by our own ailing economy. For about 20 years the French GDP growth rate has more or less matched the country's population growth rate: around 0.5%. It's a stagnant economy. Formal unemployment is 10%. It has rarely dipped below 9% since 1985. That's against a background of extensive long-term unemployment, a background decades older than the current American counterpart.

Although it's not formally illegal, it's difficult in practice, and costly, to lay off anyone in France. (Doing it is like asking for legal action.) Employers mostly don't try, and consequently they also avoid hiring. As a result of both facts, the middle-aged keep their jobs and fail to make room for the young in an economy where stagnation makes making room essential. This succinct description of the French economy has been valid since about 1985. Today, much of the work force carries around obsolete skills while the young don't have reason or occasion to acquire new skills or any skills at all.

This stark description has concrete if diffuse social consequences. Of my four nephews in their thirties, two have never had what I would consider a real job. They don't know what a real job looks like from the inside. They have not learned the basic disciplines that young people ought to learn in entry positions with a future. It's doubtful they will learn now. There is not much reason for them to try, given the unemployment numbers, numbers that are validated by what they see informally all around them. I suspect they are permanently semi-employable. It's not a tragedy for those two because one is a happy ski bum and the other pretty much enjoys the status of the everlastingly-in-training. One wonders, though, about the state of mind of those who possess ambition, a sense of initiative, a desire to be independent, or simple energy.

My nephews are middle class by upbringing; they have a pretty good education; they live in economically sound areas. Both have a French first name and a French last name, and they look the part. In their age group, the unemployment rate is around 20%. If your first name is "Ahmed," however, the relevant unemployment rate is probably 30%, unless you have a respected degree. There is discrimination against people with Muslim names, although it's not bad enough to stem the inflow of thousands of foreign Muslims into France, often putting themselves at major physical risk. To my knowledge, no European jihadist has ever mentioned bitterness against this discrimination as a source of his actions. France is full of possessors of worthless Masters degrees. These things become known. (Personally, I think that even some respected French degrees are not respectable — another story.) If, in addition, you live in one of the exurban projects with poor transport connections to employment centers, the unemployment rate relevant to you is probably close to 50%.

Now, look at it from Ahmed's viewpoint: If he works hard, if he perseveres, if he manages to find the $15 round-trip fare, if he has had no brush with the law, he stands an even chance of landing a temporary job with mediocre pay, and a long wait for any promotion. I am tempted to think that those in Ahmed's situation who even try are simply underinformed.

Thus France offers a fairly comfortable but a hopeless and enervated future to millions of its young, with no relief in sight. (Most of those do not have Muslim names, of course.) Many younger people don't even know what relief would look like. They have no vision of a prosperous society where those who want to work, do — except in a mythical sense, through American movies (half of all tickets sold in France in an average year). It does not look like there can be a Steve Jobs in France. If one arises nevertheless, he will probably try to move to California, where entrepreneurship is still tolerated.

The Dull and the Spunky

If you are a young French person lucky enough to be dull, you may just enjoy the existence the country offers. You know that you will never go hungry or sick, that you will be clothed, that hot showers will be available. You won't have much to fear because you don't have a car, and your clothes don't excite envy. You will be OK so long as you remember to carry your cellphone in your underwear. You will never have to get up early in the morning. If you are bored, even the astonishingly mediocre French television will give you a steady fare of soccer games, of so-so movies, and even of increasingly decent series. Used computers are cheap, and they provide 24/7 access to the internet. If you are dull but endowed with physical energy, you will easily locate pickup soccer games during about half the year.

If you are bright, if you have some spunk, a wish to exercise your initiative, some energy, your options are few and as if well concealed. You can always try to qualify for one of the few good schools of higher education. Your chances of admission to those will be small because they are (fairly) ultra-competitive. No matter, there is an abundance of bad schools. After your second worthless Master's degree you may decide to give up this path. (Many young Muslims actually follow this very path.) The smarter you are, the faster you will abandon formal education, I think. Many young Frenchmen with a curious turn of mind, including some with Muslim names, devote their attention to the scientific study of drugs, mostly cannabis, with themselves as principal experimental subjects. Their research often leads to participation in the petty drug trade (both Charlie Hebdo assassins had such a past).[iii] The petty drug trade brings both spending money and, perhaps more importantly, adventure. Sometimes, participation in the trade leads to various degrees of delinquency or serious crime. (That was the case for two of the three terrorists. The kosher restaurant killer had moved on and garnered seven felony convictions.)

For about 20 years the French GDP growth rate has more or less matched the country's population growth rate: around 0.5%. It's a stagnant economy.

If you happen to come from a Catholic family, you might chose instead to dedicate your stamina to the surprisingly dense and lively Catholic action network. If you descend from two or three generations of unionized people, there is a fair chance you may become a minor labor activist or a political activist. These options are obviously not readily available to the offspring of Muslim recent immigrants. But a Muslim background, being an ethnic Muslim, and having spunk, so to speak, opens its own avenues to self-expression and even to success. Specifically a Muslim background makes a certain kind of imagery available that feeds the imagination, that provides scenarios. Such a background also has consequences for one's affiliations, of course.

French Islam as a Culture

Remember my mention of religion as a cultural fallback position. It works well for Christians and also for ex-Christians, and for others as well. Jesus walked around and talked to those who would listen, and he occasionally cured the sick. Buddha seems to have spent a lot of time meditating under a tree. Muhammad was not only a prophet but a successful war leader. He spent most of his later years, after the revelations, fighting those who would suppress him — in jihad, in other words. This is strong, brave, attractive imagery for any young male.

Moreover, if you come from a Muslim background, as an immigrant, you will often live mostly with others from a Muslim background. That's true irrespective of discrimination. For several generations, immigrants tend to follow each other geographically. Immigrants from the same country, from the small town, even from the same tiny village end up together. (It's as true in France today with people who happen to be nominal Muslims as it was formerly for Italian immigrants to the US, for example.) In a stagnant society with little economic mobility, there will also be little geographic mobility. Your children will likely also stay put, and theirs. Then, some of your neighbors, unavoidably, will be Muslims; some of those will be pious; some Muslims — your own grandfather, for example — will take you, or drag you, to the mosque. With this ongoing process, the probability that you will never meet a jihadist is quite low. Your name will act like a greeting card to moderate Muslims, to Muslim agnostics, and to jihadists alike. Others will talk in front of you the way they would not talk before someone named "Marius."

Given the basic warlike Muslim imagery and given these probabilistic affiliations, it would also be surprising if no young male nominal Muslims living a comfortable but boring life without a future were tempted by jihad. Going on jihad is like joining the Foreign Legion, but with a higher moral purpose. It's so attractive that even some young Frenchmen with no Muslim background at all are drawn to it. The question is not why some Muslims do it but why they are not stopped more often by those most in a position to stop them. I believe there is a cultural predisposition in the large nominally Muslim segment of French society that commits it to passivity toward violent jihadism. It's true among other Muslims, living elsewhere in the democratic West. It's before us for all to see, but we feel a delicateness about acknowledging what we see.

Outsiders' Tolerance of Criminal Behavior

Every time someone commits atrocities while shouting slogans with obvious Muslim content, the liberal or mostly liberal American media, but also the French media, and most media in the Western world, I expect, trot up credentialed Muslim spokesmen. (The masculine gender is intentional here; it's a low blow.) Every time, the spokesmen affirm solemnly that the terrorist perpetrators are not "real Muslims." They seldom fail to add that the "majority" of Muslims are moderate and peaceful. Prominent elected politicians such as President Hollande of France and President Obama hasten to repeat these empty formulas. This is now a nearly automatic, institutionalized manner of avoiding a big problem we are collectively not brave enough to face.

There is an abundance of bad schools. The smarter you are, the faster you will abandon formal education.

Of course, the majority of Muslims are peaceful. In fact, I think the real number is upwards of 95%, or 99%, or more. Ordinary nominal Muslims in France, elsewhere in Europe, and in the US, are first of all ordinary people. They want to work. They do their job when they have work. They quarrel with their spouses. They cherish their children. Most are too busy to care. Many would not be brave enough to become terrorists if they wanted to be (like most of us, like myself). The issue is also not daily behavior. People with Muslim names are often likable. I have myself always known both nominal and practicing Muslims. I have always preferred them to others, in France and in the US. They tend to be sweeter, more courteous than the average. There are Muslims in my extended family now. Long ago, I almost married an Arab girl. (She rejected me because of my frivolousness.) Today, my favorite young woman is a practicing Muslim (I wrote about her in Liberty, December 2010.)

My favorite foreign countries are Turkey and Morocco. All this colors my judgment, of course: I am prejudiced, prejudiced in favor of Muslims. If you call me an "Islamophobe," please take note that I am a loving Islamophobe.

Passive Complicity

But culturally induced kindness is only a part of the reality of cultural Islam, of Islam as a culture, in France, elsewhere in the West, and elsewhere in the world. Take the two murderous Charlie Hebdo brothers. Each of them had traveled abroad, one to Yemen, one apparently to Tunisia. They possessed fairly expensive weapons and even more expensive bulletproof vests, all the more expensive because they are outlawed in France. Yet neither of them had held even a modest job for a while. The Jewish store killer had a girlfriend who escaped. The French media say she fled to Syria. The plane fare from Paris to Istanbul, the jumping-off point for Syria, is at least $600. Before the murders, she and her late boyfriend had traveled extensively, including to the Dominican Republic and even to Malaysia.[iv] Neither had a steady job. Someone in the Muslim community, broadly defined, must have helped them financially. Surely, it was not Lutherans or Jews who lent them a hand. I think it was not Al Qaeda either in spite of media reports to the contrary, although one killer may have trained in Yemen instead of going to language school there. Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed the Charlie Hebdo massacre while the perpetrator of the grocery store massacre claimed he belonged to ISIS. The two terrorists knew each other. The two groups wage war on each other on the ground.[v]

We know that the killers were part of a network because one of the brothers was convicted earlier of helping others to go fight jihad in Iraq. Members of their networks may all have been fanatics like them, and thus capable of secrecy. But some of the fanatics at least had brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, uninvolved friends, jilted girlfriends, some of whom must have got a whiff of the forthcoming actions. Some of those probably chatted idly or shared their concerns. There were 500 calls between the cellphones belonging to the wife of one of the Charlie Hebdo killers and the cellphone of the girlfriend of the grocery store killer. Either the men used their phones and the women did not notice, or they knew, or they were themselves talking. In all cases there must have been leaks. The brothers' drift must have been visible to their neighbors. French security forces have thousands of members whose first or second language is Moghrebi Arabic, the principal language of French Muslims after French. They should have picked up anything untoward. Apparently, no one from the "Muslim community" stepped forward to say, or even to whisper, "Those are bad men; they want to destroy the Republic." Someone must have known and decided not to act, probably several.

The information gathering of French police failed miserably on this occasion. The police declared itself overwhelmed by the numbers requiring surveillance. Of course; good police work does not result from having five cops following each suspect over 24 hours. It comes from people close to the criminals approaching the police voluntarily to provide useful information.

The question is not why some Muslims go on jihad but why they are not stopped more often by those most in a position to stop them.

The propensity to ignore forthcoming evil is a sickness that may well be distributed across all religiously defined groups. However, the consequences of in-group solidarity are graver where Muslims are concerned, because theirs is currently the only group whose religion glorifies religious violence, or appears to glorify religious violence, or lends itself to the misunderstanding that it glorifies religious violence. (See below for an assertion that it's not all in the mind of the viewer.)

A heavy complicity of silence reigns over French Muslims, nominal and devout alike. It's abetted by embarrassed, secular silence maintained by elite intellectual voices and by most politicians in the country. The same seems to be true everywhere else in Europe. The politicians who break ranks with this conspiracy are mostly disreputable for other reasons. (I mean the Front National in France and similar nationalist groups in other countries.)

Jews as the Canary in the Mine (As Usual)

Complicity is not always discrete. Take the stereotypical Muslim responses to the habitual targeting of Jewish businesses — such as the kosher grocery store in this event — of Jewish institutions, of Jewish cemeteries, for a while, even, and of Jewish neighbors, including, horribly, schoolchildren. (The latter crime condemned by large French Muslim organizations.) Or focus simply on the myriads of anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of all French cities. Everyone in France knows that the old style French anti-Semitism is dead or moribund. The Dreyfus affair was more than a century ago; many actually know that Dreyfus was innocent and framed. The Catholic Church has desisted. Most Gentiles of Christian background are somewhat aware of the ignominious French role in the genocide of Jews in WWII. Many don' t care about Jews, one way or the other, and are thus not hostile.

Everyone suspects strongly that young people with Muslim names committed nearly all the anti-Semitic acts and probably all the anti-Semitic graffiti in France in the past twenty years. Yet Muslims who speak about this at all — and rarely, because there is seldom formal proof — blame a fairly natural confusion among the young between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, as if the persecutors did not know that their targets speak French like themselves, not Hebrew.

There is also a strong official reluctance to admit the obvious. The secular French Republic does not collect ethnic or religious data. No way exists to express related facts in official reports. Perhaps if the graffiti vandals (and also the terrorists) conveniently wore a fez or a hijab. . . . Whenever an ugly anti-Semitic event takes place in France, imams in full regalia go on the media to denounce all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, not to mention Islamophobia. The message implies: "We are all equal before prejudice." It's as if Jews did their own share of anti-Muslim graffiti!

Sometimes, occasionally, the Muslims of France inadvertently display another side of their collective thinking. Several years ago, someone sued the same Charlie Hebdo, already about insulting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The plaintiffs failed, of course, in their attempt to have a French court declare that freedom of speech somehow doesn’t apply to insults to religious figures. The memorable fact is that the full array of representative French Muslim associations and institutions joined or commented favorably on the suit. It looked on television as if they did not realize what they were doing. One indignant hijab-wearing woman asked a journalist in the lobby of the courthouse, "What would you say if a Muslim periodical insulted Jesus?' The man had the presence of mind to declare calmly: "F... Jesus!" ("J'emmerde Jésus"). The woman walked away angrier than before. It's doubtful she learned anything about French democratic political culture. She spoke without an accent, so she was probably French-born.

Several times, I have myself asserted to Muslim friends or friendly acquaintances with Muslim names that I have the legal right to insult any being I want, including Jesus Christ, including God Himself. I have done so in both English and French. Each time my interlocutor turned away in embarrassment, as if I were obviously spouting nonsense, as if I had taken leave of my senses. Public declarations by moderate Muslims trying to calm things down often suggest that rights must entail responsibility. A Muslim professor I know in an American university, a very intelligent man, also a nice guy, expressed this very thought on his Facebook three days after the events in Paris. (He recanted the next day.) This view is not completely surprising, because it's common even among American-born, American-reared, second-grade teachers of Christian background. Nonetheless, it betrays a reluctance to admit this essential foundation of democracy, as if there were a brick wall before them.

A heavy complicity of silence reigns over French Muslims, nominal and devout alike. It's abetted by embarrassed, secular silence maintained by elite intellectual voices.

In the mass protests in Paris in the aftermath of the massacres, Muslims were present in large numbers, the reporters say. Nominal Muslims interviewed on French TV cried out: "No amalgam!" It means: "Don't confuse 'Muslim' and 'terrorist'; we are not all terrorists." It's a strange claim. Nobody thinks that all Muslims are terrorists. Nearly everyone knows that violent jihadists are a tiny fraction of the population with Muslim names. The talk stops there. There is no collective self-examination, at least, not in public.

Incidentally, the Charlie Hebdo jihadists did not strike against a military target, although the small French Army is extensively engaged in the killing of their brother jihadists in Africa. Instead, with good intuition, with acumen, they struck where they somehow knew it matters, at the linchpin of democracy, the legally guaranteed freedom to offend. Some ignorance is often not just ignorance.

Intolerable Intolerance in Islam, Self-Delusion

It's not absurd to argue that the current acts of violent jihad do not really have an Islamic inspiration, even that they are heretical because the essence of Islam is tolerance. Nevertheless, the law of explicitly Muslim countries gives abundant examples of intolerable intolerance. I mean examples that seem to me related to terrorism, of practices that enlightened opinion has no reason to tolerate where it can avoid doing so. In several such countries, the death penalty is prescribed both for apostasy and for blasphemy. This kind of law is rarely just imposed from above, although many of those countries lack democratic representation. I remember riots in Bangladesh because the legislature would not toughen anti-blasphemy laws with capital punishment. I don't think there has ever been a demonstration in any Muslim country — except perhaps Turkey — against the existence of blasphemy laws.

The public performance of Muslim spokespeople in Western countries is often revealing of ambiguity toward freedom of speech. A tiny number of the Muslim official intellectuals summoned to appear on the US media cynically but politely describe their program of universal domination. (There was one on Fox News in early January 2014; he had been set up.) Many more go publicly into hiding in front of the camera. They ignore direct questions; they change the subject. They dissemble openly as if there were no chance that a single one of millions of viewers would unmask them — a sure sign of self-delusion. A Muslim intellectual interviewed on one of the American cable channels the night following the Paris mass murder wants to show that freedom of expression has natural limits. He declares that no periodical in the "whole" Western world would dare publish an anti-Semitic cartoon. Seconds before, the very same news channel had displayed a cover from Charlie Hebdo of a clear, grossly anti-Semitic nature. Facts are scarce in their discourse. Muslim spokesmen who are intellectually dignified carry other problems. There is an openly Islamist philosopher who appears frequently on French TV. His name is Tarik Ramadan; he is a sophisticated, cultured man. He addresses directly the most difficult questions. It would be difficult for the French intellectual class to reject or ignore this man. The very elegance of his French (by any standards), however, guarantees that young Muslims in the banlieues would barely understand him. At any rate, I think he never tries to talk to them.

The actions and the words of moderate Muslims themselves, and the aloofness of others, cry out to us a truth we are loath to admit: the problem is not a few more or less heretical, often sociopathic, "extremist" Muslims who have gone rogue from true Islam, but Islam itself. I don't mean Islam the true religion; I don't really know what it is, any more than I can hold a discussion about dogma with a Jesuit theologian. I mean Islam, the religiously delineated culture. I don't mean the jihadists themselves; I have already argued that, of course, in enervated welfare societies such as France, there will be some who want to become terrorists (the Foreign Legion argument). I mean the Islam-inspired culture that is the pond in which the jihadist tadpoles actually morph into toads.

Resistance to what's wrong is its own reward; resistance makes you stubborn.

Ordinary Muslims and enlightened carriers of public opinion in the West are in constant denial. The latter — including people like me — shudder at the thought of admitting the unsophisticated obvious: no Lutheran has deliberately gunned down a Catholic since 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia). The well-illustrated Catholic proclivities toward fanaticism were tamed by the anti-clerical Renaissance, by the Protestant Reformation, and by the sometimes frankly atheistic Enlightenment. It's true that the United Kingdom restricted the civil liberties of its religious minorities well into the 19th century, but it did not execute any. Buddhists have their own reasons for conducting little persecution on religious grounds. Both the Japanese and the Chinese — who may or may not be Buddhists, on the whole — found their own rather mysterious paths toward religious indifference. Hindus don't become offended at what others say about them, because they often don't know what they believe themselves.

The only noticeable group, large enough to be observed, that generates (or wrongly seems to generate) deadly religious intolerance is Islam. The explicitly Islamist, anti-learning Boko Haram alone slaughtered 2,000 civilians in Nigeria in the single week following the small Charlie Hebdo massacre. Not only do the facts seem obvious; there is a comprehensible reason for the passive complicity of ordinary Muslims toward violent jihad.

Real Religious Participation

I refer to the passive complicity of both those real and those nominal Muslims who only want to live in peace. I mean people with whom I would enjoy having coffee any day. They are paralyzed, not only by a justified, understandable fear of violent repercussions but by the unexamined contradictions in their own hearts. Muslims, including merely nominal Muslims, are permanently caught in a cultural trap. They, like almost everyone else in the world, are mostly not theologians. As is true for members of several other religions, their religious identification rests on a handful of practices — precisely, on a naive understanding of religious doctrine, and on a small number of simple myths. For many or most Christians, for example, this reduces to occasional or even regular attendance at church services, to the habit of praying, to an unexamined belief in the virgin birth and in the divinity of Christ.

Several religions mandate, even if by default, the imitation of historical founding figures as a respectable and attainable form of religious participation. Often, it's actually the preferred shortcut for the intellectually unsophisticated. It's highly visible in Catholicism, with a notable slide from a too-distant God to the more accessible Virgin Mary and other saints. The Imitation of Christ was a Catholic bestseller for about four hundred years. It seems to me that Buddhists do little but dream of imitating the Buddha. Islam abroad belongs squarely among these religions. Imitation of the Prophet Muhammad is also a simplified but nevertheless sturdy prescription for proper religious behavior. Although the Prophet Muhammad himself was always careful to insist that he was not divine, that he was merely a passive messenger of God, nevertheless the imitation began in his own lifetime. His birthday is even a major feast day in Muslim nations, although this would seem to go straightforwardly against his wish to eschew idolatry. It's a result of a process of simplification shared by other religions.

Understanding the Koran is hard work. It's especially difficult if your main exposure is its memorization in a language you don't understand (most Muslims worldwide). The Prophet's hagiography, by contrast, is accessible. It even exists in illustrated form, although that is supposedly forbidden. (It's forbidden in order to discourage idolatry, again. There are wonderful Persian miniatures depicting Muhammad.) The Prophet's feats are well known among those reared in or near Islam; they are widely disseminated. They are imprinted from childhood through storytelling among the faithful — and among the formerly faithful as well, naturally. For many, not much else remains.

We know well how this works in other religions. I, for example, a good atheist, as I said earlier, do not think the Virgin Mary was one. But I have a special fondness for Saint Christopher. He carried the baby Jesus across a river on his shoulder. I would have done the same. He hiked his robe up to do it. You can tell he had good legs, like me. He had a beard, also like me. Of course, I cannot possibly think that Jesus was divine but frankly, I don't mind him. He walked around with his best buddies telling people to shape up and to stop talking s... He changed water into wine. He cured the sick occasionally. Once, he fed many people with just a little bit of food. That one stuck to my mind.

Every week, someone feeds the homeless in Santa Cruz, where I live. It's a messy nuisance. Many of the homeless are not well bred at all; they leave greasy used paper plates everywhere. Some are just not in control of their behavior; they are loudly obscene; they disturb the peace, my peace. (The event happens across the street from my favorite coffee shop; see “The View from Lulu’s,” Liberty, May 2010.) I don't like it at all. Yet if the city decided to outlaw this event, I would become hostile. I would surely keep my mouth shut if I heard of a group doing something positive to counter the city. I would keep my mouth shut if I heard of active resistance against the ordinance. I don't know how far I would go. One thing leads to another; resistance to what's wrong is its own reward; resistance makes you stubborn. I might end up going quite far. It would not be because of my religious faith, since I don't have any. It would be because of the residual imagery of my Catholic childhood.

If I wanted to appear sophisticated myself, I would reply that the now old death fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie was simplistic and stereotypical.

The Moroccan novelist Fouad Laroui , a winner of the Goncourt literary prize, said recently on a French blog: "People call themselves Catholic or Muslim but they hardly know what they are talking about." (My translation from the French.) Laroui added that he often playfully tests Catholics on a salient point of dogma (the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) and receives wrong answers nine times out of ten. Curiously, I have done exactly the same for 20 years with approximately the same results. I even had a Jesuit priest flunk!

The point here is that even when you have removed all the religious furniture from your house, there remains in your attic religious bric-à-brac that affects what you do and, even more, what you won't do. Muslims have mental attics too, including Muslim atheists. The fact that the Muslim attic includes a lot of war imagery is not indifferent. Other things being equal, it would promote passivity toward those who engage in jihad, even among nominal Muslims who would never consider violent behavior for themselves. As I pointed out, the Prophet Muhammad was a successful war leader. He spent years of his life engaged in jihad. (I think it was imposed on him by his enemies.) There are consequences for democratic societies in the West. The jihadists of the Middle East cannot be engaged verbally, obviously. The whole Muslim world has its own dynamics that may or may not be of a religious nature and is not available for our questioning. Muslims, and people with Muslim names who live in Western democracies and who enjoy the associated freedoms, are within reach if one only tries. The time to try came some time ago. They must be confronted openly, individually and collectively, by enlightened citizens and by the media — about their beliefs especially, the beliefs inside their mental attics. This will make many nominal Muslims and real Muslims angrier. It will help others move toward a deep reform movement that has already begun from within the Islamic world (see below).

Constructive Confrontation

A confrontation would look like this:

The Prophet Mohamed was a great and successful military leader.

Is this true?

Sometimes he was merciful to his vanquished enemies and he let them go. Sometimes, he did not. He had several hundred Jews beheaded after they had surrendered. ("Beheaded," "Jews"?)

Do you think it's fine to kill prisoners of war?

Or is it only acceptable if they are Jews?

The Prophet's own code of war forbade the killing of children and women. Often, he showed mercy by marrying the widows, the sisters, the daughters of his dead enemies. ("Marrying"?)

This sounds to me like rape. Or did he make sure they were willing, after he had killed their husbands, their fathers, their brothers?

Are you in favor of rape?

This also sounds to me like slavery.

Are you in favor of slavery?

I have also heard that the Prophet kindly waited until his favorite wife was nine before he consummated his marriage with her. (Nine.)

Is the story true?Feel free to tell me that it's a mistake of transliteration, that she was actually 19 and willing. If it’s true, it sounds to me like pedophilia.

Are you in favor of pedophilia?

Do you have children?

Please, answer aloud so that others nearby may hear you.

Feel free also to tell me that I am mistaken that those are just internet rumors. I am surely no expert.

You may, in addition, state that those were other times and that the Prophet's pagan enemies did much worse. It's plausible. However, this latter argument suggests that uncritical imitation of the Prophet is not a morally valid posture. And if imitation is not valid in the treatment of prisoner of wars, or as concerns the freedom of individuals, or in sexual matters, is it valid in matters of jihad? I only ask you to think about and to answer, at least in your own mind.

If you answered "Yes" to any one of the italicized questions above and if you have not stated that the Prophet's example is not wholly relevant today, what right do you have to enjoy the protection of a society in which all these practices are illegal because they are morally repugnant? And then, why don't you look into emigrating to a country where they are not, or not obviously, illegal? Yes, I ask you the same question whether you arrived on the last plane or whether your antecedents have been here since 1910. And, yes, thank you for asking, I would make the same request of any Lutheran, agnostic, Catholic, or Buddhist who shares your views on the execution of prisoners, on Jews, on rape, on slavery, on pedophilia. It's not about your spiritual beliefs; it's about barbarism.

The idea is not to vilify Muslims but to push those who live in Western countries such as France to come to their senses. If it causes some to choose the other side, so be it. As Ben Franklin wrote, “if you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you” (letter to Jane Mecom, Nov. 1, 1773). It's also not a denial of the presumption of innocence as I often hear said. That is a strictly judicial principle. It's intended to shield private parties from abuse by agents of the state wielding overwhelming power. It does not exist to protect private parties from rude questions by other private parties, questions that can be ignored anyway. When my wife asks, Did you really spend seven hours in the library or do you have a mistress in town?, she is not violating the principle of presumption of innocence, just being unreasonably nosy. Asking difficult questions is a constructive exercise in virtuous influence.

A Deplorable Lack of Sophistication?

The sophisticated will attack the simplistic and stereotypical nature of this plan. I have no need for an excuse. The relation of most people to their religion is simplistic and stereotypical. This is especially true of vestigial relationships to religion, of the kind I think French secular Muslims harbor, as do I. I don't see how Muslims in other Western democracies — except for recent immigrants — would depart much from my description. If I wanted to appear sophisticated myself, I would reply that the now old death fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie was simplistic and stereotypical. It had great power nevertheless. It has continued power 25 years later, power much beyond the affliction of Rushdie himself.

Tough love toward Muslims, both citizens and immigrants, should have become long ago the prescription for all rationalists and all lovers of freedom in democratic countries.

The first point is to interfere with the self-destructive reflex of politeness that has already set in. Quickly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, The Economist urged us to not "vilify" Islam. In an upsurge of courtesy conveniently interlaced with cowardice, the New York Times and CNN announced right away that they would not publish the offensive cartoons despite their incontestable newsworthiness. There are many other examples of such politeness.

Giving a hand to the courageous people who call for reform from within Islam is the honorable thing to do. It's more honorable than politeness.

The second step is to nudge Muslims to reform their religion, or their former religion. Why assume it's not possible? My own ancestors used to burn people alive over small differences of opinion. They eventually got over the habit. Politeness played no role. Criticism did; think of Voltaire. Granted, it took a long time; but people of the past did not have the internet or television, and many barely knew how to read. They did not have any precedent to go by. Muslim reformists, by contrast, have a good road map in front of them.

In any case, Westerners don't have to carry the burden alone, because brave people from the Muslim world have recently been doing more or less the same thing. The most credible calls for a re-examination of Islam itself — rather than of "radical Islam" — come from people with Muslim names, including the President of Egypt. On December 31, 2014, he went to the most prestigious school of theology in Islam and advised the professors there to do something constructive about their religion's bad reputation. (Yes, President Sisi is not a freedom of the press-loving democrat. The sign to Boston does not have to go to Boston, as they say.) There is also the great Algerian novelist Boualam Sansal who wrote straightforwardly, "Islam's vocation is to convert and to govern." The Tunisian philosopher Mezri Haddad has published several essays in French on reforming Islam. There are many others whose names seldom appear in the English language media for reasons that are difficult to fathom, beyond provincialism. (In a rather timid review, Eric Ormsby recently gave us a glimpse at how difficult it is to criticize the Prophet of Islam.) Giving a hand to the courageous people who call for reform from within Islam is the honorable thing to do. It's more honorable than politeness.

And here is an aside not directly connected to the analysis and proposals above. It has to do with acceptance of that which is ordinarily repugnant. Besides pressing all Muslims to own up, including the moderates and the lukewarm and also the indifferent, there are active steps Western democratic countries can take to limit the effects of violent jihad on their tranquility. The main measure is to place in indefinite detention all those convicted by proper courts of committing or aiding terrorism. It's not obvious that long-term detention would act as a deterrent. Being kept in jail (or in an abandoned Club Med site), however, would certainly have reduced the destructive capacities of one of the two Charlie Hebdo terrorists who already had a serious conviction of aiding terrorism. My own love of civil liberties would not be affronted by such a normal wartime measure. The democracies could promise to free all such detainees shortly after their side unconditionally surrenders. I can already hear the clamors of protests, but is there a single libertarian who would have promoted the liberation of Waffen-SS prisoners of war in 1943?


Of course, the attitudes and the policies described above might well strengthen the hold of statism where they were adopted. They would not strengthen it as fast as would the destruction, or even the mere rapid erosion, of those conventional democratic arrangements that are most likely to lead to the shrinking of statism. Many libertarians need to have a heart-to-heart with their inner liberal pacifist.

[i] French intelligence services held in high regard by their counterparts elsewhere: R.M. Gerecht, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 8, 2015.

[ii] Jacques Delacroix, I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography (2014).

[iii] I received confirmation of this perception from a good book by an Algerian immigrant to the US who spent time in France: Djaffar Chetouane, Donkey Heart, Monkey Mind (2011).

[iv] Meichtry, Bisserbe, and Faucon, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 14, 2015; and, same authors, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2015 The conviction information comes from an email to Le Figaro online; I believe it because it's easy to verify.

[v] The author of a book on Yemen-based terrorism disputed on leftist Pacific Radio on Jan. 12, 2015, that the killers were really sponsored by Al Qaeda in Yemen. He considered unconvincing the alleged Al Qaeda announcement to the contrary. He did so on technical grounds. I failed to garner the reference.

quot;We are all equal before prejudice./a

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Wrestling with Reality


I’m well aware of the old adage, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” so I approach films that proclaim themselves to be “based on a true story” with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the case of Foxcatcher, nominated this week for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, a phrase used tongue-in-cheek by last year’s American Hustle is more a propros: “A part of this actually happened.”

Some of what we see in Foxcatcher is true: brothers Mark and David Schultz (played in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) actually did both win gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics (in different weight divisions). David did find success as a coach and trainer post-Olympics, while Mark struggled financially (wrestlers aren’t the most marketable athletes for selling toothpaste and breakfast cereal, even when they have gold medals; as one character sniffs in the film, “Wrestling is so low”). Wealthy chemical heir John du Pont (played by Steve Carell) did fancy himself a wrestling coach and did build a state-of-the art wrestling facility on his farm called Foxcatcher. Both Schultz brothers did work as coaches and trainers for du Pont’s team, although never at the same time. From what I can discern, eyewitnesses say that the shocking ending of the film is quite accurate in terms of what happened, but not necessarily in terms of why it happened. New motives have been manufactured for this tale.

However, the middle of the film “doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and the story is admittedly much more interesting with the two brothers working at Foxcatcher together, where they display a family dynamic — two brothers abandoned as toddlers by their father (also not true) — that resonates almost voyeuristically with viewers, especially as it is juxtaposed against the bizarre and painful filial dynamic between du Pont and his cold and haughty mother (Vanessa Redgrave) as portrayed — that is, fictionalized — in the film.

When Carell's du Pont smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill.

This story focuses on loneliness: the loneliness of gold medalist Mark Schultz as he gives talks to middle schoolers for 20 bucks a pop and eats ramen noodles for dinner because they are filling and can be purchased 10 for a dollar; the loneliness of John du Pont, who has everything money can buy — even friends and medals — but relates to his own mother from a distance; and the loneliness of a mother who cannot accept or appreciate her son and his choices. Mark is looking for a father figure, and du Pont is looking for someone to parent. They fall into these roles through a pathetic sense of desperation.

Only David seems to have a grasp on reality. Married to a smart and sassy wife (Sienna Miller) with two adorable children, he doesn’t need the money or the glory du Pont dangles in front of him. But he does need to protect his brother, and that’s what (in the film) lures him to Foxcatcher. The relationship between these two brothers is deep, intimate, and exclusive, and the two actors fall into their roles with a vulnerability seldom seen on screen between men. In an early scene they prepare for a training session in an elegant, graceful warmup dance. They nuzzle each other like animals testing each other’s strength. Neck-to-neck they press into each other’s shoulders, and then roll across to face each other from the other direction, hands on the other’s back or ribcage, becoming increasingly aggressive as they warm for the match.

Into this relationship comes John du Pont, trying to buy a team, a medal, and a sense of importance. Steve Carell, known for his bumbling comedic roles in TV’s The Office and such movies asGet Smart and Date Night, is about as unlikely a casting decision as one could imagine for the crazed, withdrawn du Pont. But director Bennett Miller could see beyond the comedic roles that have marked Carell’s career. “I think all comedians are dark,” Miller said after casting Carell, and indeed Carell plays du Pont with a reserved aggression that never breaks character. He peers down his large (prosthetic) nose with eyes that are distant and unreadable. When he smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill. The real Mark Schultz has said of the real du Pont, “Everything about him was weird, from the dyed red Ronald McDonald hair with layers of dandruff in the roots to his dark yellow teeth, caked with food.” Carell captures this benign yet dangerous person perfectly.

How could someone so disgusting, unlikeable, and antisocial secure a corner for himself as a trainer and a sponsor for USA Wrestling? If the film is to be believed (and remember, it’s “based on a true story”), you can buy just about anything in this world with money. Nonprofit organizations purport to put their cause first, but in reality, the buyer is always right — and in the nonprofit world, the buyer is the one donating the money. It’s not a happy system, but until wrestlers and artists and others who enjoy esoteric pursuits can find a way to sell their efforts directly to the consumers, it’s the only one we have.

Editor's Note: Review of "Foxcatcher," directed by Bennett Miller. Annapurna Pictures, 2014, 129 minutes.

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Swearing In


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