In the early months of 2015, there have been two separate mass murders inside France that have generated headlines worldwide for their brutality and disregard for human life. In early January, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi entered the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and gunned down 11 employees, and shot dead one police officer on their way out. Last week, in an act of mass murder with more than 12 times the number of victims, 27-year-old pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally guided the plane he was flying straight into the French Alps and killed all 150 people on board. Yet it is only the former murderous act that has been described by politicians and portrayed in the media as an existential threat and an example of terrorism.
The coverage of the Kouachi brothers downplayed their humanity by describing them as calculating, rational, indifferent killing machines. A New York Times article, titled “From Amateur to Ruthless Jihadist in France,” describes “two jihadists in black, sheathed in body armor” who “gave a global audience a ruthless demonstration in terrorism.” The “hardened killer(s)” were said to walk “with military precision,” and “nonchalantly” take a phone call.
The article explains how French security services were unable to prevent the attacks: “The brothers appeared so nonthreatening that surveillance was dropped in the middle of last year.” Yet they had a long history of being monitored by French authorities, evidenced by the “thousands of pages of legal documents obtained by The New York Times, including minutes of interrogations, summaries of phone taps, intercepted jailhouse letters.”
It is seen as a failure of the security services, who presumably should not have let the brothers out of their surveillance dragnet. Their “steadily deepening radicalism .. occurred virtually under the noses of French authorities, who twice had Cherif in their grasp.”
There is no blame attributed to the French socioeconomic system, which relegates most of France’s Arab population to a permanent underclass of unemployment and poverty. As racial minorities in a country that holds few opportunities for people with their background, the brothers worked dead-end jobs like delivering pizzas and fish mongering. They were not able to get jobs at French investment banks or in the fashion industry. Certainly this must have produced adverse mental health effects.
There is no discussion of whether destitution and marginalization contributed to the Kouachi brothers’ decision to use violence against people who, to them, apparently represented a source of their humiliation.
Neither is there blame on French foreign policy, which has been complicit in arming and funding Al Qaeda for many years in Libya, Syria and other countries. France’s support for violent extremism abroad and its potential to create blowback at home is likewise disregarded in media analysis.
The murderous Germanwings pilot received a very different portrait in The New York Times. The title of a profile on Lubitz reads like a eulogy: “Andreas Lubitz, Who Loved to Fly, Ended Up on a Mysterious and Deadly Course.”
He has a name and a passion. And unlike the “ruthless jihadists,” who chose their path as criminals, Lubitz “ended up on a mysterious course” as if he was a passenger on the journey, rather than the instigator who drove 149 people intentionally to their death.
In describing the “mystery” behind Lubitz, the Times says that “the focus has turned to what had driven him to such an act – and to whether the airline industry and regulators do enough to screen pilots for psychological problems.” As was the case with Newtown elementary school killer Adam Lanza, the problem is understood as one of “missed chances,” in the workplace or by social services, not the police and security officials.
CNN wrote that Lanza “was an isolated young man with deteriorating mental health and a fascination for mass violence whose problems were not ignored but misunderstood and mistreated.” Lubitz had reportedly been treated by psychotherapists for “suicidal tendencies” and possibly suffered from depression.
For white young men like Lubitz and Lanza, the problem was a failure of society – parents, teachers, employers, government regulators – to recognize and treat mental health problems. Implicitly they are people deserving help, not security threats deserving surveillance and monitoring. The mental health of the killers is understood to be a cause – if not the primary cause – behind their actions. They were victimized by their mental health, whereas the Kouachi brothers were rational actors responsible for their actions.
Near the bottom of the New York Times article, a surviving Charlie Hebdo journalist is quoted as saying that one of the brothers told her “We don’t kill women.” One of the brothers also reportedly told a salesman “We don’t shoot civilians.” They clearly did kill civilians, but unlike either Lubitz or Lanza, they did spare lives rather than kill indiscriminately. Yet only the Kouachis are described as “hardened killers.”
Why such different treatments of the massacres and the killers responsible for them? Simply put, the massacre by the Kouachi brothers can be attributed to “Islamic extremism” while the massacre by Lubitz cannot. Surely the passengers who “shrieked in terror” would not have considered themselves any less terrorized than employees of Charlie Hebdo witnessing the masked attackers with Kalashnikovs.
The Paris attacks were described by CNN, BBC, New York Times, NBC, and virtually every major Western news outlet as terrorism. But the Germanwings plane crash has not been called terrorism at all. USA Today reported that the FBI “has found no connection of anyone aboard to terrorism.” CNN reported that Lubitz “was not known to be on any terrorism list, and his religion was not immediately known.”
In other words, it was not immediately known whether Lubitz was a Muslim, and, by extension, whether he was a terrorist. This connection between religion and terrorism, used in the same sentence in the CNN article, demonstrates how terrorism in common usage is understood to be about who a person is rather than what he does. Two Muslim brothers of North African heritage are terrorists when they murder 12 people, while a white German is not a terrorist when he murders 149.
Terrorism is perceived as the most heinous type of crime. Terrorists are thought to be irredeemable, subhuman creatures who do not even qualify as legitimate members of society with rights. But there is no commonly accepted definition of a terrorist, so any terrorist label is completely arbitrary. Unsurprisingly, there is a racial and cultural bias for using such a label.
Media portrayals of mass murderers are a representation of the society’s attitudes towards the subjects they cover. That Muslims and Arabs engender an irrational fear is nothing new. As Edward Said explains in Orientalism, this has a long history.
“For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the end of the seventeenth century the ‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life,” Said writes.
This danger still manifests itself in the disproportionate reaction of Western nations and its people to crimes that can be attributed to Islam and Arabs. Even if, as is the case with the Kouachi brothers, they were born and raised in France, never having stepped foot in their parents’ native country of Algeria. But “Frenchness” is still widely understood to be the exclusive domain of the country’s Catholic population.
As Joseph Massad notes in The Electronic Intifada, French colonialists killed millions of people in Vietnam, Algeria and Madagascar, practicing inhuman forms of savagery and torture in the process. In this context, the Kouachi brothers and their accomplice should be compared.
“Despite the horrific magnitude of the three men’s deeds, their crimes remain numerically modest and pale in comparison to with the far more cruel French Catholic and ‘laic’ monstrosities that have reached genocidal proportions across the globe,” Massad writes. “Had the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly lived, however, they would have still needed many more lessons in cruelty and violent intolerance before they could become fully assimilated into true Catholic and laic Frenchness.”
After the Charlie Hebdo shooting, more than a million people marched in Paris with 40 heads of state “in the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the September 11 attacks,” according to the New York Times.
The marchers, “people of all races, ages and political stripes swarmed central Paris beneath a bright blue sky, calling for peace and an end to violent extremism.” This in the same city where six months earlier French authorities banned marches demanding an end to Israel’s massacres in Gaza, where nearly 2,200 people were killed by drone strikes, tank and naval shelling, artillery fire, and F16 bombings.
In an farcical piece of irony, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ordered and presided over the military assault, was standing in the first row of world leaders demonstrating their “unity in outrage” during the staged march.
The framing of the Charlie Hebdo narrative as an assault by Islam against Western civilization misrepresents the violence as uniquely Islamic and uniquely evil. Any comparison of the media coverage of mass murderers must recognize that race and ethnicity drive the way those crimes are understood and portrayed. To American and European whites, Islam has always been perceived as a force that needs to be subdued and controlled, usually through violence. It is no surprise that crimes by “Islamists” are depicted by Western media through this lens, in ways that equivalent or more serious crimes by whites are not.