Secretary of State John Kerry suggested on Tuesday that there was a “rationale” for the assault on satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, unlike the more recent attacks in Paris. “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that," Kerry said in Paris, according to a transcript of his remarks. "There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of — not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, OK, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people,” he continued.
"It was to attack everything that we do stand for," he added. "That's not an exaggeration." This would be an extraordinary and wrong-headed assessment from anyone; it's flat-out disgraceful coming from the American Secretary of State. As soon as the word "legitimacy" escapes his lips, Kerry seems to recognize his mistake and immediately casts about for a better word choice. He lands on "rationale." Let's start with an obvious point: His distinction is factually wrong. ISIS' attackers and leaders have offered several rationales for Friday's bloodbath. Witnesses said the shooters shouted "this is for Syria" as they gunned down civilians, likely a reference to the French government's participation in anti-ISIS bombing sorties over Syria and Iraq. Politico also notes that ISIS' propaganda machine claimed responsibility for the mass murder by gloating that they'd struck a blow against the "capital of prostitution and obscenity." So take your pick: Islamist radicals terrorized innocents in Paris because of French foreign policy, or Western decadence, or both. That's the whole point: These savages will always find ways to "justify" their butchery. But when your stated, religiously-mandated goal is to destroy infidels in furtherance of establishing a hyper-orthodox global caliphate, you don't necessarily need a "reason" to do anything. And if your enemies' evil religious teachings dictate that the rape of young girls, the massacre of unarmed civilians, and the crucifixion of little children are all permissible, focusing on specific grievances feels ludicrously beside the point. An incredulous Charles Cooke writes that Kerry's comments are nothing short of amoral outrage-ranking and victim-blaming:
[Kerry's] words are even worse in context. There really is no way of reading these comments other than as a craven ranking of outrages. Forget Kerry’s brief flirtation with the word “legitimacy” and assume that he said “rationale” from the start. That changes precisely nothing. The top diplomat in the United States just publicly argued that because the victims at Charlie Hebdo had spoken risqué words but the victims at the Bataclan had not, the violence against the former was more comprehensible than the violence against the latter. Has he lost his mind? Even if Kerry’s assumptions were all correct, the moral problem here would be obvious. We hear a great deal about “blaming the victim” in our domestic debates, especially as it relates to sexual assault. Does this not apply to other realms? In essence, the American Secretary of State just announced before the world that he could grasp why the woman in the short skirt was raped but that he had been left scratching his head by the attack on the woman in the pantsuit and the overcoat. “Sure,” he said, “I get why they knocked off the hate speakers, but why would they go after progressive kids at a concert? Now things are really serious.” In and of itself, this assessment is abhorrent.
In both cases, innocent people were murdered in cold blood by fanatics warring against Western values. Last week, it was retribution for some combination of perceived societal depravity and military resistance to ISIS' unfathomable illiberalism. In January, it was an lethal assault on free speech and satire. The only responsible, morally correct stance for a Western diplomat to articulate in this situation is, "killing civilians in pursuit of religious and ideological ends is totally unacceptable, full stop." Blasphemy is not punishable by death -- or by anything else, for that matter -- in free societies. Nor is the crime of attending a concert, or dining at a restaurant, or attending a soccer match in a country whose policies and mores fail to align with hardcore Islamists' dystopic vision. Effectively saying, "I sort of understand why they killed those people, but not these other people," suggests that the former group might have earned their fate in some sense, whereas targeting the latter group is qualitatively more reprehensible. This attitude cedes moral ground to the barbarians. It sends a signal that those who "slander the prophet of Islam" (although none of this has anything to do with Islam, of course) are more legitimate -- or, uh, understandable -- victims of Islamist violence. Their deaths are unfortunate, to be sure, but they could have avoided their grisly demise by not provoking the endlessly provoked. Those concertgoers, on the other hand -- well, that's different. No, it's not. All of the Parisian victims were brutally killed because they were living their lives as free people. Kerry's stream-of-consciousness blathering effectively assigns classes of victims, by relative culpability. Appalling. I'll leave you with some slack-jawed journalists trying to process what Kerry said:
Really rough. https://t.co/Qpc7TXsB62— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix) November 17, 2015
Kerry: totally understandable when people wanna kill cartoonists and Jews https://t.co/pJJacHDw50— Miriam Elder (@MiriamElder) November 17, 2015
UPDATE - More reaction: