Less Us vs. Them! Lessons from the Charlie Hebdo-Attack

Charlie Hebdo Attack

Less Us vs. Them! Lessons from the Charlie Hebdo-Attack


We are slowly recovering from the shock triggered by the Paris attacks. In many places, political reflexes are taking hold. People are attempting to make sense of the inconceivable, to incorporate it into their own political agenda. That’s politics. Unfortunately! But what can we learn from this situation? How can we come to terms with it? Were mistakes made? Are we lacking laws? How do we move forwards?

Murdered in the name of Allah. Do we have an Islam problem?

To me this does not feel like the crucial question. The assassins in France were individuals failed by society, and who then found their faith. The more profound and problematic issue seems to be a lack of immigrant integration. And many of these immigrants, who as a result find themselves on the fringes of society unable to keep up and, perhaps, even struggling, are of the Muslim faith. And this is not only the case in France.

The backpack bomber in London in 2005, the assailants on Madrid commuter trains in 2004 and at the Boston Marathon in 2013, the Canadian Parliament attacker in 2014 and the hostage taker in a Sydney café in 2014. They were all perpetrators who had been living in those countries for years, or were in fact even born there. Then there are of course the cases that do not get splashy headlines because the attacks were deterred or simply failed. For example, the “Sauerland Bomber” in Germany or the explosive device in Bonn’s main train station that luckily did not detonate. But this should all serve as a warning. Because this kind of homegrown terrorism, terrorists turning against their own homelands, is everywhere.

All assassins share in common that society failed them.

I have no intention of defending the perpetrators, but the circumstances force me to reflect. Italian enlightened playwright Vittorio Alfieri once said: “Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it.” Though I do not agree with this point of view, these words ring out to me like a warning about the extent to which our society should take responsibility for these events. When a society does not or can not integrate a large number of people, these people do not simply disappear. They live on the periphery. They are frustrated. And the danger that they will see the criminal way as the only way to garner attention and make financial ends meet is a real one.

This is nothing new.

One story that became a legend tells of a small-time American crook convicted of burglary, who converted to Islam while incarcerated, radicalized and then became an intellectual. He then used his sharp tongue to launch a scathing verbal attack on a society he accused of ostracism. The words and works of Malcolm X are still part of the American curriculum and are taught in universities.

But Malcolm X was active in the 1960s, at a time when vastly different laws of media distribution and media economics prevailed. Nowadays, with the cozy “evening news fire” of a blaring television blazing a lot less brightly than back in the day, the bedrock that shaped a perforce societal consensus has diminished. There is no longer a point of view that is simply accepted or rejected.

Everyone can find confirmation for a personal opinion in some corner of the Internet. There is a news source for practically everything. Whereas Malcolm X, while tethered to his prison libraries, had a chance encounter with Black Muslims, every — and I really mean every — ideology is now experiencing a proper upsurge in attention thanks to the technological advances of the past 20 years.

The manifestation of violence in the fight for a greater good.

When a society exists in which it is glaringly impossible for so many young people to have a fair chance at an education, to achieve (moderate) success and to secure their own existence, those affected look elsewhere for their opportunities. The simple fact that so many young men — estimates tally from a few hundred up to five thousand — have joined up with jihadists in the Middle East speaks volumes.

Today, radicalization has different consequences than it did in the 1960s. Yet we continue to assess these events within the framework of that outdated categorization — not reacting as we should in these times of “asymmetrical conflicts.”

Whereas the past witnessed the occasional institutionalized child (like the Parisian assassins) turning to a life of crime as a thug or thief, today it is easy to make worldwide headlines with explosives and Kalashnikovs. And you can package all those personal issues “wonderfully” as a service rendered for some apparent higher purpose. Personal aggression and the manifestation of violence in the fight for a greater good: like an act of self-defense against the worldwide fight against Islam.

Whereas extreme acts of violence were once mere fantasies, they are now relatively easy to pull off. In these days of budget airlines, it’s easy to get a cheap flight to the Middle east, and apparently nearly as simple to find a mentor ready to instruct you in the art of murder. The coolly methodical and calculated techniques used by Hollywood’s special ops action heroes can be learned in theory and practice, and then actually executed.

If society is hostile to me, I will be hostile to society.

Events in Paris show the extreme consequences of a very antiquated way of thinking: if society is hostile to me, I will be hostile, brutal and totally unjust to society. What used to be hashed out in scuffles, can now quickly escalate to catastrophe.

The “I won’t put up with that!” excesses are a compelling reason to find a new approach: the process of integration needs to shift away from how it has been over the past few decades.

Upon close inspection, we encounter the outrageous every day. A Christian Aramean recently told me about how he was forced to stand outside the classroom during religion lessons as a schoolboy in his native southern Germany because he was not a baptized Catholic. The scary thing: the man sitting opposite me sharing this tale was only in his mid 30s. This unfathomable event took place at the turn of the century.

I don’t want to say that integration on the whole has failed. Europe has a long history of immigration. Slomka (news anchor), de Maizière (Minister of the Interior), di Lorenzo (editor-in-chief), Özil (soccer star) and Cartellieri (banker) are solid German names associated with quality and high-performance. There have always been a number of refugees amongst us, and our society has achieved wonderful things. Refugee children like former President of Germany Horst Köhler were integrated and able to excel in amazing careers. However, even during those times of economic upsurge — “the Wirtschaftswunder” — that was no easy task. Horst Teltschik, the long-time advisor to Chancellor Kohl, once told me how he was ridiculed for being a “foreigner” and had to defend himself with his fists because he was the child of refugee Sudeten Germans. I assume it was no different for the Polish immigrants in the Ruhr region many decades ago.

European millennials think differently

How much times are changing and how fundamentally those entrenched in their beliefs must change their way of thinking became evident to me when I was approached by a young blonde woman. She enthusiastically urged me to take action against politicians referring to “Immigrants as the Dregs of Society.” She assumed I couldn’t comprehend how hurtful that statement could be.

I was amazed that a blond, blue-eyed woman was explaining how racism feels to a black man. But this woman, in her early 20s, saw things differently than me. For her, it was obvious that we were just two Germans talking to each other. My attempt at appeasing her: “Well, that was just someone getting a bit too charged up during a political debate. The Professor (of the new Alternative for Germany party) is surely aware of the statistics” was brushed aside. That guy is lying, she insisted: “I came here from Poland when I was one, and have been here for 23 years. I just finished university, and I don’t have to listen to that nonsense!”

Migration is almost always perceived as a problem, never an opportunity

As a television personality, you often get approached. And my experience with similar encounters has shown me that something has changed. That our well-oiled, involuntary, societal reflexes are no longer appropriate or effective. Migration is almost always a problem in the public sphere, never an opportunity. All too seldom do we hear about success stories; something for which the media is not entirely inculpable.

What we now need to see is a substantial society-wide effort, perhaps similar to the one that occurred in the ’50s with World War refugees or in the ’70s with equality. The trigger for emancipation was sociologists’ realization that a large percentage of the population basically had no opportunities. Women, Catholics and the country-bred were classified as disadvantaged, and that led to a shift in society. Which surely was not easy back then.

Nowadays the equivalent ought to be: male, Muslim and inner-city. Unfortunately our political reflexes and efforts are still fixed on solving the aforementioned problem