As of last night, the French military, in coordination with the U.S., is reportedly on the attack in Syria, performing a massive airstrike through Raqqa, command city central for the Islamic State, the octopus-like jihadist group that claimed responsibility for the murders of 129 people—most of them young concertgoers—last Friday night in Paris. These bombings of compounds belonging to the Islamic State represent what will presumably be the first in a new series of acts of retaliation for what the president of France, Francois Hollande, has called “an act of war.” This is the most simple narrative, of course: an amped-up, spotlighted, seemingly justified counterattack.
After coordinated barbarism such as this, we all want answers: How did this happen? Why did they do such a thing? How could they do such a thing?
In January after the Hyper Cacher and Charlie Hebdo attacks, Tablet columnist Paul Berman addressed the ideological underpinnings of Islamists, beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s, in his article “Why Is the Islamic Death Cult So Appealing?” He writes:
Why do people who are not clinically insane throw themselves into this kind of insanity? Why do they do so even in the world’s wealthiest and most peaceful of countries? They do so because the apocalyptic dreams and the cult of hatred and murder and the yearning for death are fundamentals of modern culture. They enlist because they are unhappy, and the eschatological rebellion against everyday morality satisfies them. The Islamist idea, in its most extreme version especially, offers every solace that a mopey young person could desire. It proposes an explanation of unhappiness. It ascribes the alienation to a conspiracy. Its stipulation of Jewish evil justifies the joys of loathing and murder. It promises a radiant future.
This article was followed by a response from psychoanalyst Nancy Korbin about “the psychological pull of sadomasochism—the thrill of violence, power, and control that comes from inflicting pain on others…the unspoken driver of the appeal of the Islamic State and similar groups,” in her article “Sadomasochism and the Jihadi Death Cult.”
Closer to the ground, it’s worth having a look at Hanin Ghaddar’s trenchant piece from March, “Obama’s Harvest of Violence,” which argued that ISIS was emerging in the vacuum created when American abandoned the most deserving (and also most heart-breakingly desperate) possible allies: Arab liberals.
And of course, there is Marc Weitzmann’s 2014 series on Jews and France—published 6 months before the Hyper Cacher/Charlie Hebdo murders and little over a year before Friday’s catastrophic events. Needless to say, we of all people wish he hadn’t been so prescient.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.