Spare a Thought for Those Who Are Not Charlie

Mourn the attacks in Paris, but let’s put things in perspective.

A man holds a placard that reads "Je suis Charlie, n'oublions pas les victimes de Boko Haram" (I am Charlie, let's not forget the victims of Boko Haram) as people gather outside the French embassy in Abidjan, on January 11, 2015, in tribute to the 17 victims of the three-day killing spree in Paris last week. The killings began on January 7 in Paris with an assault on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris that saw two brothers killing 12 people including some of the country's best-known cartoonists and the storming of a Jewish supermarket on the eastern fringes of the capital which killed 4 local residents. AFP PHOTO / SIA KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Je ne suis pas Charlie.

Je ne suis pas Charlie.

Maybe I’m just having a post-holiday Grinch moment, but I can’t quite get into the self-righteous spirit of the 3 million or so people waving giant pencils.

Yes, the Jan. 7 murders at Charlie Hebdo were appalling and tragic. Oui, free expression is a grand thing. No, people should not be slaughtered because of their religious or political views. But I’m still not feeling very Charlie-like.

Maybe it’s because my shoes are too tight, or my heart is two sizes too small, or I’m allergic to displays of unearned angst.

Or maybe it’s because I just don’t think Charlie Hebdo is a particularly good magazine, and it’s a little irksome to see it hailed suddenly as the flower of Western civilization (particularly by thousands of pundits who’ve never read it and likely would have loathed it if they had).

Just as the North Korean hacking of Sony doesn’t alter the fact that The Interview is a puerile piece of cinematic trash, the horrific murders at Charlie Hebdo do not transform the magazine’s juvenile and offensive cartoons into works of staggering political genius.

Or maybe I just find it depressing to be reminded that the murder of a dozen mostly Caucasian people in a major European city seems to bother us more than the mass slaughter of non-Caucasian people in other parts of the globe. Within days of the Paris killings, for instance, the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram killed as many as 2,000 people in the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga. Guess which murders continue to dominate the news?

If you want to be mourned by millions of marchers and eulogized by dozens of reverential world leaders, apparently you need to be Charlie Hebdo — and no one in Nigeria makes the cut.

Who else is not Charlie? The five people killed in an al-Shabab suicide bombing in Mogadishu on Jan. 4, the eight people killed by al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali on Jan. 5, the 23 killed by the Islamic State in Iraq on Jan. 6, the five killed by a Sunni extremist bomb blast in Pakistan on Jan. 9, the nine killed by an al-Nusra Front bombing in Lebanon on Jan. 10, and — you get the idea. And that’s just a sampling of the not-Charlies killed by Muslim extremists within days of the Paris murders.

Or maybe it’s our obsession with Muslim extremism that’s giving me the Grinchies. Believe me, those who unwisely get themselves killed by malefactors other than Muslim extremists most definitely fail to get Charlie status. For instance, a raid by an unknown group in Burundi killed over 100 people in the first few days of January, nine people were killed on Jan. 6 in violent clashes in the Mexican state of Michoacán, and seven people were killed on Jan. 7 in an apparent act of gang violence at a Venezuelan funeral. Right here in the United States, at least 19 people were killed in mass shootings between Dec. 1 and 15 of last year; FBI statistics tell us that crimes like these are on the rise.

Other people who aren’t Charlie include the many Muslims killed for their religion by overzealous Christians. There are the two Muslim clerics murdered in recent weeks in Uganda, for instance, not to mention the estimated 6,000 Muslims killed in an ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by Christian militias in the Central African Republic since 2013. And France seems poised to create some additional not-Charlies in the coming months: There have already been at least 26 attacks on French mosques and other Muslim sites since the Charlie Hebdo killings.

This is to say: It’s a nasty world out there, and if you’re fortunate enough not to live in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Syria, where 60 percent of all terrorist attacks occur, Muslim extremist terrorism probably should not be the thing that keeps you up at night. (Tragically, the overwhelming majority of victims in terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists are Muslims themselves). In Europe, law enforcement statistics indicate that less than 2 percent of all terrorist attacks in the last five years were religiously motivated. In the United States, jihadi terrorists have managed to kill only 26 people since the 9/11 attacks, while non-jihadi terrorists (mainly right-wing extremists) have murdered 39 people.

If you want to be paranoid, worry about being murdered in ordinary, non-political, non-religious homicides. In fact, instead of obsessing about Islamic terrorism, spare some paranoia to worry about your friends, family, and colleagues: Three-quarters of homicides in the United States are committed by people already known to the victim, and 14 percent are committed by the victim’s “intimate partner.” You might also want to worry a bit about yourself: Suicide leaves homicide in the dust as a leading cause of death in the United States. Then there are accidents: Accidental firearm discharges are far more likely to kill you than Islamic terrorists, to say nothing of falls, poisonings, drownings, car accidents, and the like.

I know, the fact that you could die in a thousand different ways doesn’t make Islamic terrorism any less appalling. It doesn’t make the deaths of those at Charlie Hebdo any less terrible, and it doesn’t mean we can just shrug off the risk of terrorism. There are many sensible things the United States, France, and the international community can do to reduce the threat of terrorist violence, from monitoring illicit financial networks to the improved sharing of threat data. But toting a giant pencil around Paris (or Barcelona, London, or New York) isn’t going to help much — and our near-exclusive fixation on Islamic terrorism carries costs, as well.

Some of those costs are financial: Counterterrorism programs sap federal budgets, and studies suggest many of the most expensive are of questionable effectiveness. Among the ineffective counterterrorism efforts identified by a 2009 meta-study? The use of metal detectors; the fortification of embassies; retaliatory attacks; and the existence of “intolerant political parties.” Other costs are harder to quantify. There are costs to civil liberties from enhanced surveillance, for instance, more of which is sure to follow in the wake of the Paris attacks. And there are opportunity costs as well: The time, money, and brain cells we spend on Islamic terrorism can’t be used to find ways to reduce other threats. Climate change will likely cause far more deaths than terrorism, if it doesn’t already, but you don’t see millions of Parisians marching in the streets about it.

Yes, we should mourn the deaths at Charlie Hebdo, and stand up for free expression and a world safe from terrorist violence. So go ahead, wave your pencil in the air. Be Charlie, if you must. But while you’re at it? Spare a thought for all the non-Charlies out there, too.


Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.