They fire bullets and they spill blood but, above all, terrorists are about symbols.
That is why in the battle to defeat terrorist ideologies, symbols are weapons, often as important as the non-metaphorical weapons required against those who kill to make a political statement, recruit followers and advance a dangerous, extremist agenda.
That is true in all situations involving terrorism, but it is even more so in the current contest between modernity and Jihadi militants, whose latest battlefront recently reached inside the French capital.
Imagine that. Paris. The City of Lights, the birthplace of the enlightenment, of free expression, of individual freedoms, the city that taught the world that individuals have a right to break their chains and refuse to be subjugated. In some ways it really is the perfect place for a turning point in the war between modernity and those who would wind back the clock to the 7th century.
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Everyone instinctively understood the symbolic significance of the march in Paris in global solidarity against the attacks. More than 40 presidents and prime ministers joined.
That’s why it’s so mind-boggling that the government of the United States, the country that embodies those freedoms the French and American people pioneered centuries ago, somehow missed the importance of the event.
I don’t think it was indispensable for President Obama to be there personally. And I certainly don’t think it’s anything near a catastrophe that he didn’t go. But a high-ranking American official belonged in the front row as a symbol of America’s stand.
Symbols are fused so thoroughly into the core of this conflict that the terrorists first went after cartoonists, whose work represents much more than the pictures they draw on the page. Whose lives and profession are the embodiment of individual freedom. Then they went after the Jews. Of course, they did. Because as much as Islamists hate anyone, they save their most corrosive hatred for the Jews, symbols, too, of what they despise.
The attack was about more than 17 people. It was not about 11 people in Charlie Hebdo magazine office, four Jews in a market and two police officers. After all, the loss of 17 lives is a life-ending tragedy for the victims, bringing unending sorrow to their loved ones. But in the larger scheme it is a small number. Many more die every day.
But the terrorists knew they mattered beyond their numbers, and the rest of the world grasped it immediately.
The response was overwhelming, overpowering, empowering. The millions of people that joined in a solidarity march in Paris and other cities in France knew it. The millions more who stood in line before sunrise to buy the latest issue of still-alive Charlie Hebdo, understood exactly what they were doing. They were denying a victory to the killers; they were fighting back against the jihadi agenda.
How troubling that the administration failed to send the vice president or the secretary of state, or to even have Attorney General Eric Holder, who was already in Paris, walk in solidarity, not just with the French, but with all the people who were sending a message rejecting violence, rejecting totalitarianism. (Yes, there were quite a few figures from authoritarian states in the crowd. Hypocrisy, much like Charlie Hebdo, lives on.)
The United States has stood at the forefront of the fight against terrorism for many years now, and the French know that Washington, and the American people, stand with it during this hour of grief. It was, we recall, the French, the daily Le Monde, who declared on Sept. 12, 2001 “We are all Americans.” They gave us the words to say We are all Charlie. Je suis Charlie, and Je suis Juif.
It was good to hear the Obama administration admit it made a mistake in misjudging the significance of the march. But let’s hope it understands that it was not just about a big march.
Because in the end, the war against the self-described Islamic State, and al Qaida, is a war of ideas, it’s a war of explosions and attacks, but more than anything it is an ideological war. They understand the importance of symbols. So should their foes.