I watched the Guardian live streaming of a discussion-debate about Charlie Hebdo last night. There's an interesting moment when a woman who said that one of her parents is Algerian tried to describe the relationship between Algerians and France. She said how people remembered how the police killed Algerians demonstrating in Paris in 1961 and how it took over 40 years to get any justice about this. Nick Cohen replied to this by saying that this was something that people didn't know about and couldn't have been a factor in what happened at Charlie Hebdo. (apologies if I've misremembered something here, but that's how I understood this interchange).
Several thoughts here - assuming that I've got it right about what was said: Cohen either doesn't know, or pretends he doesn't know how collective consciousness stays with people. This is acknowledged and encouraged in official versions of culture, where anything from royalty to Hovis is recycled for our consumption in the official media. Meanwhile, people have unofficial, subversive, resistant cultural consciousness which may indeed go back decades. In the specific case of the Paris massacre of the Algerians, it's very much an episode that sits in my mind - a) because I was in Paris very soon after and remember police on the streets following passers by with machine guns in their hands b) I met Vidal Nacquet who was part of the 'Socialisme ou Barbarie' group and heard him talk about this event c) there is an appalling link between what happened on that day and how Vichy France collaborated with the deportation of Jews from France to Auschwitz - the chief of police on that day was Maurice Papon who was later convicted - much later, of collaborating with the deportation of more than a thousand Jews during WW2. He represents in France one of the most famous of collaborators who was able to achieve high office in post-war France.
I don't know how Algerians and people of Algerian origin remember all this. The woman in the audience suggested that it was something that her family remember and know about.
Meanwhile, no one thought that it was appropriate to ask Nick Cohen about the fact that he had made strenuous efforts in the past to support the UK govt's actions in Iraq - and has, as far as I know, never expressed any regrets about this. In fact, part of how Nick Cohen's views on Charlie Hebdo are concerned, is that he seems to want to keep the debate to a very narrow field: Islamists kill cartoonists - which would be OK if human beings were as one-dimensional as this. It seems as if, when awful murders take place, we are very good at shrinking and reducing people's motives down to short descriptions: psychopath, evil, crazy, Islamist etc. That might be OK for quick shorthand things we say to ourselves but surely it won't do by way of explanations.
However, I can see that there is a major obstacle to coming up with explanations. People immediately interpret them as 'justifications' or indeed that they are ways of 'condoning' what happened. (It's happened to me on fb in relation to what I've written). Just to be clear, I don't justify or condone what happened. I could have been on the 30 bus that was bombed in London, or on the tube. I could easily be in an office or building somewhere that a cell of armed men could decide is the enemy. To that extent, I am the same as the people killed. I am not going to justify or condone this. However, I think we need to look at how we are part of history, and indeed how these murders are part of a bigger, longer story.
I believe that we have all been dragged into a war. Not a WW2 type war but a war with many fronts, many sides, many methods which ruthlessly draws in civilians and kills them. The awful event in Paris has been repeated many times over by people acting in my name or acting in the name of the French people. I find it incredible to hear politicians who have sent troops and bombs into countries thousands of miles away, which kill thousands of people, asking us to weep for these deaths. Why the selectivity? Why is it important to them that we care for these deaths rather than the ones that they arrange for? Why are they so keen that we uncouple the deaths they have caused from the ones that happen here?