Human Rights

Ted Cruz & the New McCarthyism: Inside A Dangerous Response to the Atrocity in Paris

For many politicians and pundits, the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is cause to stoke the fires of terror — and worse.

Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran/

Here are a few sentences I should not have to write but apparently must, all the same: Taking the life of another human being is an absolutely terrible thing for a person to do. By definition, murder is a crime — perhaps the most heinous one there is. No one should be physically threatened, much less killed, for sharing an opinion. Everyone should have the right to say, write, draw or otherwise express whatever sentiment they’d like without fear of violent reprisal. And anyone who thinks it’s not only appropriate, but righteous, to use violence or the threat of violence in order to silence those they disagree with is as profoundly wrong as they could be.

Some more things that should go without saying: The massacre of 10 journalists (and two law enforcement officers) at the offices of the Paris-based satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that was carried out this week by Islamic extremists was an obscenity, a crime whose evil could never be adequately expressed with words. No matter how blasphemous, callous, insulting and bigoted the political cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo over the years may have been, there is nothing — absolutely, positively and undoubtedly nothing — that could ever justify or excuse such fanatical sadism. The men who organized and perpetrated this slaughter were villains of the highest order, opponents of many of humanity’s greatest intellectual breakthroughs and moral achievements.

You can probably tell already, but I resent feeling that the above two paragraphs are necessary. But because I also happen to believe that many of the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo were mean-spirited, lazy, unfunny and sometimes baldly racist; because I do not believe that it is necessary for me to promote these cartoons in order to oppose their creators’ murder; and because some of the more influential members of the media and the government are trying to make lockstep support for Charlie Hebdo’s work a new litmus test of one’s belief in human freedom and dignity, they are. Indeed, for far too many people, it is seemingly impossible to hate the cartoon but love its creator. It’s a mindset that reminds me of nothing so much as McCarthyism — and as Matt Yglesias explained the other day in a thoughtful and sensitive post, it really sucks.

When I think of the people insinuating, or outright claiming, that one cannot claim to be a true opponent of radical, eliminationist Islam unless one showers Charlie Hebdo with unqualified praise, there are a few folks — mostly former supporters of the Iraq War — that most immediately come to mind. My colleague Heather Digby Parton has quite skillfully dismantled Jonathan Chait’s latest piece of preening bravado already, but he’s hardly the only person of influence who’s responded to the attack by whipping himself into a frenzy of empty bombast and portending (or is it promoting?) a coming apocalyptic struggle. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen tweeted in response to the news that the “entire free world” must avenge the killers’ victims “ruthlessly.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali predictably agreed and wrote that “the West” must respond to the massacre by ceasing to “appease leaders of Muslim organizations in our societies.”

Even some journalists who present and think of themselves as on the liberal side of the debate over radical Islam could not help but frame the killings as just one small part of a larger, epochal struggle. “The … massacre seems to be the most direct attack on Western ideals by jihadists yet,” wrote the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were grand and nightmarish, he grants. But he argues that “satire and the right to blaspheme are directly responsible for modernity.” The New Yorker’s George Packer, meanwhile, described the attack as “only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades,” an ideology that is engaged in “a war against … everything decent in a democratic society.” (Ironically, Packer and Goldberg also both urge us not to alienate non-extremist Muslims by using the kind of clash-of-civilizations language they otherwise engage in.)

Considering this is the rhetoric coming from the folks paid to ruminate and write, you can probably imagine the stuff coming from Congress. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who, others have noticed, bears a striking resemblance to “Tail-Gunner Joe” — proclaimed in a press statement that the murders were “a reminder of the global threat we face.” On Facebook, he said that they should be considered “an attack on us all.” For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to thread the needle, claiming that the Charlie Hebdo atrocity was an element of “a larger confrontation” that was “not between civilizations, but between civilization itself and those who are opposed to a civilized world.” And to no one’s surprise, multiple Republican senators argued that what happened in Paris was proof that the NSA not only should not be reformed, but should be granted more sweeping powers instead.

As Yglesias notes in the column I praised earlier, it’s depressingly easy for someone who criticizes this kind of black-and-white, saber-rattling bluster to find themselves in the awkward position of having to assure that they’re not arguing that violent jihadism is not so bad. If one person claims that a threat is all-consuming while another person claims it to be “merely” dire, it’s almost certain that some if not many in the audience will conclude — through either willful obtuseness or simple faulty logic — that their difference of opinion is due to different values. This is the very same intellectual blindspot that McCarthy exploited decades ago in order to portray anyone to the left of Robert Taft— or anyone who was ambivalent about the country’s embrace of a permanent national security state — as either sympathetic to the Soviet Union or dedicated communists themselves. And it’s the same kind of Manichean worldview that, much more recently, helped return U.S. troops to the streets of Baghdad.

Like I said at the beginning of this piece, what a small group of masked men with AK-47s did in Paris this week was a horror, an atrocity, a tragedy and a crime. The pain the victims’ loved ones must be feeling right now is beyond my comprehension. When I try to imagine how the helpless journalists who were murdered on Wednesday must have felt — or when I come across the already iconic photo taken before one of the gunmen killedAhmed Merabet, a police officer who was himself Muslim — it’s a struggle not to retch. And when I think about how, in my country, the debate over terrorism still demands some of us, if we want a fair hearing, to prove we’re as opposed to slaughter as anyone else, I struggle further still.

Elias Isquith is a daily columnist at Salon who focuses on politics and inequality. He tweets at @eliasisquith.

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