by / Nov. 18, 2015 12am EST

The best TV coverage I found of the slaughter in Paris Friday was Al-Jazeera America. Diane Christian and I had it on all night. Occasionally we cut to the other channels, but Al-Jazeera America was best for on-the ground, moment-by-moment coverage. Hardly anyone knew anything, but most of the US channels pontificated. Al-Jazeera America admitted it; they just put up what their cameras saw and what their correspondents knew. 

Diane and I have many friends in Paris; we’ve both worked there a lot; we know those neighborhoods. We had a lot of email traffic here that night with many of our friends in Paris, most of whom knew no more than we did, most of whom were getting their news of the slaughters online, as we were. 

The best subsequent TV commentary we have seen thus far has been John Oliver (HBO, Sunday, November 15) in which he used the words “asshole” or “assholes” 18 times in my watching. Maybe I didn’t get the count quite right but he made the point: He said something like, if you are pitching this against the culture of France, you lose. What point are you guys trying to make?

Who killed all those people and why? The current notion is ISIS did it and the places they hit were comfortable middle-class, mostly young targets. It was a fuck-you hit. The main point was disturbance. “You think you can be comfortable in your world? No, you can’t. We have guys with suicide vests to make you uncomfortable.” 

We don’t even have Western characters for their name. They call themselves ISIS or ISIL—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—but they are neither. They are not a state and they possess no territory. Their imagination of statehood goes back to the seventh-century caliphate. In the present, it exists only where they outgun the locals.

The Obama administration and the French government are currently using for them the name many Muslims use, Daesh, a word which, according to the London Times, “sounds similar to the Arabic words Daes (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) and Dahes (‘one who sows discord’).” US Secretary of State John Kerry uses that word whenever he speaks of them, pronouncing it “dash,” like someone on the run. It may be an acronym. It may mean nothing. 

They are at least 15 years old. They’re not something new on the scene. But they were nothing of power before our bogus war in Iraq destabilized that entire region and enabled them to flourish. The George W. Bush administrations made them possible. We went into Iraq to take care of “weapons of mass destruction” that did not exist, and accomplished only that perfect destabilization of the region. What was there were some situations we didn’t like; what we’ve got now are situations we cannot abide and with which we cannot deal.

What happened in Paris is horrible but is not isolated. What does make it special is it is one of the few such horrific events in the past decade or so to which we have paid attention. 

Quai de Louvre, 2002, by Bruce Jackson.
Quai de Louvre, 2002. Photo by Bruce Jackson.

Here are some most Americans haven’t noticed or haven’t gotten cranked up about or haven’t changed their Facebook page to commemorate (a lot of my FB Friends are blue, white and red today), some by organizations, some by individual true-believers:

—November, 12, 2015, the day before the Paris slaughter, Daesh-linked terrorists blew themselves up in Beirut, taking 43 civilians along with them and wounding another 239.

—A year ago, the Tehrik-i-Taliban (a coalition of Pakistani groups which is opposed to the Pakistani state, not to be confused with the Afghan Taliban, which supports it), killed 141 people, 132 of them children. 

—On July 21, 2011, a right-wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, killed eight people with a bomb in Oslo, then 69 others, mostly teen-agers, with an automatic weapon, at a summer camp. 

—On July 7, 2005, four coordinated suicide attacks at rush hour on three underground lines and a bus in Britain resulted in 56 dead and 700 wounded. 

—On March 11, 2004, in Madrid four shrapnel bombs on four commuter trains killed 191 and injured 2,000. 

—In October 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a member of a far-right party in Israel, a physician, wearing his Israeli army uniform, killed 29 people and wounded 125 while they were at prayer in the Mosque of Abraham in Hebron. 

Nobody has a lock on the bloody lunacy. But Daesh is really up there. They slaughtered more than 1,500 police trainees in Tikrit a year ago, then posted a graphic video of the shootings: some of men in a ditch, being shot in the head, one by one; some of men at water’s edge, also shot in the head, one by one. They posted another video, as well-made as an American TV commercial, of 21 prisoners in orange walked along a shoreline by 21 men in black, masked. The men in orange are Coptic Christians. The masked men in black are Daesh killers. We see heads being sliced off, and heads parked atop the backs of bodies. A man in a different costume occasionally faces the camera and speechifies. Then it goes back to the head-cutting. The last shot is the surf, red with blood. It really is a commercial, and it went viral. These guys use current media well. They perform for it. They kill for it. They die for it. 

In May, Daesh slaughtered 400 (mostly women and children) in Palmyra, Syria. There is lots more, but you have the point. 

One problem for us, for Paris, for everybody, is that ISIS or ISIL or Daesh isn’t a place, a nation. If you’re going to destroy it, as former CIA director James Woolsey and so many American politicians now running for high office say we should do, what is your ultimate target? If they are a nation without a place, how do you blow it up? How do you know when you’ve succeeded? 

Another is the jingoism it encourages. Donald Trump, who wants walls built across all our borders and who has said immigrants from the south are rapists and drug dealers, is no doubt ecstatic. It also goes local: Erie County Legislator Joseph Lorigo (Conservative, West Seneca) chimed in over the weekend, saying Erie County should not accept Syrian refugees. He’s not the only silly person out there. 

Daesh is a consequence of a century of history—this mess maybe started when the West redrew the boundaries of the Middle East at the end of the First World war. The regional enmities are far older than that. 

Even if you can kill off all the present villains, how do you forestall the next resurgence? Is it like Alien: an infinite series of subsequent aliens because we are just dealing with eruptions or symptoms? Can the fix ever be another round of bombs, whether delivered by planes or drones or superheroines, or going back to zero and starting over? Can you start over? Is this intractable? 

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Neither do you. That’s okay: People like us don’t have to answer them. 

But nothing I’ve heard from anyone in charge or anyone wanting to be in charge answers them either, and that is what scares me. Planes in the air, boots on the ground, automatic weapons in the hand: They won’t fix this. I’ve heard no one presently running for or occupying high office say anything that addresses the depth of this mess.

Years ago, the poet John Berryman was at our place and said one of his older poems, “World-Telegram.” It was about the headlines in a now-extinct newspaper on a single day, May 13, 1939. I still think about the final lines of that poem:

News of one day, one afternoon, one time.

If it were possible to take these things

Quite seriously, I believe they might

Curry disorder in the strongest brain,

Immobilize the most resilient will,

Stop trains, break up the city’s food supply,

And perfectly demoralize the nation.

John Berryman is dead and gone but the stuff of the world he wrote about is not. And, unlike that voice in his poem, we do have to take these things quite seriously. They involve our friends in the night, writing us in real time, a continent a way, knowing no more than we what is going on, what is happening next, what anyone with the power to do something real is bothering to do. Bombs aren’t it.


A photo posted by @jean_jullien on


Bruce Jackson is chevalier in France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Ordre National du Mérite. He teaches at UB.