Does Art Cause Crime? (no, it is not that simple): A Cultural Criminological Response to the Charlie Hebdo Shootings

The Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris on January 7, 2015 beg for a more nuanced understanding of what happened and why, than is currently available in the popular media. Cultural criminology considers both the background and foreground of crime, and also sometimes studies the relationship between art and crime. As such, it can be a useful lens through which to analyze the horrible events of last week. First, it is erroneous to identify ‘Islamofacism’ as the cause of the attacks. The cause is overdetermined, and the extreme fundamentalist version of Islam is only one part of a complex set of inter-related causes. It is very important to consider the particular characteristics and backgrounds of the individuals who did the killing—what were their psychiatric/psychological makeups and personal social histories? This is not something that has been addressed much in the public discussion, yet this individual level focus is crucial to understanding these killings because all violent crimes can be explained by both personal characteristics and social forces. We must thus also consider the marginalizing effects of global capital, which tends to isolate and oppress young powerless people of color. We have to also reflect on the lethal history of European colonialism, in this case especially regarding France and Algeria. We would be foolish not to also think about these killings in the context of war strategy; if Al Qaida in Yemen really did direct this, we should think about how and why. Was this a symbolic act inspired by Al Qaida or ISIS, or a long-planned strategic move ordered by those groups? These background forces are a significant part of the story, but we must also consider how such background forces interact with the foreground. The intensity of hatred or moral disengagement required to undertake these killings means that the sense of disrespect the killers experienced had to be extreme. This is not something many mainstream news analysts have been discussing, but a sense of cultural disrespect can be a mightily powerful motivator. In American prisons, a man can get killed for calling another man a name or not recognizing his status, in other words, for disrespecting him. How to respond to expressed disrespect varies hugely by cultural scene. This means that we need to think hard about culture and identity to understand this disgusting event. There are at least two ways in which the culture(s) of these killers matters: 1) the cultural power of ‘being a badass’ almost certainly drove these guys to construct identities as badass jihadists. Like the ISIS badasses doing donuts in a tank in Aleppo, or prison gangsters stabbing a guy to death with a shank over an insult, these were young men adopting the cultural identity of a ‘bad motherfucker,’ a person who, in the terminology of the pioneering sociologist of deviance Jack Katz, means it. As in: ‘When I say I will kill you for drawing disrespectful cartoons, I mean it.’ And 2) the culture of Islam—and it is a culture—places blasphemy at the top of its list of forbidden behaviors. We in the West find it hard to understand, but saying ‘Fuck god’ in a sustained, meaningful way really is the worst crime inside the culture of Islam; a more serious category of crime than homicide. This is, in fact, what the Sharia laws tells that culture. It is exceedingly important to discuss the role of religious culture here because while it would be wrong to pin down ‘Islamofacism’ as ‘the cause’ of this tragedy, it would also be wrong to exclude religious culture from blame entirely. As an atheist, I agree with Bill Maher who says: “all religions are stupid and dangerous.” But the problem with this aphoristic statement is that it leaves out that, despite being stupid and dangerous, religions are profoundly deep and powerful cultural institutions. This means that persons trapped inside the cultural spider web of a religion are not playing by the rules of science and logic, and can’t see their religion’s stupidity and danger. To amend the famous metaphor, religious culture is worse than an opiate for the masses: it is a total worldview that is impervious to scientific or logical interrogation, and it is autopoietic in that it consumes its environment without being affected by absorbing other ideas and converting them to expand its own. The intense feelings of the deeply religious can make the meanings of their culture literally matters of life and death. Like the American prisoner who literally perceives respect on the yard as a life-and-death matter, the deeply religious Muslim may believe that disrespect of The Prophet equates to the most vile and reprehensible crime. This isn’t disingenuous. In the same sense that some fundamentalist Christians think that gay marriage is the same as pedophilia, some serious Muslims think that blaspheming the Prophet is worse than murder. Some people really do think this. The complex historical reasons for these beliefs are too much to tackle in this essay, but any intelligent individual, believer or non-believer, should be able to see how centuries of repetitive social practices that organize and stabilize societies can result in deeply held convictions about what is wrong or right in the world, regardless of how stupid and dangerous these convictions might be to others. In addition, religious culture is dangerous precisely because it mixes so lethally well with psychosis and misery. My experience on capital cases tells me that many who kill are schizophrenically delusional and that frequently their delusions involve religiosity. This does not mean that I believe the Paris killers were schizophrenic; about this I have no idea. The specific danger of religion is that it offers exactly the kind of magical solution to misery that extremely unhappy, isolated, oppressed persons sometimes find transcendentally helpful. Some observers of the reactions to these killings have noted that the mainstream media does not tend to blame Catholicism or Christianity when, for example, a white anti-abortion psycho kills an abortion doctor. They are right to make this point—we in the West are trigger happy to blame Islam wholly when a Muslim kills Westerners. But that does not mean that Islam is not just as stupid and dangerous as Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion. The Paris killers were almost certainly very fucked-up young men with all kinds of background problems nothing to do with Islam that explain a lot about why they did what they did. It just so happens, though, that these particular fucked-up guys were Muslim and a version of Islam offered to them a seemingly transcendental solution to their misery: a solution that was manifest by becoming ‘the jihadi badass.’ Just because Islam—like most religions—is an old and popular cultural institution does not mean it gets a pass for creating the false impression that it is a solution to earthly misery brought on by a secular world offering no solutions for its excluded. One of the valuable outcomes in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo killings would be that religion en masse gets an interrogation. Yes, religious cultures are ancient and powerful cultural institutions. But, at some point—now that their functionality is arguably less important—we have to start heeding Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins by saying out loud: enough! A final thought about culture in this event: art caused crime. What is it about art—in this case the satirical gesture—that causes such intense emotions? Art’s power is mysterious and has something to do with efficiency, expressing an idea or emotion in a highly parsimonious and incisive way. By doing that, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are in the tradition of wonderful French aesthetic movements. Think of the The Situationists and their Détournement. Think of Dada. Sometimes art is an intervention. A disruption of what a lot of people think is ‘right.’ In this case, Charlie Hebdo will be on the right side of history, heroically lampooning a venerable, attractive, and powerful cultural institution that is nonetheless stupid and dangerous, especially in the hands of damaged people.

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