Magazine | December 7, 2015, Issue

War and Imagination

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, it seemed as if French grief followed the Western model set in place after the death of Princess Di. Emotional prostration. Candlelight vigils. Heaps of teddy bears. A rally for Healing, with Instagrammed memorials stamped with the generally accepted hashtag. Everyone was Charlie for a week, with a tricolor Twitter avatar. Teens on Tumblr found mournful Piaf videos to embed.

This time? Well, a news report from Paris said that a musician rolled up a piano to the Bataclan theater and played John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the mopey utopian anthem that asks you to imagine no religion. It’s easy if you try, says the song. It’s easier if you’re deaf and can’t hear the men with the guns shouting “Allahu akbar.”

“Nothing to live or die for,” the lyrics go — again, that’s cold comfort when you’re dying because someone who just blew into town with his passport still smelling of Greek sea salt has lots of things to kill for. Then there’s the line that says to “imagine no possessions.” Apparently the French military imagined a future in which ISIS no longer possessed the objects stored in their Raqqa munitions dump and sent planes to make the dream come true.

You read of the French bomber mission and thought: Hey, that whole freedom-fries thing? Ketchup under the Pont Neuf, ’kay?

It also made you wonder why Raqqa had not suffered conversion into chunky rubble already. If the French got the strike coordinates from the U.S., as has been reported, what had the Obama administration previously intended to do with that information? Save it for a symbolic act of retaliatory action after “extremists” did extremely extreme things in Grand Central Station? Is there any reason Raqqa’s prime targets aren’t smoking holes?

Oh, right: The war is over. Oh, right: ISIS is contained, in the sense that horses that kicked down the barn door and fled are contained by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Rio Grande, and the Arctic Circle. Oh, right: Pinprick reprisals just guarantee another attack, and what’s needed is a coordinated, multilateral, long-term strategy with our coalition partners to address sectarian divisions in a context that takes into account historical — hey, is that a mushroom cloud on CNN? Are they running something about the end of World War II?

As with any terrorist attack, the smart people began to fret that the nativist hordes, muttering in their beer halls since their defeat in ’45, would use the event to divert people from the real problems we face, which are us. Salon, hours after the massacres, had this headline: “And so the hate speech begins: Let Paris be the end of the right’s violent language toward activists.” The piece is a catalogue of mean things someone said about anti–First Amendment collegiate dweebs. Noted. The Right says that “college professors who strong-arm journalists in public spaces should lose their jobs” and this is offered as an example of “violent language” somehow akin to jihadis’ shooting people in wheelchairs.

The Guardian reached for the small smooth stone it obsessively rubs for comfort and worried about Islamophobia. One of the numerous pieces of reflexive auto-castigation noted:

The resentment of disaffected young men and women from a disadvantaged community frequently discriminated against in education, employment and housing has been further fuelled by largely symbolic measures they feel have been taken against Islam under France’s strong secular tradition.

So a secular, generally leftist culture is also racist. How is that possible? Aren’t secularism and leftism the twin pillars that prop up the modern temple of tolerance?

Reread that paragraph: French citizens who go to fight for ISIS are “fuelled by largely symbolic measures” — oh, how they burn — that reflect “France’s strong secular tradition.” So France is obligated to change? You may think the persistence of France’s anticlerical strain is one of the most regrettable remnants of its mad bloody revolution, but that’s its culture, and it is not obligated to change it to accommodate those who want religion and state to be inextricably intertwined. Unless, that is, you believe that the dominant culture is always required to assume the mores of the immigrant culture as a show of good faith. Not allow the mores; adopt them. But if you wish out of some mulish chauvinism to maintain your culture’s tradition, you’re fueling the fire.

The French obviously wish to continue being French, which seems at odds with their participation in the national-dissolution project so dearly loved by the Eurocrats in the aeries of Brussels. No states, no cultures, no national identities. Just a great docile lowing herd to be guided toward an empty identity whose sole binding agent is a unit of currency with imaginary bridges on its banknotes. At least that’s the future they’re instructed to imagine.

What’s that other lyric? Imagine all the people, living for today. Okay, we did that. Turns out there are a lot of people living for the day when we’re dead in dirt pits or face-down on a bloody theater floor. How about we imagine the day when we’re living and they’re not?

That takes a certain kind of citizen. The French may not know it, but the most beloved fictional representative of their culture may be Captain Renault from Casablanca. He played all the angles, and while we didn’t agree with his collusion, we admired how he negotiated the shoals. He lied to Rick when he shut him down for gambling; he was a hypocrite and a sybarite; but he knew the fine pleasures of civilization and wished to continue to enjoy them.

In the end, when it counted, he plugged the Nazi. In the end you always have to plug the Nazi.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

The Islamic War

The historian Thucydides felt that democracies were characteristically volatile and yet complacent when existential dangers loomed on the horizon. But once faced with impending doom — such as the near ...


Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Holding Up a Mirror

People know 18th-century London more from Hogarth’s drawings than from the work of any novelist. Indeed, the titles of his best-known picture series — “A Rake’s Progress” and “Gin Lane” ...


Politics & Policy


FIREFLIES After sundown you see the first Out of the corner of your eye, then another In the middle distance, the gloaming, Where a grove of maples conspires, Darkly thinking night-thoughts While these inklings of light ...
Happy Warrior

Liberalism Besieged

Here’s a historical bullet that I’ll happily bite: The “miracle” of the American founding was as much about tribal affinity and aligned incentives as it was about any higher notions ...
Politics & Policy


Where Have You Gone, Yogi Berra? I take issue with the editors’ comment that “Berra’s personal career statistics — batting  average, home runs, wins above replacement value — were strong but ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ In light of the unspeakable horrors they have suffered, please take a moment today to pray for the victims and survivors of Yale. ‐ Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio ...

War and Imagination

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, it seemed as if French grief followed the Western model set in place after the death of Princess Di. Emotional prostration. Candlelight vigils. Heaps of ...

Most Popular

White House

Nikki Haley Has a Point

Nikki Haley isn’t a Deep Stater. She’s not a saboteur. She wouldn’t undermine the duly elected president, no siree! That’s the message that comes along with Haley’s new memoir With All Due Respect. In that book, she gives the politician’s review of her career so far, shares some details about her ... Read More