Speaking in Paris on November 17, Secretary of State John Kerry made what are already infamous comments about the fight against terrorists and terrorism. He spoke to the staff and families of the U.S. embassy in Paris, and his remarks deserve quoting at some length—because they display a deep misunderstanding of what we are up against and how it must be fought. In State Department lingo his remarks would be called “deeply troubling.” In normal English usage, they are astonishing and unforgivable. Here are two paragraphs.
There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of—not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for. That’s not an exaggeration. It was to assault all sense of nationhood and nation-state and rule of law and decency, dignity, and just put fear into the community and say, “Here we are.” And for what? What’s the platform? What’s the grievance? That we’re not who they are? They kill people because of who they are and they kill people because of what they believe. And it’s indiscriminate. They kill Shia. They kill Yazidis. They kill Christians. They kill Druze. They kill Ismaili. They kill anybody who isn’t them and doesn’t pledge to be that. And they carry with them the greatest public display of misogyny that I’ve ever seen, not to mention a false claim regarding Islam. It has nothing to do with Islam; it has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism—I mean, you name it.
And that’s why when some people—I even had a member of my own family email me and say, “More bombs aren’t the solution,” they said. Well, in principle, no. In principle, if you can educate and change people and provide jobs and make a difference if that’s what they want, sure. But in this case, that’s not what’s happening. This is just raw terror to set up a caliphate to expand and expand and spread one notion of how you live and who you have to be. That is the antithesis of everything that brought our countries together—why Lafayette came to America to help us find liberty, and all of the evolutions of the struggles of France, the governments, to find the liberté, égalité, fraternité, and make it real in life every day. And all of that peacefulness was shattered in the span of an hour-plus on Friday night when people were going about their normal business. And they purposefully chose a concert, chose restaurants, chose places where people engage in social dialogue and exchange, and they object to that too.
Secretary Kerry was apparently speaking off the cuff, so he was not reciting some speechwriter’s words; he was voicing his own thoughts. These thoughts are in many ways incoherent, which is both a cause and an effect of an administration policy that is incoherent. A day later, after criticism of what he had said, Kerry read a statement to a Washington audience holding, “There are no grounds of history, religion, ideology, grievance, psychology, politics, economic disadvantage, or personal ambition that will ever justify the murder of children, the kidnapping and the rape of teenage girls, or the slaughter of unarmed civilians. . . . [T]his kind of atrocity can really never be rationalized; these kinds of actions can never be excused; and they have to be opposed with every fiber of our being. They have to be stopped.” This is nice, but reflects careful bureaucratic consideration of how to reverse an error—in this case, the error of speaking his mind. What Kerry said in Paris deserves more attention because it tells us what he thinks rather than what his communications staff believes he must say.