What Both Pauls Got Wrong About the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

Ron Paul's blowback didn't cause the attack and Rand Paul's war on immigration won't cure it.


Charlie Hebdo
@bibiweb / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The coldblooded killing of the Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamist assassins in Paris has become a political Rorschach onto which people are projecting their own pet political causes. Take, for instance, the Pauls.

Former congressman and erstwhile presidential candidate Ron Paul offers a completely off-base analysis of the root cause of the episode. It is blowback for Western foreign policy adventurism, the libertarian-leaning Texan claims. Meanwhile, his son—Kentucky senator and 2016 presidential aspirant Rand Paul—proposes a totally wrongheaded solution: The West needs to rethink immigration from Muslim countries.

Neither one is doing his avowed commitment to the cause of freedom any good.

Ron Paul rose to political prominence by making opposition to the West's foreign policy interventionism his signature issue. So within days of the attack, he was off flogging this hobbyhorse, declaring—after obligatory condemnations—that the Hedbo attack was "retaliation" for French interventionism.

"France has been a target for many, many years, because they've been involved in foreign affairs in Libya…and they've been involved in Algeria," he averred. "I put blame on bad policy that we don't fully understand…the people who are objecting to the foreign policy that we pursue…see us as attacking them, and killing innocent people."

This flies in the face of the declared motives of the attackers. The journalists—whom the assassins identified by name before summarily executing them—were not agents of French foreign policy. Their sin was that they violated an Islamic injunction against drawing pictures of the prophet—and in unflattering ways to boot.

Ron Paul is right that wars have unintended consequences, including the radicalization of local populations forced to live in the crosshairs. There are many good reasons to stop the West's foreign policy adventurism. But it's delusional to think that a tamer foreign policy would by itself deter Hebdo-style attacks. Iranian clerics, after all, issued their death fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989—nearly a quarter century before the West announced its (misguided) war on terrorism.

Nor should such religious violence come as any surprise given that convincing believers to use peaceful protests to stop provocateurs is something that took the West several centuries to accomplish. Indeed, until 1925, England was imprisoning rationalists and atheists under its blasphemy laws. Had Andres Serrano tried to exhibit Piss Christ—his picture showing a crucifix submerged in a jar of his urine—then, he might well have triggered a murderous rampage. Nor are violent tendencies confined to monotheistic religions. Even Hindus in a modern-day democracy like India routinely resort to violence to avenge real and imaginary religious insults. Death threats by Hindu fanatics drove Muslim painter M.F. Husain into exile in 2006 after he portrayed Hindu deities in the nude. And just this month, they burnt theaters screening PK, a movie lampooning blind faith in scripture-wielding gurus.

It might be politically incorrect to say this, but the truth is that many cultures are simply not as far along in their journey toward the Enlightenment as the West. And until they catch up, such clashes will continue.

What the West needs to do until then is stay firm and set an example for the world by giving maximal space to its own people to exercise their freedom of religion—which France doesn't do given its prohibition on wearing burqas and other religious symbols in public places—as well as the freedom to blaspheme—which France also truncates through a plethora of laws making religious insults a hate crime. If Ron Paul wants to do something to advance the cause of freedom, he should be protesting such laws—not simplistically attributing every cultural clash to Western foreign policy.

But if the elder Dr. Paul is misdiagnosing the sickness, the younger Dr. Paul is botching the cure.

Rand Paul went on the Hannity radio show after the attack and declared that Western countries have to secure their borders so that every Muslim who wishes to immigrate "shouldn't have an open door to come." As he did after the Boston bombing, Paul singled out the student visa program as particularly problematic, although neither of the Tsarnaev brothers had used it. Most disturbingly, however, he laughed at those who worried about tarring all Muslims with a terrorist brush as "totally deaf and dumb."

Ascribing collective guilt for the actions of a few villains would be troubling coming from any political figure—but it is especially so from someone trying to position himself as a champion of individual rights and civil liberties.

For starters, no immigrant—let alone from Muslim countries—has an open door to any Western country. Despite France's long history of colonizing Muslim nations such as Algeria and Morocco, only 8 percent of its population is Muslim (America's is 2 percent)—proof that Muslim immigration is already heavily restricted. Also, the attackers in Hebdo were Muslims—but not immigrants. They were actually born in France to Muslim émigrés who had no known history of radicalism. No immigration policy can detect how the unborn children of immigrants would turn out.

If Paul wants to use restrictionism to fight Islamic extremism, he'd have to use a pretty extreme kind that slams the door completely on the Muslim world. This means denying Muslims not just opportunities to study—but also travel—in the West lest they enter the country through tourist visas and then not leave, something that some of the 9/11 hijackers did, as Paul constantly reminds us. But of course, not all Muslims live in the Arab world. They also reside in Asian countries such as India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which means that travel from these nations would also have to be restricted.

This kind of bunker mentality would only deepen geopolitical hatreds, a recipe for making the West less safe and less free. Why? Because it would involve giving Western governments vast new powers to control the border in order to maintain the right mix of religions. 

Rand Paul is trying to distinguish himself from his Republican buddies by exposing the draconian nature of the twin wars on drugs and terrorism—especially the injustice and discrimination they've unleashed on minorities. He should be the last one setting the stage for a war on immigration. 

If he and his dad want to promote the cause of freedom, they'll need to pick the right fights and talk about them with more nuance than either one exhibited in the wake of the awful Paris killings.

This column originally appeared in The Week where Ms. Dalmia's archive can be viewed here.