The shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris has, unsurprisingly, reignited the cycle of Islam-bashing and Islam-bashing-bashing that tends to emerge whenever something like this happens. I would like to remind readers that this event, like every crisis, can fit neatly into the narrative on which power-seekers depend to keep their public support: that we need them to protect us from a general threat, which role is currently being played primarily by radical Islam. Comments on the topic generally cover a not-so-wide range of perspectives: blame Islam. Blame radical Islam in particular. Blame religion in general. Blame the magazine for its iconoclastic tone. I would argue that all of these positions, and many of their alternatives, are scapegoating.

One thing that we ought to discuss right away is the claim that the attackers were affiliated with a large terrorist organization. The Guardian reports that

Investigators were on Wednesday night examining statements from two witnesses claiming the men who launched the attack had said they were from “core” Al-Qaida [sic], founded by the late 1980s and operating from Pakistan, or one of its more recently created affiliates… [A witness] claimed that one of the attackers told him to “tell the media that we are from al-Qaida in Yemen” [AQAP].

Despite its provocative title, the article goes on to explain that such an organized affiliation “seems improbable”. Yet regardless of the probability of the affiliation, it is standard procedure for Western governments to link terrorist activity with groups they have declared to be threats to national security, primarily Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the past; most recently, of course, ISIS. Yet there is a long history of such association proving false, including cases in which potential terrorist threats attributed to Al-Qaeda were actually created, from the ground up, by FBI agents provocateur.

Now, whether the Charlie Hebdo massacre was in fact perpetrated by members of an organized terrorist group is beside my point, which is the eagerness with which governments, and the mainstream narrative they promote, ask us to assume they were. It is necessary for the government to attach specific incidents of violence, or potential violence, to a nebulous, shadowy “other” that the people do not understand, and will fear. It is necessary for us, therefore, to repudiate the idea of that collective “other”.

Government is by nature collectivist. By abstracting from individuals and their choices and actions, it sidesteps the very valid moral criticisms that would be made against what it does, if it were viewed at an individual level. An individual person cannot use force to fund his social, economic, or moral goals, but “The Government” can. An individual cannot destroy a perceived yet unproven threat, but “The Government” does so, calling it preemptive war. Individuals are expected to make accusations public and provide an argument before retaliating against alleged criminals, but for “The Government”, the mere accusation of wrongdoing is enough to justify violent action in the minds of the public.

This kind of fuzzy thinking prevents people from understanding the historical causes for problems like modern terrorism. For instance, if I were to say, “America is to blame for terrorism!” I would understandably be met with skepticism and hostility. This is because people in the habit of thinking in collective terms equate themselves with “America”, or “France”, or more broadly, “The West”. I am a good person, they think, and I am Western. Therefore, The West is good. I am not to blame, therefore, The West is not to blame. Thus, the picture of the world painted in the popular mind is that of The West versus Terrorism, or versus Radical Islam. And that picture exists when viewed from the other side. It is tempting to attribute France’s commitment to free speech, including speech that may be offensive to religious persons, to the Charlie Hebdo attack, but it is the collectivist identification of The West as “the Great Satan” by Islamic extremists that has drawn their violent intent to Western people.

In fact, Western governments do share in the blame for terrorism. Most terrorism is inspired by opposition to brutal governments in the Middle East, which regimes tend to have been created by, and to be currently supported by, Western powers. But this allegation cannot be sustained against a position held by someone who identifies himself with “Western Powers”, or who sees “Terrorism” or “Radical Islam” as an impersonal yet monstrous entity not subject to historical examination. Nor can it be offered as a defense of Western individuals before those who are committed to including said individuals in the collective demon that is “The West”, whose actions are actually those of powerful individuals who dominate Western nations, with or without the approval of Western people.

It would be naïve to believe that rejecting collectivism in the way we think about the East vs. West struggle will bring that struggle to a quick and neat end. But it is a necessary first step. So let us be committed to cutting that kind of language out of our discussions of events such as the recent tragedy. Are there systemic or cultural issues at work within Islamic communities that drive such violence? Certainly. And are there systemic or cultural issues that permit Western thought to excuse the constant meddling of Western governments in the Middle East? Absolutely. But we must remember that such issues are the accumulation of individual decisions and actions.

We cannot blame Islam. We cannot blame Al-Qaeda. We cannot blame France, the United States, or the West either. We cannot even blame “terrorism” or “government”. We must be more sophisticated, more precise, and ultimately, more realistic than that. Individual people chose to accept the collectivist narrative that excused the violence that was committed. That goes for the Charlie Hebdo attack, for every terrorist attack preceding it, and for the actions of Western politicians that gave birth to modern terrorism. We must be dedicated to the rejection and refutation of that narrative.