Is there a lesson to be learned from the shootings and bombings in Paris that terrorized the West last week? Yes. At any time, in any place in the world, there is some nut that wants to kill you. Not you personally, perhaps, but you in the abstract. The bloody events in Paris merely suggest that there’s a statistical probability that you could be eating fish amok at a Cambodian restaurant, taking in a football game or grooving to Eagles of Death Metal in a club when some nut chooses to go to Paradise and take you along for the ride.
The only thing worse than this horror is the horrible way our underinformed press report on it, and the only thing worse than paper-thin reportage is the judgment of politicians after the fact. If I’m reading their comments correctly, some of the GOP contenders for the highest office in the land seem to think the secret to winning a war against Islamic Statists is semantics. “When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM?” the erstwhile front-runner, Mr. Donald J. Trump, hollered on Twitter Sunday. “He can’t say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved.”
Republican Senator Marco Rubio somehow concluded that the Paris attacks meant the United States was “at war with radical Islam,” but during a Democratic presidential debate Saturday night, former Senator Hillary Clinton disagreed, citing an unusual source: “That was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11, when he basically said, after going to a mosque in Washington, we are not at war with Islam or Muslims.”
Twitter’s 140-character limit is ideally suited for the intellectual scope of some Republicans, who responded with tiny bursts of outrage. “You are not qualified to serve if you cannot define our enemy!” thundered Rick Santorum, while Mike Huckabee taunted, “You’re all grown up now. You can do it. Three words. Ten syllables. Say it with me: ‘Radical Islamic terrorism.”
Do any of these guys know the difference between a Shia and a Sunni?
There has been plenty of writing, some of it in this space, about the difficulty of waging war on ideology. Patrick Cockburn, who writes for CounterPunch, observed that we do not comprehend the new-school tactics of these old-school jihadists. “There is little sign that the G20 leaders gathered in Turkey have understood the nature of the conflict in which they are engaged,” he wrote this week. “ISIS’s military strategy is a unique combination of urban terrorism, guerrilla tactics and conventional warfare. In the past, many states have used terrorism against opponents, but, in the case of ISIS, suicide squads focusing on soft civilian targets at home and abroad are an integral part of its war-making strategy.” Indeed, at a time when conventional arms were putting significant pressure on ISIS-held territory, the small squad of death-wishers in the City of Light succeeded in deflecting international attention from the real war being conducted.
There have been many silly statements made about the attacks, but the blue ribbon goes to Bono, who declared in an interview with a radio host back home in Ireland, “This is the first direct hit on music that we’ve had in this so-called war on terror or whatever it’s called.” Oh, Bono, you dear old spud. When the gunmen opened fire at La Bataclan, it wasn’t because they had an issue with wit-rock guitar players. It was because the guitar players had drawn a sizeable crowd into a big room that provided easy targets for the gunmen’s homicidal purposes. The bomber at the Stade de France didn’t have a beef with soccer. He just wanted to kill a lot of infidels that watch the game.
Luckily, that bomber was as inept with armaments as Bono with geopolitical analysis. A cynic might wonder if Bono’s pronouncement had anything to do with U2’s having to cancel a big concert in Paris that was to be the basis of an HBO special, but it seems his concerns were more parochial. “This could be me at a show,” he told the Irish DJ.
Yes, I might be taking Bono’s words out of context for my own amusement, but if I have no patience for Bono, it’s because I have been reading the story of a rock musician who is considerably more grounded. Warren Zanes’ Petty: The Biography is one of the best-written books of its kind.
Tom Petty has always been considered a B-team kind of rocker; solid, not flashy, dependable for a particular kind of FM radio groove. Zanes takes a reader deeper into that assessment to reveal the humanity behind the persona, and, in so doing, uncovers an odd nobility in belonging to a rock and roll band.
The book is special because Zanes is not just another music journalist. He belonged to an underrated rock ensemble called the Del Fuegos that actually opened for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers back in the 1980s, so he offers a unique perspective for telling Petty’s story, which he says “has a whiff of Horatio Alger and at least a little Elvis to it.”
Zanes also has major writing chops, for after he left his band, he went to school and wound up with a Ph.D. in cultural studies. The academic pedigree belies a natural way with words, with which he frames the saga of this American bandleader. Petty, to his credit, censored nothing from the final manuscript, which is worth your time if you want to know where rock music really comes from.
I went to Paris once. It had a Burger King on the Champs-Elysees and a skunk eye for visitors that did not speak its language well. It also had a wellspring of humanity informed by more than two thousand years of living. Paris will outlive Bono; it will outlive pathetic attempts to make its people fearful. Vive la France.