La guerre, yes sir

Those drawn to the cirque médiatique in Paris — and let me confess I’ve been checking the news sites over-often the last couple of days — may both remember and forget how often we have been here. There is a certain ghoulish fascination from which journalists have long been making a living; a craft now well-adapted to the Internet. Backward-looking by disposition, I sometimes examine old newspapers, in which the horror of modern life acquires that “camp” patina, otherwise obtainable in the flea markets from old tins and cereal boxes. It is another way both to remember and forget, what has been achieved since the Enlightenment.

We have thirty casualties, including twenty deaths, with which to construct the “war” in Paris. Compare Baga, Nigeria, where over the same forty-eight hours the local Muslim fanatics (“Boko Harum”) have slaughtered perhaps one hundred times that number. Amnesty International now use satellite photographs to estimate death tolls from Boko Harum’s ministrations in rural Christian districts; the Guardian today cites an estimate of two thousand dead at Baga, once a quiet fishing village on the western shore of Lake Chad. (The lake has been shrinking.) Most of these were women, children, and the elderly, according to reports: unable to run fast enough.

Sharia Law is now imposed right across northern Nigeria, by the democratically elected authorities, in states where Muslims enjoy a plurality. Messrs Boko Harum go somewhat beyond their rescript. They are the latest expression of a violent “Islamist” movement that may be traced (in Nigeria) back to the 1950s.

Connoisseurs of British Imperialism will recall, from much earlier, the effort to distinguish the more from the less violent and barbaric emirates within the old, Arabized, Fulani caliphates, and assist the latter in establishing a system of civil law; in suppressing Sharia; and more generally in protecting the lives and property of religious minorities. But this is not a history that can be told without running directly afoul of the censors in current, politically-corrected Western academia.

Slaughter is not quite the same as war. Call me a stickler for English usage, but I think a “war” requires engagement from (at least) two sides. The Paris authorities who use this word guerre so casually at the moment should be asked, persistently, what they mean by it.

In my view, conditions in Nigeria also fall short of what I require in a war, though they get closer. The Nigerian army is engaged, occasionally, though like the police in France their role is almost purely defensive. Boko Harum strike, and they try to slow the accumulation of casualties. Sometimes their well-armed put poorly-trained soldiers go on killing rampages of their own, and defenceless Muslims instead of Christians and Animists become the targets. But an exchange of massacres is still “slaughter,” not “war.” Even in Abuja and Lagos, we have sad examples of linguistic imprecision.