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From Blacksburg to Algiers

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 22, 2007

PARIS -- By the standards of Iraq's suicide bombers, the extremists who targeted their blasts on the prime minister's office and a police station in Algiers on April 11 were serious underachievers. They massacred "only" 33 Algerians, a bloody total that was nearly matched by a single gunman at Virginia Tech five days later.

The assassins in the Algerian capital left their mark nonetheless. The fireballs they touched off still reverberate politically through North Africa and France as widely and deeply as the shock waves of the other, much more publicized events.

Every society has its own characteristic forms of violence. But the separate tragedies of Baghdad, Blacksburg and Algiers flow together through the coincidence of timing here in T.S. Eliot's cruelest month and in the magnitude of death tolls produced by the great power and wide availability of modern weapons.

Oh, and one more thing -- the ubiquity of instant, visually graphic communications. The taped images of Seung Hui Cho lecturing American society from the grave -- in a parcel posted to NBC-- bear spooky resemblance to those "you-made-me-do-it" video wall posters posthumously released by fedayeen "martyrs" who die in Israel, Iraq and elsewhere but speak on indefinitely through gore-peddling Arab satellite networks.

For Cho, glory-seeking jihadists or the Algerian car bombers whose work has been shown prominently on French television, the image is message and meaning -- even if it is hard for the rational mind to comprehend that meaning in something other than gut reactions of fear and revulsion, which of course is the bombers' intent.

In Iraq, it becomes harder and harder to separate one day's death toll from another or to distinguish the competing terrorist news releases and videos that embellish the country's incomprehensible butchery. Were the more than 160 people killed Wednesday by car bombs an all-time Baghdad record, or just the highest one-day toll since the American "surge" began? And why do Sunnis and Shiites kill each other with increasing abandon? "Because they can" is a great part of the answer by now.

Americans have been quick to reassure themselves that the Virginia Tech massacre was the work of a single madman, enabled by one state's lack of any serious controls on deadly firearms. That is not wrong: The lone gunman has long played a dominant role in shaping America's tolerant culture of violence. Europeans -- so familiar with their own history of organized ideological and religious carnage that can kill millions -- find this blood-splattered individuality so hard to understand in American-style mass murder .

But neither is it the whole story. Cho's bid to modernize serial murder as one more YouTube moment for his generation suggests that television no longer merely records massacres. It may now help fuel a blood lust that demands visual recognition of the basest motives humans possess. Killers are joining in with those who say that if you haven't been on television, you don't exist.

Scrupulously filmed beheadings and suicide bombings that indiscriminately murder and maim children and adults, believers and nonbelievers, are rapidly becoming the Arab world's signature form of mayhem and political expression combined. Ethnographers have a challenging task in explaining why we kill in our separate ways and what we then do about it.

The blasts in Algiers have been credibly claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a newcomer to the bizarre amalgam of Islamic Salafists, Iraqi Saddamists, Syrian and Iranian stooges, and others who bomb away for that all-important reason: because they can. And because it drives up the blood lust essential to much of their recruiting among Arab masses.

Algeria's rulers are historic revolutionaries and pan-Arabists who live off the presumed glories of the 1960s, when their bombs helped drive the French out of North Africa. Now these faded guerrillas are targets of new bombers, as is the modernizing monarchy of Morocco, the repressive police regime in Tunisia and anyone else who wanders by, especially in camera range.

These three countries have millions of emigres living in France. If jihadist fanaticism gains a secure foothold in North Africa, it will be able to threaten French interests far more directly. The concern here is not about al-Qaeda recruiting Algerians and Moroccans to practice jihad in Iraq but to attack France itself by taking advantage of family networks and the familiarity of the peoples of the Maghreb with the West.

"Powder keg" is an overworked journalistic cliche. But cliches spread because they have kernels of truth in them, and North Africa fits the description today.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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