The Terrorist Attack on Charlie Hebdo and Social Integration

On January 7th brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi murdered 12 writers and cartoonists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In this post Nathan Palmer uses social integration theories to better understand this terrorist attack.

Candle Vigil for Victims of Charlie Hebdo Attack

Dressed in body armor and holding fully automatic rifles, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi forced their way through the heavy metal doors of the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. They opened fire in the lobby and moved with militaristic precision to the newsroom where an editorial meeting was under way. Survivors reported that they methodically killed nearly everyone in the room firing single shots into their victims execution style. After killing 12 they fled the building reportedly shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo!”

“What kind of person could do something this awful?” was my initial reaction. In my anger and disbelief, my first questions were about Chérif and Saïd Kouachi as individuals. However, with time my sociological mind produced a different question.

“What social conditions would a person have to be in to be willing to commit such a heinous act?” I am not asking who is responsible for the attack; the Kouachi brothers and their associates are responsible for their actions. Terrorism cannot be justified by sociology, but it can be better understood and perhaps we can discover something about ourselves and our society in the process.[1]

Why Do Most of us Follow The Rules?

To state the obvious, what the Kouachi brothers did was selfish. They wanted Charlie Hebdo to never be published again and they wanted to punish the writers and cartoonists who created it. However, the people of France wanted to live in a society with free speech; even when that speech was offensive, racist, and anti-Islamic as many thought Charlie Hebdo was. From this line of thinking, what the Kouachi brothers did was a selfish attack on the social order of France. And this brings us to one of the central questions sociologists and criminologists have been wrestling with forever: Why do people follow the rules even when it’s in their best interest to break them?

Simply put, when you don’t feel like you are a part of society, it’s easier to do things against society.

According to John Braithwaite (1989) we follow the rules because we are afraid of being shamed. In other words, our desire to be a part of a community and to be respected by that community, keeps us from doing things that are against the communities collective interests. Shame then, is the weapon that society wields to keep individuals in line.

Braithwaite argues that there are two types of shaming and that social integration is what distinguishes one from the other. Social integration is a measure of how connected and bonded a person is with their society. When we are fully integrated into a community (as you probably are with your family) you feel like you are an inseparable part of the group. If you’ve ever been “the new kid” at school, then you know what it feels like to not be well integrated into a community.

Punishments that make it hard or even impossible for offenders to become a part of society again after they have served their sentence are called disintegrative shaming. Furthermore, when ex-offenders receive labels like felon or sex offender that follow them wherever they go, then this is disintegrative because these labels prevent them from returning to society in good standing. However, when ex-offenders are allowed back into the fold of society this is called reintegrative shaming. Braithwaite believes that when a criminal receives disintegrative punishment, they are less likely to feel like part of the community and thus the threat of public shame is reduced. In the absence of a healthy fear of shame, ex-offenders are more likely to commit future crimes and join deviant[2] sub-groups.

Simply put, when you don’t feel like you are a part of society, it’s easier to do things against society.

Social Integration & the Terrorist Attack on Charlie Hebdo

Evidence suggests that the Kouachi brothers were not very integrated into French society. They grew up as orphans, bouncing from foster home to foster home. Being of Algerian decent and being Muslim, they were both an ethnic and religious minority in their community. As Dina Temple-Raston reported for NPR, “People who knew the brothers say that even though they were born in France, they felt the prejudice of the newly-arrived.” Chérif Kouachi had a long history with the police, getting arrested for things like stealing cars and smoking marijuana.

The New York Times reports that in 2002 Chérif Kouachi was sickened by the images of U.S. soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. So much so that he decided to travel to Iraq to try and join the insurgency. Reportedly Kouachi had only trained with a hand-drawn picture of an AK-47 before he tried to board a Iraqi bound flight and was arrested by French authorities. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

While incarcerated Chérif Kouachi integrated with a radical Muslim prison gang. According to Laila Fathi and NPR this is a “textbook case of radicalization.” Which from a social integration perspective makes sense on two fronts. First, when someone has been shamed and removed from society, it would make sense that they would be more open to anti-society ways of thinking. Or more simply, a disintegrated person is more likely to not conform to societal norms. Second, as NPR mentioned in their piece, joining a prison gang is often about survival. Integrating into prison culture means integrating with a protective sub-group (aka a gang). If espousing radicalized Muslim beliefs is the price of admission, then we can see how social disintegration leads to integration with deviant sub-cultures like violent radical Muslim prison gangs.

Social integration can help us understand criminality and terrorism, but it doesn’t cause them. The overwhelming majority of people who are poorly integrated with society do not commit such heinous acts. Furthermore, criminals like Bernie Madoff[3] show us that people who are strongly integrated are also prone to criminality. In the wake of a terrorist attack it is not surprising that the first questions we often ask are about the men who executed it. But by asking sociological questions we can see commonalities between all criminal acts and better understand the social conditions that make deviance more likely.

Dig Deeper:

  1. The author of this essay stated multiple times that sociology can help us better understand terrorism, but it can’t justify such acts. Explain in your own words the difference between understanding and justifying.
  2. Similarly, the author of this essay was clear to say that social integration can help us understand terrorist acts, but it doesn’t cause them. Explain in your own words why social integration cannot be said to cause terrorism/criminality.
  3. Pick another well publicized crime and do a little research on the criminal(s) who committed it. Is there evidence to suggest that they were well integrated into society or poorly integrated? How might that help us better understand the crime?
  4. Think about Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming for a moment. How could we punish law breakers in such a way that they are not pushed out of mainstream society?

References & Further Reading:

  • Braithwaite, John. 1989. Crime, Shame and Reintegration Cambridge University Press
  • Uggen, Christopher. 1993. “Reintegrating Braithwaite: Shame and Consensus in Criminological Theory Crime, Shame and Reintegration by John Braithwaite” Law & Social Inquiry 18(3):481-499

Author’s Note: Thanks to Dr. Grant Tietjen and Dr. Ami Stearns for consulting on this essay.

  1. I once heard Dr. Eric Silver at Penn State University say that you cannot judge something and critically think about it at the same time. Terrorists should be judged for their actions, but if you can, even for just a moment, try to withhold that judgment and think sociologically about them.  ↩

  2. Deviance is a general term used to describe any form of non-conformity. Everything from picking your nose to murder could be considered deviant.  ↩

  3. Madoff was a revered investor and community leader prior to being arrested for running a Ponzi scheme and stealing all of his investors money  ↩