Je Suis Charlie (Manson)


Charles Manson’s mugshot (public domain)

Charlie was a pretty good musician. He played guitar, composed songs.

Dennis Wilson, the drummer and co-founder of the Beach Boys, befriended Charlie and tried to help him make it in the music industry. He arranged for the young man to make a studio album, which eventually came out in 1974. But before that, the Beach Boys recorded a tune Charlie had written for them. The song, “Never Learn Not to Love,” debuted in 1968 as the B-side of “Blue Birds Over the Mountain.”

But the relationship between the two musicians soured, quickly. Dennis Wilson had changed the title of the song — from the rather downbeat “Cease to Exist” — and altered the lyrics as well. Worse, Charlie’s name didn’t appear on the single. That meant that Charlie wasn’t entitled to any of the royalties.

If Charlie had been a different person, he would have sued the Beach Boys. Instead, Charlie threatened to kill Dennis Wilson. He even showed up at his house to follow through on his threat. Wilson beat him up instead.

Charlie never got over that treatment. It didn’t help that he had a criminal record and was heavy into the drug scene. Charlie drifted deeper into psychosis. His entourage, a group of hippies he called his “family,” encouraged him in his delusions. They ultimately helped him take revenge on the “system” by carrying out a brutal set of murders in August 1969 that left Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate and several others dead.

Charlie was, of course, Charles Manson. As Allen Frances explains in Psychology Today, Manson fits the classic pattern of a mass murderer:

The mass murderer is an injustice collector who spends a great deal of time feeling resentful about real or imagined rejections and ruminating on past humiliations. He has a paranoid worldview with chronic feelings of social persecution, envy, and grudge holding. He is tormented by beliefs that privileged others are enjoying life’s all-you-can-eat buffet, while he must peer through the window, an outside loner always looking in.

Charles Manson — musician, injustice collector, mass murderer — was the face of evil for many Americans of a certain age. Though he looked like a long-haired hippie and spoke vaguely of environmental concerns, Manson directed operations as if he were involved in a military campaign. It was war, Manson said in an interview with Barbara Walters some years later, and he was sending his soldiers into battle. One of his disciples, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, went so far as to attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford.

This potent cocktail of military posturing, feelings of resentment and persecution, cult-like behavior, and sociopathic tendencies has been served up time and again in recent history, from Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine killers to Anders Breivik and Dylan Roof.

In Paris on Friday the 13th, mass murderers again went on a rampage. They too believed that they were soldiers in a war. As members of an economically marginal community — Muslims in France and Belgium — they experienced both real and imagined persecution. And in following the orders of the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who shares with Manson a criminal background, an apocalyptic vision, and multiple delusions of grandeur — the Paris killers have also given an entirely new meaning to the phrase Je Suis Charlie.

Anatomy of a Mass Murder

Many mass murderers want to create a spectacle. “Do something witchy,” Manson told his followers. “Leave a sign to show the world you were there.” The Manson family used the blood of their victims to scrawl slogans on the walls of the crime scene, including the infamous Beatles quote, “helter skelter.”

The Islamic State similarly specializes in the theater of cruelty. It stages elaborate set pieces of decapitation, crucifixion, and immolation. It blows up a Russian passenger plane. It sends two suicide bombers into a poor neighborhood in Beirut to kill Muslims of a rival sect.

The perpetrators of the recent Paris atrocities also demonstrated their affinity for Grand Guignol, using the city as their stage. They planned their spectacle in advance, enacted it in public, and put themselves and their victims on display. They prepared to be killed — or to die in suicide bombings — because martyrdom is part of their preferred story line. They are out for revenge, not against specific individuals but against some larger entity: community, country, society.

But not all mass murderers follow this script. Some try to conceal their acts in an effort to preserve some façade of normalcy.

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is just such a mass murderer. He’s a white-collar professional: a would-be ophthalmologist turned politician. He has a photogenic family. He has no intention to die for his cause. And he’s responsible for more death than all the terrorists in the world combined over the last five years.

Assad also has no interest in killing anyone other than his own people. He has no plans to bomb the cities of Europe or the United States. He doesn’t direct a legion of “lone wolves” who will sow mayhem and destruction at his command.

Assad, in other words, is a conventional mass murderer, a thoroughly modern type who doesn’t bloody his own hands but rather uses the machinery of the state to execute his plans. Concealing his crimes is integral to achieving his main goal: staying in power. It’s hard to know precisely how many civilians the Assad government is responsible for killing. A 2014 report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights puts the number at over 100,000, including over 15,000 children but not including the nearly 5,000 people who have died in custody of torture. That compares to the roughly 87,000 deaths by terrorism that took place between 2010 and 2014, more than half of them in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Syrian government doesn’t publicize figures of “collateral damage,” preferring the world to believe that it’s only killed combatants, extremists, and the like. That puts Assad in the same category as the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and all the other countries conducting aerial bombardments and drone attacks that have claimed the lives of thousands of non-combatants. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, it’s part of the DNA of the modern state to conceal the atrocities that are so much part of the warp and weft of geopolitics.

That’s why the West will eventually find some kind of accommodation with Assad, even if only temporarily. And that’s why the West won’t sit down to negotiate with the Islamic State, its pretentions to statehood notwithstanding. Although history is full of examples of siding with one mass murderer against another — with Stalin against Hitler, for instance — neither the United States nor Europe will team up any time soon with Assad against the Islamic State. Indeed, even an alliance of Moscow and Washington against the Islamic State isn’t yet in the works.

But the Paris killings once again remind Europe and the United States that ousting Assad isn’t their most important objective in the region. A ceasefire in Syria that leaves Assad’s position ambiguous — one possible outcome of the current peace talks in Vienna — would amount to a tacit alliance against the Islamic State.

Courting Apocalypse

At first blush, the Islamic State would seem to be acting with all the irrationality of a mass murderer by encouraging and taking credit for brazen acts like the Paris massacres, the Beirut bombings, and the downing of the Russian passenger jet over the Sinai peninsula. By striking at French, Lebanese, and Russian citizens and bolstering the resolve of the world community to unite against it, the Islamic State would seem to be signing its own death warrant.

But there is a rationale, if not a rationality, behind the Islamic State’s “foreign policy” of killing foreigners. For instance, the Islamic State dreams of an apocalyptic battle in the Middle East not unlike the end of days that some Christian fundamentalists eagerly await. As Craig Whitlock and Ellen Nakashima explain in The Washington Post:

According to the group’s extremist ideology, the caliphate will eventually triumph in a great war against infidel forces, culminating in a final end-of-days battle in Dabiq, an obscure Syrian town near the northern city of Aleppo.

The group’s online propaganda magazine is titled “Dabiq.” Each edition features the same prophetic quote about how the conflict will unfold: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

In a similar way, al-Qaeda hoped that its 9/11 attacks would lure the United States into overreacting by launching a war (or two) and implementing Crusade-like policies in the Muslim world. The Islamic State leaders, perhaps because they are closely following the Republican presidential debates, believe that the West will fall for this trick again.

The Islamic State has an even more cunning strategy for Europe. As Harleen Gambhir points out, also in the Post,

The Islamic State’s strategy is to polarize Western society — to “destroy the grayzone,” as it says in its publications. The group hopes frequent, devastating attacks in its name will provoke overreactions by European governments against innocent Muslims, thereby alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities throughout the continent.

There are plenty of Europeans ready and waiting to overreact, including anti-immigrant political parties like the National Front in France and the UK Independence Party. Their push to bar immigrants, re-erect internal borders and strengthen external ones, and essentially criminalize the entire Muslim population in Europe plays directly into the hands of the Islamic State. The attacks demonstrate yet again that extremists in the Middle East and extremists in Europe, though they would never break bread together, sup from the same trough and depend on one another for sustenance.

As for declining the invitation to participate in an apocalypse in the Middle East, that might prove an even more difficult temptation to avoid.

The Choice Before Us

French President Francois Hollande has already responded to the Paris attacks with the predictable declaration that “France is at war” and it will “destroy ISIS.” The United States reacted in the same way after 9/11. It was the wrong approach, just as if the U.S. government had declared war on the Manson family back in 1969. War is exactly what the Islamic State wants. War legitimizes its claim to be a state and to be treated like a state.

The bombing strategy — whether pursued by Hollande or Obama or Putin — is also doomed to fail, even if it succeeds in its narrow objective of destroying the Islamic State. That entity, after all, emerged after the defeat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And who knows what will replace the Islamic State when it too passes away? “The Chinese have a saying: before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,” I wrote back in 2007. “The U.S. pursuit of vengeance, rather than justice, has been similarly self-defeating.”

President Obama has generally tried to find the middle ground. Even as he continues the aerial bombardment of the Islamic State, he’s ruled out sending in ground troops. He’s also rightly pushed back against Republican critics who want to bar Syrian refugees from the United States — or, as Ted Cruz argues, non-Christian Syrians — because of the possibility that terrorists lurk in their midst. What a great way to sow the dragon’s teeth of resentment for generations to come — by refusing entry to people desperately trying to escape from the clutches of one mass murdering entity or another.

Meanwhile, governments are focusing on ringleaders. And indeed, individuals like Charlie Manson, Dylan Roof, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should be the proper focus of law enforcement efforts. But it’s even more important to dry up their pool of followers, the ones who are not sociopaths.

In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell describes these followers as responding to different thresholds of violence. They aren’t the first people to throw bricks in a riot, and they might not even be the second or third person to do so. It’s only when a lot of bricks are flying that they pick one off the ground and aim at the nearest shop window.

In the Middle East, in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, the riot has been going on long enough that plenty of people are eyeing the bricks on the ground and getting ready to join the fray. The responses so far have been either to bomb the riot or neutralize anyone with a brick in hand or bending down to pick one up. But wouldn’t it be better to figure out how to stop the riot, and then alter the conditions that generated it in the first place?

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus

  • stan van houcke

    how about the american mass murder in vietnam, cambodia, and laos? how about the legacy of ashes the cia has left in the world, according to tim weiner of the new york times? how about the american supported regime changes in guatemala, iran, chili, congo, etc.? why don’t you investigate the crimes of the west, john? what is your motif? why has the usa more than 700 military bases in the world? to protect human rights? come on john, start thinking. obama and the middle ground? what about the terror the usa started in afghanistan, iraq, libye, ukraine, and syria? please john, grow up. being an intellectual means first and foremost being honest. if you can’t be honest to your public, be at least honest to yourself. as a journalist I have travelled to most of the countries where the west created chaos. I suggest you do the same, and see for yourself how mentally distorted all politicians are, also ours.

    • John Feffer

      I write about the horrors of U.S. policy all the time. But sometimes I write about the horrors of other countries’ policies. You can always visit my website if you’re interested in those other articles.

      • stan van houcke

        john, the fundamental mistake you make is that you refuse to realize that a president who is prepared to start, in the ultimate case, a nuclear armageddon without even consulting congres is by definition a psychopath and that the other western NATO-politicians, who go along with this MAD-doctrine, are also psychopathic. or do you consider them not to be psychopaths? of course you have heard of lord acton’s saying: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

  • Jdonnell

    This is unfair to the Syrian government–or, as it is identified here with the person of President Assad. Rather than specify him by name, wouldn’t it be more accurate to cite the names of US presidents who have hidden behind the term, “collateral damage” as a cover for mass killing? Why name only Assad, who, unlike those US presidents, has not invaded a foreign country but is defending his country against rebels using violence in an attempt to overthrow that legal government. The same charge that Assad is a “mass murderer” could just as easily–and inaccurately–be brought against Abraham Lincoln.

    • John Feffer

      As I wrote in the article: “That puts Assad in the same category as the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and all the other countries conducting aerial bombardments and drone attacks that have claimed the lives of thousands of non-combatants. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, it’s part of the DNA of the modern state to conceal the atrocities that are so much part of the warp and weft of geopolitics.” You can follow the link, if you like.

      • Jdonnell

        As someone who admires so much of what you write, I was particularly disappointed in this piece, which is unfair, even taking into account your response. Two points:
        1) You name no names of any specific leaders except Assad. By simply listing the US, you avoid the real challenge in saying or implying the truth that Bush Jr. and his henchmen are indictable as war criminals.
        2) The Syrian situation differs from the US, as I pointed out in my original comment. Syria is a sovereign nation, with a head of state, Assad, internationally recognized as such. He did not attack any other country but responded to an attempt to overthrow the legal government of Syria. The rebels (who so often have been treated as somehow not responsible for any violence or for any of the casualties, which are routinely associated with the Assad forces) brought on the violence, assisted and urged on by others, including the US. The US is violating international law by supplying arms, logistics, etc. and thus interfering in the internal affairs of Syria. The US’s mass killings differ completely from Syria’s; the US invaded places like Iraq and bombed and rocketed Libya, neither of which countries had threatened the US. (Lockerbie is not part of this scenario, having been previously settled.) The US is in a bad position in virtually all of its recent military forays, and the blowback we are now experiencing is no surprise.

        • John Feffer

          I believe that Bush and his henchman are war criminals, and I’ve written about that at length. But it’s not exactly a “real challenge” to write that for a progressive website like ours. What seems to be a challenge, though I frankly don’t understand why, is to point out the obvious: that Assad has committed war crimes against his own people. The world is, alas, a big enough place to accommodate many war criminals. Our job — that is, the job of people concerned about human rights, peace, and justice — is to identify all of them.

          • Jdonnell

            For Assad to respond to mortar, etc. attacks from residential areas is not necessarily a war crime. In Syria, he is sometimes called a “softie” because he has not been tougher. Your dismissal of him (starting with “would-be ophthalmologist”) shows your unfair attitude; Assad is an ophthalmologist, who gave up a pleasant life in London, where his wife–a Sunni–held a position in the City (and before that in New York’s financial district).
            What is called “collateral damage” is sometimes a war crime, sometimes not. Every world power could be accused of it.
            Assad and Syria have already been found not to have done much of what they have been accused of by an all-too-willing media in cooperation with anti-Syrian PR experts. Some of the same false stories told about Iraq (like the baby incubator story featured in the halls of the US Congress that was the product of a PR firm) are very close to what has been alleged re. Assad.
            The fact is that the US got involved in something it should never have allowed the neocons to talk it into. Support for the rebels is simply another part of the neocon agenda, which also worked to enlist the US in attacking Iraq and Libya. Whatever Assad’s faults, he is vastly preferable to any of the likely winners if he loses. The Russians have got the right take, though it’s difficult for Americans to swallow that, given the same demonizing of Putin that Assad has had to endure. Your demonization of him simply contributes to the false picture in the mass media. Your site should be above that.

          • stan van houcke


            John, what are trying to state exactly? that obama is a charlie manson in the white house? than I agree with you. but is this ‘the middle ground’ as you state? if not, what exactly do you mean? killing innocent citizens as obama’s drone politics does, is not different from charlie manson using other people to do his killing. or do you think otherwise?

  • Frank Munley

    Feffer makes some good points in this article, especially concerning the nature of the modern nation-state, once the promise of Enlightenment values but now deeply corrupt and dangerous. But what psychobabble to start off with Manson and comparing leaders of nation-states with him. The problem of the modern nation-state system stems largely from the absence of effective international law. World government is a long way off–maybe it will not be achieved in the foreseeable future, but lack of it and the resulting insecurity that all nation-states have to one degree or another is the real problem.

  • Gerry1211

    Mr. Feffer keeps insisting on the U.S propaganda/lies that President Assad is a murderer/killer.
    It would make nearly 90% of the Syrian population psychotic for having re-elected him.

    It gets tiresome. The 250,000 Syrian deaths of which over 85,000 are Syrian Arab Army were done by U.S. bombings or by U.S. funded/trained mercenary/terrorist in a proxy war between the U.S. and Syria whose aim is to unseat a democratically elected leader of a sovereign country….We’re engaged in war crimes. We brought terror to Syria….

    It’s becoming tiresome

    • John Feffer

      You might be surprised to learn that 1) dead people don’t vote; 2) people not in the government-controlled sections of Syria didn’t vote; 3) most refugees didn’t vote; and 4) Assad faced only token opposition. Was it more democratic than previous “elections” in Syria? Yes, marginally. Was the election disrupted by insurgents? Yes, to a degree. But to claim such an election as some kind of political legitimacy for Assad is like pointing to elections in North Korea as proof that the country lives up to its name as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

      • Gerry1211

        I have more than once warned you to refrain from posting MY comments on Google. You removed them yesterday but they are right back today. I do not want to see Disqus and Gerry1211 on Google.
        All of which means that you are violating MY rights and seek more publicity through the use of MY comments.
        I will now file complaints with EVERYONE of YOUR CLIENTS with the sole aim of having them cancel YOU…. If its the last thing I do.


        • John Feffer

          Disqus is an automated system. Google has its own algorithms. I haven’t done anything to your comments except respond to them, which was probably a waste of time. Don’t post comments if you don’t want a web presence. As for filing complaints, that’s certainly your prerogative. As for seeking publicity with your comments, please: don’t kid yourself. I would be more than happy never to see your comments again since they are, to use your favorite word, tiresome.

          • Gerry1211

            To Disqus
            My reply below was not addressed to Mr. Feffer but to you
            You posts them…Yesterday You removed all comments with the message Gerry121 wishes to remain private. Today they are all back. What you are doing is using MY username and comments as an advertising tool because you list 2268 upvotes and a following which seems to hold a significance to you, not to me. .
            Mr. Feffer stay our of this discussion…..Until you get your own facts straight and develop a moral compass please refrain from writing U.S. propaganda. Am I clear or should I write it in Swahili

          • Dr Lombard-Cremieux

            FULL SUPPORT , Gerry ! Propaganda supported by people like Mr Feffer is
            adding to war crimes !

      • Michaelinlondon1234

        No one in Syria voted in US elections…Same goes Africa, South America, Europe.
        So how is it the USA tries to act like a dictator….

  • Michaelinlondon1234

    What the psychology of mass murderers — from Charles Manson on up to
    Bashar al-Assad and ISIS — can teach us about the method behind their
    madness. You left out the US government and UK government in your list of mass murderers.
    As David Cameron and Obama regularly say Kill kill kill.

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