Murder, even political murder, is easy. Any idiot can pull a trigger. The temptation to attribute superhuman cunning to terrorists must be resisted. Often they're as politically incompetent as they are ruthless. To this point, there are strong indications that the appalling slaughter in Paris last week could end up having results opposite those the killers intended.
Middle Eastern scholar Juan Cole argues that, like 20th-century Stalinist revolutionaries, the terrorists' motives were more political than religious.
"This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon," he writes. "It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaida recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively (French Muslim) youth culture."
Meant to set ethnic and religious communities against one another in an orgy of mutual contempt, the killings have instead set off an unprecedented wave of patriotic feeling among French men and women of every description. Not merely France as a nation, but France as an idea, as the flawed but beloved inventor of the Rights of Man: liberte, fraternite, egalite.
Two weeks ago, many French citizens would have described Charlie Hebdo's satirical cartoonists as smug, misanthropic jerks -- cruel, privileged, overaged children thumbing their noses at authority in the vain hope of shocking the bourgeoisie. I defy anybody to defend the magazine's cartoon depicting Boko Haram kidnap victims as pregnant immigrants crying for welfare checks.
However, the freedom of even the smuggest misanthropes to express themselves freely is a core democratic value. "This is why the French are in shock," explains Le Monde's Sylvie Kauffmann in the New York Times. "This is not blind terrorism. It is terrorism targeted at the heart of the French identity."
Hence, millions nationwide rallying behind the slogan "Je Suis Charlie." Including my dear friends Alain and Claudie, two of an estimated 100,000 marchers in the southern city of Montpellier, population 250,000.
To give you an idea, back in 2001 when Le Monde reacted to 9/11 with a banner headline "Nous Sommes Tous Americains" (We are all Americans), Alain responded with characteristic mock pomposity.
"Le Monde," he sniffed, "is a Socialist rag. But in this instance they speak for France."
And he absolutely meant it.
The terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market in Paris represent to my friends and millions of French citizens the greatest political shock of their lives. That would be true even if their beloved 5-year-old granddaughter, Charlotte, had not been among the thousands of Parisian schoolchildren locked down near Porte de Vincennes where the gunman held hostages.
Also speaking for France have been thousands of ordinary citizens on social media. CNN broadcast many Twitter posts from France the other night. One was from a fellow with an Arabic name I failed to catch. His message, however, made an indelible impression:
"Vive la Republique
Vive la France"
Underneath was a portrait of the author wearing a French tricolor flag around his shoulders and holding a sign reading:
Among the dead, understand, was Ahmed Merabet, a Paris cop of Algerian descent who was killed in the assault on Charlie Hebdo. His brother Malik told reporters that Ahmed got murdered by "false Muslims."
"I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites," Malik Merabet continued. "One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither color nor religion."
The heroism of a young Muslim immigrant from Mali who led Jewish hostages to hide in a basement refrigerator at the Hyper Cacher market, and who then escaped to help gendarmes plan their assault, has been lionized all over France.
"On Friday, after prayers at the Grand Mosque (in Paris)," writes Moroccan-born French novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, "the faithful emerged holding banners saying, against the background of the French flag, 'Touche pas a mon pays,' or 'Hands off my country' -- echoing the slogan of the French anti-discrimination association SOS Racisme: 'Touche pas a mon pote,' or 'Hands off my buddy.'"
"Most French Muslims," he explains, "feel completely French, and want the majority of French society to accept them as such."
French Jews, of course, have felt precisely the same way for centuries, with decidedly mixed results. Olivier Cohen, a prominent Paris publisher, told the New Yorker's David Remnick that last week's massive demonstrations "potentially" represented the beginning of a new era. "It was all extremely moving," Cohen said. "I am not saying everything will change after these demonstrations, but something happened."
Exactly what did happen, and whether or not it can be sustained, given Europe's austerity-driven economic malaise and France's enduring political stalemate, remains to be seen. Widely viewed as hapless and ineffectual, President Hollande has emerged from the crisis temporarily ennobled. However, the necessary transformations go far deeper than politics, into the hidden recesses of a great nation's heart.