I know this is overdue. Considering how quickly the news cycle moves and how much information there is pouring into our skulls every hour, it almost qualifies as “old” news—fast receding into what will soon be considered history… Not to mention the fact that the natural need to suppress such horrors has already set in and to talk about what happened seems perverse, as if I was deliberately opening an old wound.
Never-the-less, here I am talking about it.
One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to respond to it is that I was (and am) so overwhelmed by what happened there—and, for that matter, by all the other insane violence which seems to occur almost daily in the world—that it’s been hard to articulate a coherent response. All I can do is more or less think out loud about it all (And I’m aware that any comments I make are particular to me. I have no idea if they will echo universally).
The first thoughts—really I should say feelings—I had about the attacks in Paris were disbelief, then shock, then helpless rage… and finally, an abiding sadness.
And these feelings still remain—along with an ongoing sense of fear.
I’ve never been to Paris and I don’t know anybody there, but—and this seems very natural for reasons I’ll talk about—I had some of the same reactions I had on 9/11.
How could (WHY would) these homicidal lunatics do such a thing—indiscriminately murder totally innocent people? I’ll never feel completely safe again and what can I do about it but gnash my teeth and pray that it doesn’t happen again.
Of course that “they” have been doing this for a long time now—committing mass-murder against civilians in Syria, Iraq and other Middle-Eastern and African countries. If it’s not ISIS, it’s some other group, Al Qaeda in a dozen different places, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or some other radical bunch of murdering apocalyptics in another part of the world.
So, I wonder, what’s different—what was so much more shocking about what happened in Paris than in all these other places, where total innocents are almost routinely blown to pieces in market places, during religious festivals, at weddings and funerals or near (and even inside) schools?
Well, for one thing, there’s the fact that such awful events—which because of modern technology are reported almost instantaneously and in extreme, graphic detail—are almost routine.
The first time you read about (or saw images from) a bombing in a Middle or Far Eastern market-place, where dozens of people were blown apart, you were overwhelmed; the next time, probably a little less so, and then, as the atrocities kept happening, one after another, with no apparent end in sight, you became inured to it.
Now when you open the paper and read the headline (increasingly placed further and further from the front page and taking up less and less space), “Suicide Bomber Kills Thirty, Wounds Dozens More,” you look at it for a moment, then move on to other “news”; a politician has been arrested for corruption, a famous celebrity has checked into a rehab facility, a baseball player signed a five year contract for a hundred million dollars.
In the market-place or Mosque where the bombing actually happened, the shock and the horror are just as great, the depth of the suffering just as immeasurable. But when you’re thousands of miles away, and it’s the hundredth time you’ve read about it, it becomes just one more story in a paper. You shake your head, sigh and turn the page.
I’ve never fought in a war or lived in a war zone but I wonder how much shock and horror it’s possible for a human being to allow themselves to feel? After a certain point you have to become numb or you would descend into a hell of permanent depression and even madness—which certainly happens to many people who live in such places were sudden death is a daily possibility.
I think—on the continuum of protection against too much pain—there must be something of that same natural numbness that sets in when we constantly read, see and hear reports about such horrific scenes of violence. It’s not that your sympathy and compassion have dried up—it’s just that you couldn’t go on functioning if you allowed yourself to feel the pain of these events all the time.
And then there is the question of distance. When such things happen so far away you feel less of a sense of personal danger—less concern and attachment to those that were involved. Yes, you might still have feelings of shock and anger and sadness, but it’s diminished because it’s so far away; five, eight or even ten thousand miles from you and your family and friends.
But when there’s a mass shooting in the United States, in a movie theater or a shopping mall or school or church, you feel it more simply because it’s closer to home—your home. When the Twin Towers came down, no more than a couple of miles from my apartment in Manhattan (and no more than five blocks where my son was in school that day), the shock was (and remains) very, very personal.
When I hear about such awful events in foreign countries and don’t react with the same level of fear and anger, I tell myself not to be so unfeeling—that all lives are equally valuable and their sudden loss equally shocking. But maybe it’s just human nature; what’s closer is realer.
So—distance and routine. You are figuratively and literally removed from the pain and loss and so it affects you less.
But now Paris. And, again, I wonder, why the great shock—as if we’ve never heard of anything so awful before? Because, obviously we have heard of such things, over and over again, especially in the last few years. This past April, a Somalian terrorist group, the Shabab, shot to death a hundred-and-fifty college students in Kenya. In the seven months before the Paris attacks, thousands of people all over the world have been killed and wounded in terrorist attacks.
But the attacks in Paris seemed different. Why?
I think it’s only natural that you feel more sympathy for people who are like yourself or the people you know. That’s probably true for everyone in the world. But when such things as the Paris attacks happen, and you see the extreme reactions from the USA and Western European countries, it’s impossible to ignore the question of race (and, inevitably, racism).
It’s an understatement to say that racism—and here I’m talking about classic white prejudice against “dark” skinned people—is deeply embedded in white European culture, and even more so in white American culture.
I’m sure there are white Americans who don’t experience this sense of prejudice, who may rightly feel that they are free from the stain of racism. But still, throughout our history, and for the majority of white Americans, racism is part of the country’s DNA. There is practically nothing that hasn’t been tainted by it. And it’s still in the headlines every day—one way or another.
…You read/see/hear the news about Paris and maybe you say to yourself: Sure, this kind of thing happens all the time in “primitive” places, in third world dictatorships or repressive theocracies in the Middle East and Africa.
We know, don’t we, that “those people” don’t value human life as much as “we” do; that they’re capable of anything. (We’re just setting aside, for the moment, the behavior of the Germans in the Thirties and Forties).
These things just don’t happen in enlightened democracies; not in urbane, sophisticated places like Paris, London, Berlin or New York City; not in societies where the ideals of equality and respect for human life are valued far higher than blind obedience to some big, vengeful daddy in the sky.
Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. All Men Are Created Equal.
Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them do Unto You.”
“They hate us because of our freedoms.” Really? Is that the reason they hate us (whoever “they” is)?
Maybe the centralized core of crazy fundamentalists do hate us for our freedoms, for not regarding women as possessions, for freedom of speech; for the freedom to question religious doctrine and authority. But maybe “they”—the larger populations of various countries—also hate “us” (Western European countries and the United States) because of all the harm we have inflicted on their countries in the past in the name of “civilization”, and the harm we continue to inflict in the name of “democracy”; genocides, massive theft of natural resources, support for corrupt and oppressive governments and—in the case of the United States—the drone bombings in Afghanistan and the still running sore of Guantanamo.
Most people in this country felt the shock of the Paris attacks because they happened in a white European country. Of course, any decent person, no matter what race or religion, feels the terror and the rage, but in this case, if you’re white and had European ancestors, you feel more horrified and outraged because it happened to people who are just like “us”.
And to make matters worse, who killed all these (mostly) white people? Arabs! Brown people. That’s just not right. It’s not the natural order of things; not the way things have been for the last couple of hundred years. Well it is now.
There is no excusing the fundamentalist psychotics who are killing people in so many different counties—without regard to tribe, country, culture or race. The world has to figure out what to do about them, and right now I can’t think of any solution. We’d need a United Nations army of five million troops to locate and eliminate all the terrorist groups and even then there’s never any guarantee that they will be defeated or even close to extinguished. Besides, which country would co-ordinate or even lead such a war?
…There is much more to say about Paris and its aftermath and I’ll be talking about that in another essay. But one final observation.
Democracy is a fragile thing. It’s a system of government that, in its ideal form, is based on the shared values of mutual respect for the value of human life and an assumption that everyone deserves an equal shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; not to mention the right to practice your religion without interference by the government—provided your religion stays out of the government.
These democratic ideals, of course, have never been realized and they probably never will be (look at the huge rise of income inequality in the United States and all its attendant miseries). But as bad as the injustices and inequities of democratic countries have been and will continue to be, such societies are still better places for the average human to live than a dictatorship or a repressive theocracy.
I think dictatorships have always had an easier time preventing and dealing with terrorist acts like the attacks in Paris and elsewhere. Nazi Germany didn’t worry about internal terrorism. They just killed everyone who they even suspected might cause a disturbance—same for Soviet Russia and the other iron curtain dictatorships.
I doubt if China or Saudi Arabia will ever have to worry about a large-scale terrorist attack.
But a democracy can only function if the law protects everyone equally—if there is a level playing field. It can only succeed if the basic assumption of respect for other people is part of the basic structure of the government and the behavior of its citizens in everyday life. Again, it’s never really been that way and probably never will be—but it’s the striving toward this goal that characterizes a living, breathing democracy.
Real equality is not just something inscribed on a founding document preserved in a sealed glass case—or recorded in a set of law books. Equality must inform the everyday behavior of governments toward its own people and the behavior it’s people toward each other.
There are forces in every democracy that are always lurking—and not so far in the background—that want to have a centralized, controlled state, where civil rights are swept away and the “right” people are in charge.
The USA, since 9/11, has seen a resurgence of such forces; the unholy combination of the military (and other police agencies) and large corporations has assumed epic proportions. The Federal Government has become a separate country—above and beyond the actual United States of America. It (the government) spends billions of dollars just to spy on its own citizens. Someone (and their computer) in some government agency is probably monitoring my keystrokes as I type this.
Now the same thing is happening in Europe; emergency powers, suspension of constitutional guarantees of freedom of movement, assembly, privacy and speech.
Presuming you still have a citizenry that still believes in the freedoms of a democracy and wants to preserve those freedoms? Then the question—in the face of homicidal/suicidal terrorists who have no use for those freedoms—is how do you keep a free society safe? What portions of a constitution do you dilute or abridge or excise altogether? How much freedom do you trade away to maintain security?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I suspect that every time we trade away some freedom for security, the chances are very good we will never see that same freedom again.
There will always be groups of people who are possessed by some messianic lunacy that dictates complete control over the world—and these groups are always centered around one or more individuals who crazy and charismatic. This has always been true and obviously, it’s true today. These people never need an excuse to rape, pillage and murder in the name of their holy cause or mission of racial purity.
But Even if you take that into account, Europe and the United States still have many great crimes to answer for in the world, and it’s my opinion that many of the terrorist acts committed against the “West” in the last couple of decades are the inevitable karmic consequence of the long-time depredations of the West against most of the rest of the world.
Is it too late to do anything about all this? Are we doomed to fight endless wars and sustain an increasing number of terrorist attacks within our own borders—and to react to these wars and terrorists acts by cashing in all our freedoms for the illusory “security” of a police state?
I hope not. But hoping isn’t enough. It really does take constant vigilance and making good use of our still-remaining freedoms to make sure we don’t wake up one morning in nice, safe, secure dictatorship.