January 11, 2015

How can anyone make sense of the Charlie Hebdo killings?

When I woke up in New York on Wednesday morning and heard about the horror in Paris earlier that same day, the cold-blooded murder of the staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine, I thought first of Wolinski, and then I thought of my friends Nisha and Saley. 

Wolinski, of course, was one of those murdered in that massacre of elderly cartoonists, and several others, by two brutal terrorists. Well, to call them terrorists is, of all strange things under the sun, to pay them a compliment. For they were not, like most terrorists, assailants of strangers whom they could not fully register as human - these were cold-blooded killers of people whose faces they were forced to see as they killed them, men so far gone in evil that they were willing to murder a roomful of helpless and unarmed old men.

We should, I know, not dwell on the mere tabloid details of this horror, and its dramatic conclusion, but seek to place it in context or proportion or… something. I find that hard. We under-rate, or don't talk sufficiently, of the sheer deliberate cruelty, the sadism of terrorism - in what was what I hope the worst video any of us will see, we saw these same killers cold-bloodedly murdering a fallen policeman as he pleaded for his life, and making a casual joke as they did. These men enjoy killing helpless people. If there is a worse thing to be said about anyone, I would not know what it is.
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 But unemployed people don't typically - or indeed, ever - look 80-year old men in the eye and then blow their brains away. Excluded or invisible people always suffer from their sense of not quite belonging - as the Jewish immigrants of Wolinski's generation to France did, too. They write books, they protest, sometimes they even emigrate. They do not mock dying policemen and then complete their murder. To make the secular model, or anything except fanaticism itself, responsible for the horrors we have seen would be absurd, if it were not so obscene.

Fanaticism is the enemy, not faith. It always is. But only a fool would deny that faith has been the seedbed of fanaticism in mankind's long and sorry struggle for the light. That's why, when the non-religious commit acts of shocking cruelty and intolerance, as they often have and will again, it is normal for us to say that they have made a religion of their politics, or that they are in the grip of a blinding and inhumane dogma. 

France has that "stark secularism" not to de-fang faith, but exactly to keep faith from turning towards fanaticism - and it does this by compelling the faithful to look each other in the face and recognise that they must live together or die. Secularism is not a way of disarming religion. The basic social contract of the Enlightenment is that tolerance is there above all to guarantee the free exercise of faith. No one can try to forcibly convert a Muslim (or a Jewish, or a Catholic) child in France, or to prevent their worship. This comes at the low cost of accepting the right of all faiths to persist, including the faith of those who think that we should never have faith in anything. 

This is a very new thing in the history of the West. Five hundred years ago it would have been unimaginable for French Catholics to accept this co-existence with Islam. A mere hundred years ago, as we know, Jews were hounded and imprisoned, and worse was yet to come. Ours is the great era of tolerance, and we have no reason to apologize for it.

Sometimes tragedy provokes individual eloquence. Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of Drancy, a Paris suburb, rushed to the scene of the killings and said: "I feel an immense sadness but above all anger. We can argue over liberty, but when we're in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never. These victims are martyrs, and I shall pray for them with all my heart." Courage, CS Lewis, that great Christian philosopher said, is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point. France is at a testing point this weekend - of truthfulness, decency, and solidarity - and also of what they call the ability to "desolidarise" - to put the people we know before the abstract categories we imagine. Come to think of it, making people, with all their flaws, fully visible while leaving ideal types alone, is exactly what the caricaturist has always done for us. It's their special form of bravery. 
How can anyone make sense of the Charlie Hebdo killings?

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