France, November 2015, the Struggle to be Human

The plan appears to have been carried out by a group of eight people, three of whom were brothers. The attack seems to have been developed in Belgium in a community known as Molenbeek. At least one of the perpetrators appears to have entered Europe in the tide of refugees fleeing the ravages of the war in the Middle East. This man carried a Syrian passport that was stamped in the Aegean island of Leros, a part of Greece, on October 25, 2015. He was twenty-five years old. This group of eight was armed with AK assault rifles. They wore suicide vests, loaded with explosives. Seven of the attackers are dead, the eighth, at this moment, is still at large. Six of them appear to have died by detonating their own suicide vests. One of them was killed by the police when a concert hall was stormed at 12:20 am on Sunday, November 15. During a three hour reign of terror in Paris that night the conversation of the world was changed dramatically. The course of human history may also have been altered as well.

The attack began outside a football stadium where the national teams of old traditional European enemies, Germany and France, were engaged in a championship soccer match. These two nations had been on opposite sides of the last three great European wars. To compete on a soccer field, instead of a battlefield, clearly was a step in the right direction. The President of France, Francois Hollande, was in the stands to lend support to his nation’s team. An explosion shocked the crowd into silence. It was caused by one of the attackers, the one who had entered Europe in the wave of Syrian immigrants. He had detonated his suicide vest before he reached the stadium. It was not an auspicious way to begin a massive terrorist attack. By military standards it failed to kill the masses of people gathered in that place. It was, however, only the first shot of the night. The French Secret Service leaped to attention, surrounding President Hollande and quickly leading him to safety. Was this a planned attempt to assassinate the French head of state? We may never know, but in one of the other prongs of this terrorist attack that night, the perpetrators uttered these words: “This is the fault of Hollande. He did not have to intervene in Syria.” World War I started with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Were the terrorists seeking to emulate that? It is not beyond the realm of possibility. Before these attacks ceased there was no doubt that murder and massive carnage had been intended. When the attack on the crowded Bataclan concert hall began, it was with guns drawn and bullets spraying the crowd indiscriminately. It ended in a one by one series of executions before the French Special Forces stormed the hall and killed the last remaining terrorist. There is no question that the purpose was to intimidate. The innocence or guilt of the victims made no difference to these killers. Revenge alone was their motive. They wanted to wound a nation that they believed had wounded them. In order to accomplish their purpose, they were willing to die and die these attackers did.

One thing that has tended to deter violence throughout history is that all people seem to have a shared desire to live. It is not easy for one to seek to right a wrong publicly or to attack a nation with impunity without sacrificing one’s life in the process. If one is willing to die to accomplish one’s purpose then killing another or inflicting mortal pain on another tribe or nation becomes much easier to do.

This tendency of the terrorists to devalue their own lives makes everyone’s existence much more frightening, much less secure. It also gives terrorism greater power, making it an expression of what I call “the ultimate democratization of war.” By that I mean that a single individual, willing to die for the cause, can stand up to the armed might of the world’s most powerful nations with the ability to create destabilizing carnage. In the 9/11 attack, nineteen people, armed only with box cutters, could and did attack and bring down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the symbolic heart of the American economy and they managed to damage the Pentagon, the symbolic heart of America’s military might. The “Davids” of the world, armed as it were, with their symbolic slingshots, can inflict great pain on the “Goliaths” of the world, who were armed with stockpiles of nuclear weapons. This act thus means that the political task of raising the nation’s defense budget to create a powerful military establishment will never defeat the die-hard terrorist. It means that what we are engaged in today is not primarily a military conflict, it is rather a battle for the soul of the world’s people and a battle for the minds of the world’s alienated. This kind of warfare can never be won by possessing the world’s largest arsenal or the world’s biggest stockpile of “weapons of mass destruction.” It means that we can no longer count on the maxim that might makes right.

Once the shock of the terrorist attack is absorbed and the trauma begins to lift, the pundits emerge to explain how and why it happened. The question becomes how much of our freedom are we willing to sacrifice in order to maintain our security? How that question is answered will determine whether or not terrorism will succeed in driving the experiment we call “democracy” into being a new totalitarianism. The first human response to attack is to strike back; it is almost reflexive. President Hollande had French planes carrying out a massive bombing attack on Raqqa, Isis’ provisional capital in Syria, the next day. Next, the politicians weigh in, assigning blame to their political opponents and positioning themselves to turn this tragedy into a victory for their point of view. The leader of the National Front, France’s right wing political party, Marine Le Pen, immediately attacked President Hollande as weak and inept, suggesting that France must reclaim its national identity by seceding from the European Union and rebuilding its own military strength. Security is a deep need in human life and when life is threatened, security always trumps freedom politically. The American candidates for the presidency echoed this line of attack. The candidate most aligned with America’s gun lobby predictably suggested that if all those people in the concert hall had been armed, fewer lives would have been lost. Such a scenario is hard for me to imagine. People in fear for their lives, drawing their guns and firing wildly in self-defense, not even knowing who was attacking them, are not likely to be measured or discriminating in their response.

The immigration debate, already at an all-time level of inhumanity is destined in the light of this attack to sink even lower. Xenophobia feeds on fear. Rationally, we seem to know that there are no fences high enough to stop desperate people from seeking safety and hope whether they are welcomed in the land they propose to enter or not. Those who advocate that all immigrants be relocated back into their country of origin will be emboldened by this tragedy. They do not seem to know that this method has been tried before and it has never worked. President Eisenhower sought to expel those he pejoratively called “the wetbacks” in 1954. President Roosevelt forcibly relocated into concentration camps Japanese-American citizens after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Andrew Jackson forced the physical removal of a tribe of Native Americans called the Choctaws in the 1830’s to the western side of the Mississippi River. Called “the Trail of Tears” it was a public relations disaster. People were uprooted, families were separated, victims were exposed to the elements causing many to die and the cost to this nation in terms of both dollars and national reputation was exorbitant. Our national character was stained for years afterward by each of these episodes. Preserving the fragile facade of civilization that keeps base emotions in check is tested when fear is rampant.

So what do we do? Instant revenge is never the wise response, yet no politician in any country can survive if he or she does not cater to the aroused fears of the people. Does that mean that we react to violence with more violence? It takes real leadership not to do exactly that. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said that if one follows the law of “an eye for an eye” long enough and far enough, then everyone becomes a one-eyed person! Building human community across differences of tribe, race, religion, economic status and sexual identity is however, incredibly difficult. Yet, is that not the only way that one can ultimately defeat terrorism and enable the people of the world to live in peace? This approach to being attacked calls us to step beyond our basic, biologically-driven, survival needs. When this kind of transformation happens, however, we always notice because it is so powerful. Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States fought aggressively to establish the rights of the Jewish people to have their Jewish homeland in the Muslim sea called the Middle East. While in Israel on one occasion, his wife, Sally, suffered a ruptured appendix. Distraught he rushed her, swollen and gangrenous to the nearest Israeli hospital. There was no time for niceties. The surgeons, operation-ready, scrubbed and prepared greeted him briefly as his wife was wheeled into the operating room. Seeking to calm the ambassador, the surgeons assured him in the briefest of encounters: “We will do all that we can do. We are here for you.” When the procedure was successfully completed and Sally’s life was no longer in danger, a relieved ambassador spontaneously hugged the two surgeons, in gratitude. He was so emotional he asked for their names so that he could express his gratitude more properly. One said: “My name is Mohammed.” The other said: “My name is Hussein.” The ambassador was shocked by the sudden realization that both of his surgeons were Arab Muslims, living in Israel. That is the kind of experience that causes a new vision of what it means to be human to be born. It was the prophet we call Malachi who wrote: “Have we not all one Father? Has not God created us all? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our Father?” Why indeed?

John Shelby Spong

Review & Commentary