Perpetrators & Victims, Humans All

The terrorist attacks in Paris understandably generated much media attention, and from so many different angles. We learned about the Muslim community in France, about the quasi-feud between Isis and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, about the foundational commitment of France to secularism and the limits they place on free speech, and about the state of counter-intelligence, to name just a few. One phrase, however, is found in many of these different reports, on the radio, the television and in print, that I find deeply disturbing. Repeatedly, we hear or read that “17 people were killed in Paris.” In fact, 20 people were killed.

I ask myself: Why do we leave out the terrorists when calculating the number of people killed? And, then, I ask myself another question: Why does this bother me so much? It is not an ideological statement of the kind that FOX News indulges in these cases. I would not even say it is careless journalism. I think there must be some thoroughly humane desire not to lump the victims of the crime with the perpetrators that accounts for what is, in fact, a miscalculation of the number of people who died.

There is no denying that there is a large difference in the manner in which the 20 people met their end. The murderers may have been previously victimized by their circumstances, they may have felt that their worldly opportunities in the Paris suburbs were too few, or that the Western war efforts in Syria and Iraq deserved a response, or that they deeply resented insults to their prophet, none of which justifies murdering other people, not the cartoonists who mocked their faith, nor the policemen who protected the cartoonists and who were representatives of the state, still less the innocent shoppers at the kosher grocery store. The three terrorists may have been victims in some sense and at other times of their lives, but last week they were perpetrators, and that distinction can never be lost.

A similar distinction was almost lost yesterday because of media zaniness. Pope Francis tried to make a point about not provoking other people and, speaking of an aide, he said if the aide insulted the pope’s mother, he would punch him. People asked if the pope was justifying the violence against Charlie Hebdo. It did not matter that the pope had just explicitly condemned that violence. Nor did it matter that a punch in the nose is not a Kalashnikov. But, the media zaniness showed, I think, the existential uneasiness we all feel in the face of such unspeakable acts of horror. We either want to find a way to explain it, even if the explanation sometimes seems like a justification, or we want to somehow place the horrific acts outside the bounds of what humans are capable. To call an act inhumane is to point out that it dehumanizes, not that it was done by a non-human.

The terrorists did something inhumane but they were also human beings, even while they stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish market. Could it be that our reluctance to list them among the dead stems from a desire to see their evil as something so different from the kinds of evil we indulge, we wish to erase them from the ledger of humanity. We really want to erase the evil they embodied, we want to label it as different in kind, not merely degree, from our own hatreds. But, is it? Of course, all sin dehumanizes, all stems in some sense from a rejection of God, all varieties of evil are in some sense alike even as they are different. I am not suggesting certainly that cussing and murder are similar sins. I am suggesting that this desire to somehow place the perpetrators of the violence in Paris outside the category “human” may reflect a deep anxiety about what we ourselves are capable of.

This was the key insight in Daniel Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” It is too easy to say, “The Nazis did that,” secure in the knowledge that we are not ourselves Nazis. The reason Goldhagen’s book made such a stir in Germany was that while the postwar German governments had done a very good job eradicating Nazism and any sympathy for Nazism, the people of Germany had not really come to terms with the fact that “the Nazis” in question were grandma and grandpa. We, too, entertain the not-very-believable hope that if we had lived in Germany in the 1930s, we would not have been taken in by the Nazi propaganda, we would not have become bystanders or perpetrators. Alas, for every Franz Jagerstatter, there were hundreds of German and Austrian and Polish Catholics who were bystanders and perpetrators. Why do we think we would have found the courage to resist the evil that was all around us?

Nazi Germany posed a different kind of threat from that posed by Isis and Al-Qaeda. Germany was in the heart of Europe, and it possessed enormous industrial might and a large population. In Germany, extremism became first acceptable, then pedestrian and finally government policy. Isis and Al-Qaeda, mercifully, still represent a sliver of the Muslim population. But, there is something especially horrifying about shared bloodlust, about evil becoming rooted not in this person or that but in a people. As I wrote last week, we in the West cannot eradicate this cancer, but we can help the cancer spread if we lump all Muslims together under the heading “extremist” just as the West penalized all Germans for the crimes of the Kaiser, spreading the resentment instead of helping the German people in the interwar period found a peaceful and just society. We can help the Muslim world resist the cancer, surely, by taking steps to ameliorate the alienation Muslim migrants feel and by encouraging more just, democratic, humane societies in the Muslim world. It will not be easy nor short. You cannot fly in Jeffersonian democracy the way you can fly in the 101st Airborne.

The last two weeks leave us all feeling Augustinian. The landscape of the world seems terribly darkened. The City of Light is a city in mourning. The lovely country of Belgium is soon to be known not for its chocolates or its medieval architecture but for its large percentage of citizens who have fought for Isis in Syria. Who amongst us here in the states can guarantee that we would not think twice about getting on a plane with a person in some distinctive identifiable version of Muslim attire? Of course, we place ourselves in the Lord’s hands, but only the very holy should move quickly to that sense of trust. Most of us, I suspect, need to sit with our Augustinian thoughts and consider the darkness we humans are capable of. And, we can start by noting that while 17 people were victims of terrorism last week in Paris, 20 people were killed, and we can mourn the dehumanization that killed them all.    

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