Lessons In Brutality

Yesterday, two men engaged a jihadist attack against a French satire magazine called Charlie Hebdo. They brutally killed 12 people there because, it’s assumed, the magazine had ridiculed Islam along with most other world religions.

Today, as expected, we’re hearing religious leaders from all faiths, including Islam, condemning the attack. That’s good and important. The magazine, a sort-of Parisian mash-up of MAD and The Onion, has made its living ridiculing religion. Charlie Hebdo is no friend to people of faith, and on any other day there would be plenty of reason for faith leaders to count its cartoonists enemies. But today is not any other day because yesterday a worse villain showed up. This is something like a sibling rivalry that turns to solidarity when someone outside the family picks a fight. There is an understanding among all peace-loving people — religious and secular alike — that our differences of opinion should be expressed with keyboard and cartoon, not pistol and rifle. Count me among the many who are happy to stand up for my mockers in the face of heinous attacks.

This is the first lesson we can learn from yesterday’s crimes: if the stakes are high enough, our differences melt away. And the logic of that lesson — though it may be hard to accept today — may extend to the perpetrators themselves. If my deepest-held disagreements with secularists can be overcome by pity and compassion today, then could my deepest-held disdain for the killers be overcome tomorrow? In the simple and profound words of the rock band U2, “There is no them. There is only us.” If that is true, then the killers are part of us too. That is not to say that peace-loving people condone their actions. Those two men are misguided people who have done something terribly wrong, but they are a part of our broken human family. If we aren’t ready to acknowledge that — if we’re clinging to the us-versus-them mentality that says those men are somehow less human than their peaceful neighbors — then we haven’t understood the nature of compassion at all.

The second lesson to learn from yesterday’s attack is just as hard to swallow: those brutal killings were an expression of religious liberty.

The attackers were motivated by religion. They made that clear. There is no debate on that point. The killers left the Charlie Hebdo offices shouting “Allah akbar” and “We have avenged Muhammed.” The religion those men practice told them to kill. They were exercising religious freedom. Again, that is not to say that Islam, in all its forms, promotes such violence, but certainly the strain of Islam these men observe does. Neither is this unique to Islam. Peace-loving Christians face the same problem in their own ranks. When an ultra-fundamentalist Christian blows up an abortion clinic, it can’t be said that he wasn’t motivated by religion, even if most forms of his religion condemn his actions.

So the lesson is that religious liberty is an unreliable value. Taken to its untempered end, religious freedom is little more than anarchy. If my religion tells me to kill infidels or take many wives or oppress those unlike me, then my religious freedom becomes someone else’s suffering.

This is where most of the world draws a common-sense line. No one, we all agree, should be allowed to practice their religion at the expense of someone else’s life. But we have to admit that such a line is, itself, a statement of belief. To assign human life a value greater than religious liberty is to espouse a moral ethic. Thus religious pluralism is a moral judgment. Tolerance is religion.

What we really want is not religious freedom at all. What we want is more freedom for those religions whose peace-loving ethics we approve. We want to suppress belief systems that are violent because we think them inferior to our own belief system, be it peaceful Islam or tolerant humanism.

It’s ironic that an event that brings this truth into such stark relief should happen in one of the world’s most staunchly secular countries. France has tried doggedly to remove religion from its public sphere, but its efforts have only made secularism a new kind of public faith with its attendant culture war against those who disbelieve.

As technological advances make the world more connected, and world religions become more fractured, we can only expect more such conflicts between opposing belief systems. The task for our little earthling family is not to suppress belief, but to acknowledge that we value some beliefs above others. To be clear that some beliefs are wrong and some actions are immoral. To abandon the senseless idea of relative truth and situational ethics and acknowledge that any societal order beyond anarchy must find its source in a truth more enduring than us.

The two lessons of the Charlie Hebdo slayings are these: 1) there is only us and 2) some of us are wrong. It’s the balance of those two truths that the killers fail to understand. And it’s only the balance of those two truths that can create a just and tolerant peace.