Reading Fields of Blood while watching Charlie Hebdo

Capture from New York Times video

I know the sorrow I feel for those murdered in Paris – the creative artists, their colleagues and those killed trying to protect them – is shared by a massive international host who revere the norms of civil society and are shocked by the barbarity of the assailants. The attacks were nothing if not an explicit challenge to Western standards  of morality. But when I examine my own innermost feelings about the attack I find myself challenged in a very personal way. It is a feeling I recall having after each of the major terrorist shocks since September 11 – and so in a way one can conclude that the terrorists have won a small psychic victory – but though I am angry I am far from terrorized. I find myself thinking very little about the terrorists and their complaints and a lot about the type of society I want to live in and what that requires.

My awareness of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo came as I was slowly making my way through Karen Armstrong’s new book, Fields of Blood, in late evening snippets before falling asleep in my ridiculously safe and comfortable bed. From her book and also having had the opportunity to hear her speak about it, it is clear that the assertion Ms. Armstrong is most anxious to make is that the various world religions don’t deserve the blame they receive for inciting violence, and in fact should be viewed as important moderating influences on the broader social impulse to violence and warfare. From her distinguished career as a liberal-minded scholar of the history of religion and her long list of erudite popular books on religious topics, she is uniquely positioned to make the point.

Armstrong’s point of view, so easy to admire when threats seem remote, is difficult to hold on to when jostled by events like the Paris massacre. The killers there, in a grotesque kind of performance art, sought to make exactly the opposite point. They want you to believe that religion, and uniquely their own touted brand of religion, is extremely violent and must be obeyed if one wants to be safe.

The New York Times quoted an unnamed Parisian resident reflecting upon how the French adore their irreverent satire. “Of course you do,” I wanted to say, “So do I! But what are you willing to pay for it?” In even posing the question my hope is that the French, and Europe, and the West in general are willing to pay an awful lot to defend intellectual freedom and I am confident that as a simple matter of expenditure the money will be spent. My doubts lie elsewhere and they bring me back to Karen Armstrong’s book. For an additional observation she makes in Fields of Blood – more unpleasant to contemplate than the purported nonviolence of religion – is that since the dawn of agricultural societies the “state” has had an inescapable need to deploy violence within and without if it is to survive and thrive. The very visibility of the state’s resorting to coercion and violence, because it is so inherently repellent, is presented as a tricky challenge for states across the vast expanse of history, and Armstrong is ready with historical examples of states that failed the test and thus fell into oblivion. I suspect she is correct on this point and I think this is the challenge of our times against violent extremism.

I’m not confident that “we” (France, Europe or the West in general) are positioned to succeed in effectively channeling organized state violence against extremists of the type that struck Charlie Hebdo. Certainly there are Western vulnerabilities others have cataloged and I worry about also. Europe seems to be in a long-term mode of slow economic growth, an aging population and bureaucratic paralysis about how to socialize its immigrant population, and even in their hour of trauma are being pilloried simultaneously for being Islamaphobes and wimps. The U.S. can’t be accused of impassiveness in the face of extremism, though it has a less-than-exemplary record of effectiveness marred by misguided adventures and dark unprincipled behavior. One also suspects that it has discovered the fiscal boundaries of its ability to respond grandly whenever it is attacked.

These flaws seem to me symptoms of a larger problem: the West’s lack of total commitment to the idea of secularism and to forming the institutions and legal paradigms needed to aggressively defend an open society. Extremists will always be present and will have some raucous demand for what they want: what do we want other than for there to be no extremists? We seem to be stuck in the notion that benign neglect or laissez faire will lead to a free market of diverse competing ideologies, when it is in fact an invitation for the ruthless to bully the principled. If we really want an open market in ideas, we need to strenuously enforce the rules for openness, to use the coercive power of the state to enforce rigid standards of intolerance against… intolerance.

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