Last week I was thinking that this week's post would be about a cup of coffee I travelled to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to drink. Yesterday I started thinking about actually writing it. I hope it won't be too long before I feel again as if a cup of coffee is a worthwhile thing to write about. But today I couldn't write about- couldn't really even think much about- anything other than the terror attack that took a dozen brave lives in Paris.
A lot of people who die before "their time" get eulogized as brave, but I'm not pumping up anyone who does not deserve- who does not embody- that adjective. Those who died in Paris today were brave. They were the protectors of free speech, and the protectors of the protectors. Every day the staff at Charlie Hebdo knew that they could be the target of another attack designed to intimidate them into thinking twice before skewering the terrorists' twisted faith. Every day they carried on editor Stéphane Charbonnier's mission to mock Islam into submission or, in his own words, until mocking it was as banal as mocking Catholicism. His darkly prescient summation of his refusal to back off was that he'd rather die standing than live on his knees.
That is quite a slogan- easy to spout off in a country like ours, but not easy to live like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists lived it. They knew what they were doing. They did not ease up on Islam for a second; the week after their office was firebombed by angry extremists, their cover featured a drawing of a traditionally-outfitted Muslim making out with a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist. "Love is stronger than hate," the headline averred.
I would say "we'll see," but it does not look like those are the two opposing forces in this case. The mood in Europe seems to be drifting further and further from some hippie "can't we all just get along" platitude to something much more panicked and, more and more it seems, grounded in reality. They are afraid of their countries being destroyed from the inside, deliberately, by those who live there and desire to dominate, not assimilate.
The word assimilate usually raises liberal hackles, as it sometimes introduces much more bare and ignorant prejudice: I dunno why those Mexicans can't just assimilate and turn off that damn mariachi music! As such, its connotation is much more negative than its neutral nature. At its most positive, cultural assimilation is a reflection of one's desire to adopt the best values of his new country. This is bigger than changing one's name from Fuad to Fred- it is embracing the things that make the place you chose more desirable than the place you left. Keep your falafel and keep your mosques, an increasingly wary Europe seems to be saying to its swelling Muslim immigrant population- but if you don't want to live by the principles we live by, why do you want to live here at all?
The kind of Muslims who prefer private prayer to slaying perceived infidels describe their faith as a "religion of peace;" a term which is now used as a mocking dysphemism by those wishing to point out how at odds those words are with the behavior of many fanatics. But the liberal party line holds strong: the Muslim faith is largely a bunch of good apples that is undeservedly and constantly spoiled by a few rotten ones. On the other side (the one which tends to make strange bedfellows of Christians and atheists), there is the belief that there can be no truly moderate Muslims; that the calls to violence are right there in the holy book, and the peaceful ones- not the savage murderers- are the ones who are straying from the core tenets of the faith. Invest yourself wholly in the liberal view and you're a reality-denying sap, but buy into the latter one and you're Rush fucking Limbaugh.
Today's event shook me. It made me wonder again: What kind of faith produces... and produces... people who would commit an act like that. And, more consequentially, what do we do about it? It doesn't matter what people like me say when we discuss it at cafés and over dinner tables, remarking on how nuanced the whole thing is and congratulating ourselves for being so openminded. But it's regular guys like me who elect the people whose opinions necessarily have to be boiled down to yeas and nays: What is protected speech, and what is an incitement of violence? Are headscarves allowed, or are they banned? Just Monday there was huge demonstration in Dresden against the "Islamization" of Germany, which was condemned by many in the political class as paranoid and xenophobic. But we're not talking about a handful of white Christian Tennesseans wrote getting all frothed up over the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro here- Europeans are feeling a much closer threat, and the fact that Wednesday's atrocity was most likely committed by native Frenchmen underscores that fact. Does it sound like I'm just validating the prejudices of Europeans who are a bit further down the same road that many fear we are going down? Maybe, but to refuse to acknowledge the rationality of Europe's fears is to be dismissive in the name of a phony "tolerance."
Is a movable mind a fertile or a feeble one? Minds change- hopefully not when the wind blows, but when something much stronger stirs them. Sometimes the narrowest minds are excused because they're camped out far left of center, on the side that is- rightly or not- thought of as the "open-minded" side. Sometimes those with immovable minds are lauded as having the "courage of their convictions." But last year I watched a creationist "debate" the origins of humanity, only later to admit that, as a believer in the bible, nothing could ever change his mind about our divine origins. I'm not suggesting that a made-up mind is a necessarily a weak one, but let's think twice before labeling pious intransigence, religious or otherwise, as "courage." Whether or not "courage" is the right word to use is beside the point, but today's attack moved the needle in my mind.
In the spring, an uncomfortable one-sided conversation was foisted upon me in the line at Goodwill by a man who I can only describe as an unshaven, paranoid right-wing nut. He apparently read my whiteness as a sign that I would be receptive to his thinly-veiled racist ramblings about President Obama's Kenyan childhood. His views were extreme and extremely misinformed; he was the kind of man people like me point to as exemplars of the worst of our country. So when something like Monday's attack happens and my needle moves- even the tiniest bit toward this man's side of the meter- how should that make me feel? Like most people (and like the man at Goodwill, I'm sure), I think of my opinions as rational and informed- so shouldn't they oppose those of the man who simply "could never vote for someone with the middle name Hoo-Sane?" I don't want to stand with this wacko- not in line at Goodwill, and certainly not on any issue of importance.
But that's just piety of a different kind- a blind devotion to an idea of myself. It's not as acutely dangerous as piety to an imagined god who encourages murder, but it's a barrier to true free thought nonetheless. Yesterday's massacre is the kind of seismic event that can make those barriers crumble. And though that can be a good thing, without those barriers we feel exposed; like any opinion we hold as true can be vaporized with a single, impossible-to-ignore yeah, but...
The suspects in this attack are home-grown Frenchmen. Yeah, but it's a mistake to call them Frenchmen, as their minds slavishly belong to an ideology which withers in opposition to that of the Charlie Hebdo animators and the French ideals of liberté and laïcité. Those are the Frenchmen who, by giving their lives in devotion to their ideals, remind the world:
This is France, motherfuckers, and these are the rules: We can mock anybody and everybody here. If you don't like it, protest. If you can't take it, leave. You can even kill us if you really want to...
But you can't change the rules.