For anyone with an affection for France and the French, much less freedom of speech and freedom in general, recent events remain a horrifying reminder of the violent world in which we live.
I am not a political scientist nor a historian. I am, like millions of others, one who has traveled and lived abroad, and learned from the experience. I am horrified at those who use unspeakable events to promote an agenda or seek to persuade others of their convictions. To me, issues of respect for diverse religions and cultural traditions is a given, as are issues of fundamental human rights. We may embrace pluralism while engaging in discussion of our differences, and fully cognizant of our similarities – love for our families, a desire to live decently, a desire to belong.
But nothing is ever so simple.
Tragically, human history is a bloody one, with religious extremism too often leading the charge. Those who are impoverished, uneducated, and marginalized will always be vulnerable to influences that promise them what they may see as their only option. Hatred, in particular targeting a designated group of “others” on which to focus that hatred, is learned. But it does not grow in a vacuum.
Some of us were taught tolerance as children, not only in principle, but by example. Of course, We were also not likely to go hungry, not likely to be dodging stray bullets, not likely to be despised for no apparent reason – forced to anticipate danger, just walking out the door.
Some of us have lived a positive experience of ethnic and religious diversity, and likewise, diversity of cultural backgrounds. As I grow older, I recognize that I was fortunate to travel young, which opened my mind to the many beliefs and customs to which good people adhere. As an example, in my twenties, I worked briefly in Paris on a small team affiliated with the U.N. – an arm of the organization that, among other things, is about building peace across nations through education – education as a fundamental human right.
I was one of an editing team working on a multilingual book, that team comprised of women from three different continents, raised in three different languages, and schooled in three different religious traditions. We were Argentinian, Iranian, American. We were Catholic, Muslim, and Jew. We worked side by side, laughed side by side. We were colleagues and friends.
As the US faces its own demons over the racial divisions that exist in this country, not to mention the virulent pockets of anti-women, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic sentiment, we have good reason to feel solidarity with the French. Theirs is a complicated history of sharp contradictions, as is ours: enlightened ideals of liberty and human rights, and the reality of deadly prejudice, so seemingly difficult to eradicate.
How these cycles of ignorance, intolerance and violence end, I cannot say. I will, however, point you to an article in The New York Times, which reports on Sunday’s march through the streets of Paris, and I am excerpting a comment on the article that I believe is worthy of your time and consideration:
… the problem is far deeper than freedom of speech. As I see it the overall problem is more in the order of “The Ultimate Revenge of Society’s Outcasts.” … Now, thanks to social media, there are global gangs like ISIS and Al Qaeda where lost rejected unwanted souls find a place to belong; an identity; self-respect; and a way to release pent up rage against their enemy—all of us, society at large. So until we unite in declaring war on the underlying causes of this dreadful wave of death and destruction and unite in doing everything humanly possible to fix the toxic societal/familial/cultural/and other conditions that are creating these droves of at risk youth, driving them into the arms of these dangerous well organized gangs that are bent on world domination… I fear we will continue to be at their mercy.
While the attacks on Charlie Hebdo continue to reap most of the press, let us not forget the four individuals killed in the Jewish grocery store on Friday. Let us not forget the shooting spree that targeted Jewish school children in 2012 in Toulouse. Let us not forget that innocents are victims of hatred and violence across the world – daily – innocents of all faiths and no organized faith at all; people who want what we all want: to live our lives decently, to love our families, to worship as we see fit – or not to worship at all – and perhaps to do a little good along the way.
It is worth noting that USA Today reports that an employee of the Kosher grocery, a Muslim, may well have saved the lives of many of the customers in the store by hiding them.
Another (longer) article, via Spiegel International: Charlie Hebdo Attack Targets Democracy.
Somewhat tangential, I would like to recommend one more article in The Times, The Battle to Belong (by Roger Cohen), which deals with issues of religious identity.
I remain, as I know many of you are, appalled and profoundly saddened by these most recent events. Among my immediate concerns: how quickly we forget the latest rounds of violence, wherever they may occur; how increasingly desensitized we become, as a function of their frequency and perhaps our sense of powerlessness; how much worse the situation will grow before we truly say – and act on – “enough.”
I welcome your thoughts.
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