One small perspective on the Paris attacks, with no pictures

We grieve for the families and friends of those murdered in Paris, we feel relief hearing from friends and family who are safe. Too, we are thrown into confusion, and again wonder about our shifting world, suddenly more uncertain, dangerous, threatening, incomprehensible—which, if I’m completely honest, is part of the grief I feel.

And there’s the lure of fear, of hatred, of vengeance, of trying to find meaning in meaningless violence. And while there is no way to prevent any of these thoughts and feelings from washing over us (in fact they should be washing over us and anger is a completely appropriate emotion), there is a way of refusing the bait, the bondage.

I (we) can start by seeing my own inconsistency, that is, my lack of concern for countless other victims in places like Beirut, Tunisia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Gaza, and so on, where acts of terror with collateral murder have gone, and continue to go, mostly unnoticed. Empathy for those in the Paris attacks, yes! Better still to grow empathy for victims across our globe.

I (we) can also look away. I can refuse to be taken in by the sacred fascination (I owe much here to the writings of James Alison) that attends an orchestrated act like this. Consider the chosen location: Paris, a city symbolic of western culture, wealth, success, a city with access to the full power of the media, has quickly become a kind of “sacred centre.” (Not unlike New York and the site that was christened “Ground Zero.”)

And as all sacred centres do—even amidst (or capitalizing on) the genuine displays of grief and compassion—they begin to generate feelings of unanimity. Gone, our uneasy consciences, our half-conscious lives, replaced, for the moment, by a shared innocence, goodness, and the righteous outrage of being wronged.

In the heat of this new transcendent collective things come clear and the old complexities devolve and harden into a militant “us” and “them.” In this climate/spirit, to reflect on the “why” of the attack is weakness; to question our rightness, to question the closing of borders to Syrian refugees, to question renewed civilian surveillance, militarization and the intensifying of counter strikes, is to risk identification as one of “them.”

I say all of this with utmost care, for my sole intent is to offer, as best I can, a kind of gospel perspective. In effect I’d like to frame the attack like this: Some fellow humans, whose minds and souls have somehow, and at some time, been turned to believe that all those outside of their experience, their creed, their cabal, are corrupt, inhuman and so expendable, have committed a grievous act of suicide and murder, that is creative of nothing, has no meaning except what we give it.

Therefore to support immediate reprisal without reflection, is to give it meaning and unwittingly believe the ancient “satanic” lie. I’m not referencing some ethereal entity here, just a basic anthropological observation of how scapegoating violence begets pseudo-community, pseudo-solidarity, and forever requires more violence, more scapegoats, for its maintenance.

But now, even as I write this I feel as though I’m sinking. How naïve it all sounds. Violence “works,” doesn’t it? And yet, and yet, nothing changes, more is needed to defeat more…and how do we keep from becoming mirror images of what we call inhuman? So as naïve as it appears, I throw in with the one who refused the seduction and exposed the lie of redemptive violence by allowing himself to be its public victim. I reference Jesus—not the Jesus hijacked by fundamentalists, or the escapist Jesus held by certain evangelical enclaves, but the Jesus, who as far as I can tell, was not managed or manipulated by fear, or ruled by death, or controlled by religion, or would be impressed by the accoutrements of corporate Christianity—but the Jesus pointed to by the likes of Baca Khan, Ghandi, Tolstoy, King…who by following and modeling threw some mercy and love into the mix, and by that move kept open the possibility of a different reality.


  1. So well said, Steve. It stalls us in the ruts of our collective knee jerk reactions.
    May our Prime Minister have the courage, and support, to bring ‘real change’
    to the world stage. This moment offers opportunity.

  2. You’re brave, and refreshing, and echoed many of my thoughts with this. What happened is beyond awful, but also, it seems to me at least, mostly beyond military might. How does one bomb ideas and rage and passionately held beliefs that have no clear geographical home? And how do we hold on to what is good in human beings when we become what we hate in them? Thanks for writing.

  3. Thoughtful and provocative, Steve – and yet…. how does a Prime Minister, courageous or otherwise, respond to the clamour of fearful citizens asking for protection? What are the practical alternatives to retribution?

  4. Thank you Sam. I suppose the metal of leadership is to not to react to clamour or fear but respond with patience and humanitarian prudence and reason. As to your second question, concerning retribution, here’s a quote from a Truthdig article:

    “Is there another way? After the Mumbai Attacks of 2008 (164 killed), the government of India did not rush to war. It opened a slow investigation into the attack and unraveled the plot and its execution. Diplomatic discussions opened with Pakistan, which is accused by India of harboring the planners of the attack. The file remains open. Patience is the order of the day. No hasty missile strike could make up for the attack in Mumbai. It would only have escalated the conflict further and drawn India and Pakistan into an intolerable war. It is far better to pursue the case prudently.”

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