When Words Fail

There is nothing in principle to stop me picking up a spade and burying it in the head of my neighbour or driving my car into a passing stranger; or, for that matter, given the opportunity and the wherewithal, defacing a masterpiece or blowing up a holy site. The fact that I would not consider doing any of those things – would positively recoil from them – is either a piece of extraordinary good fortune for the world or the normal condition of humanity. In either case, unfortunately, there are those who do commit such acts and they fall basically into one of two types: those who commit them under the compulsion of some mental illness and those who countenance and commit them in the furtherance of some ideological cause. In the latter case there might be the smallest mitigation if these acts were carried out with a measure of regret for the suffering they cause or the loss to humankind; but on the contrary, we witness that they are announced in a celebratory and triumphal manner unassailed by remorse or doubt.

I have often been struck by a fundamental imbalance in the order of things, that it takes so long to build something up and so little to destroy, whether that be one’s personal finances, a marriage, a work of creation or a human life: a rash investment, a brief affair, a bonfire, or an indiscriminate shooting can see the end of all these. The strict reductionists will already have reached for the answer to that, which is that it is, of course, embodied in the principle of entropy. But that is an answer which explains everything and means nothing; it is like saying that a terrorist act like that committed yesterday evening is nothing more that the movement of fundamental particles, rather than being a violation of our common humanity and the trust upon which society is built, which is of course its aim. To speak of “atrocity”, “evil” “cowardice” “determination” and the like is understandable, when one must say something for which there are really no words; someone must speak and act on our behalf to express the collective revulsion, desire for peace and security and will that those responsible be punished. But these words are inadequate in the face of a brutal nihilism and an irrecoverable loss.

Even though we understand much about the psychology of victimhood and its manipulation by charismatic demagogues to advance their own political platforms, the geopolitical turmoil that gives rise to lingering resentments, and the pressure to conform in closed tight-knit groups, it is difficult for us to comprehend the journey that someone must have taken to arrive at a place where they deny their own future, their family’s love and hopes, their own religion’s universal values, the humanity of their victims, reason and logic, to embrace death and destruction. There are no words that will persuade them – even if they were to be heard – to turn from this path and rejoin humanity. For the mind and heart has closed in upon itself, in a tight circle of self-reinforcing justification. The mind, the person and the collective has become a black hole in the human constellation. The only recourse in defending an open society against such threats is the full force of the law.

In the film Unforgiven, the central character William Munny says, “It’s a terrible thing, killing a man. You take away everything that he has”. In the pursuit of rhetorical expressiveness, he can be forgiven the paradox that if someone is dead there is no longer anything to take away nor anyone there to possess the things ripped away. We understand the point. For each of those people killed in last night’s attacks in Paris there was a history which is a part of the shared experience of humanity, including those who carried out the attacks, those who today view them with horror and those who thoughtlessly celebrate them. It includes a birth to parents who were probably delighted at their arrival; taking their first steps and speaking their first words; years of play and study and work; maybe a struggle with teenage insecurities, identity issues, or coming to terms with a disability; appreciation of nature or books or music; first love; maybe setting out on their own journey of raising the next generation or building a life with someone; indeed, now all has been taken away, all gone. Our revenge is to live our lives for those who no longer will, with scant regard for those who have chosen to inhabit the darkest places in the human soul.

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