Today in Paris, the other shoe dropped.
The satirical cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo has been under threat for years now from militant Islamists for “blasphemy.” Their offices have been bombed, and the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, has lived since 2011 with a personal bodyguard. All to no avail — as today two masked gunmen armed with assault rifles invaded their offices and unleashed blood fury. Within minutes they had killed twelve people, including Charbonnier, and two police officers, one executed gangland style as he lay writhing wounded on the street. Ten more people were wounded, at least four of them critically.
As they raced to their waiting getaway car, the assassins shouted in Arabic, Allahu Akbar, God is great.
What God? What is “great?” Is spilling blood wantonly and viciously the directive of God? And if so, is such a God great? Or is this yet another display of the egoism that is always the hallmark of a criminal, in any language and in any nation? From Cain onward, those who place “I,” “me,” and “my” above any other value are scarred by the mark of evil. Perhaps that is why such assassins need to go masked, to hide that mark from others, so they will not be recognized as the man-eating tigers that they are.
The simple image above represents Charlie Hebdo’s response: “Les canards voleront toujours plus haut que les fusils,” in English, “The press (*Fr. slang) will always fly higher than the guns.” We will certainly hope so.
I’ve long thought that the study of history reveals something more subtle than it’s usually said to prove, namely, that in the end, good will conquer. By might, or by moral suasion, or by some kind of action taken by the good. But I think that in the end, the force that brings down evil (and I do believe that in the end good will prevail) is what the ancient Greeks called hubris. A kind of overweening pride that will not recognize limits, or morals, or any kind of decency. It’s what took down even mostly decent men in Greek drama. It took down Macbeth in Shakespeare. Hubris is what today we might call over-reaching.
Evil knows no limits. So it pushes past the point of prudence or wisdom or even common sense. The armies that invaded Russia — the French under Napoleon, the Germans under Hitler — were indifferent to the lessons of history, or to their own reality. They knew no bounds, no limits. But they learned. So it is always with tyrants, eventually. What is heartbreaking is the suffering and misery and bloodshed inflicted on their victims in the violent course of their lunatic dash toward doom.
World leaders have rushed to declare unanimity with the French on this sad day. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are rejoicing. How shall I, who am quite ignorant of Islam, be able to understand who and what Mohammed and Allah actually are? Are they actually who and what these two gangs of thugs claim they are? The prophet and the God of murderers?
If they are not (and everything in me says they cannot be), I need to hear the truth from Muslims who are like me, ordinary everyday people who love their parents, love their children, worry about making a living, try to live reasonably godly lives. Because, make no mistake — among the victims of today’s cowardly attack are exactly such followers of Islam as I describe. They have been spattered with blood purportedly shed in their name. It is theirs to speak out, just as Westerners have spoken out, in solidarity with all brothers and sisters of the human race.
We say in English, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Perhaps. Sometimes. Eventually. We trust in the power of the pen. But I think we can also count on the power and might of blood, the innocent blood that “cries out to heaven from the ground.” (Do you recognize that?) The Catholic church always recognized that power, recognized that the church fed and grew upon the blood of martyrs.
In going back again and again to read the appalling accounts of today’s massacre in Paris, words kept echoing in my mind, words I transcribed into a commonplace book decades ago. They are, fittingly enough, in French: “La mort des fusillès a ètè plus efficace que des triomphes plus èclatantes.”
I understand it, but I’m not so good at translation, so all I can offer you is a kind of literal transcription: “The death of those who were shot has proved to be more powerful than the most glittering triumphs.” Words I would wish by some efficacy of thought could be transmitted into the bloodthirsty heads of all terrorists, to echo there until they were deafened with the sound. If such a thing could happen, I would be the first to shout Allahu Akbar!