The American Interest
January 14, 2015
Is it right that Paris gets a mass rally while Boko Haram’s slaughter of thousands in Nigeria merits hardly a shrug? No. But it’s the response Paris and Nigeria both deserve. This is what civilization looks like.
I strolled into the greatest terrorist bloodbath in Paris since the Nazis ran the city. I quickly strung together a few sentences about it. I’ve been deluged with requests to do it again, which makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is that après moi, there was no deluge when I saw similar scenes in places where suffering doesn’t count. Why was I able to write grammatical English after seeing something like that? Practice.
A Tweet from a perfect stranger in Egypt caught my eye on Sunday evening. It seems we disagree about many things. I’ll defend to the death his right to disagree with me, kill him should he fail to afford me the same courtesy, and agree with him about this: “#ParisMarch makes me sure of the fact that some people’s pain is more important than others. This is precisely what’s wrong with the world.”
Can’t argue. I’ve seen things as terrible—more terrible—in parts of the world people don’t care about. The petty vengeance of brutal states against people whose pain will never be known to anyone, much less commemorated by a march of millions at which the dignitaries of fifty heads of state link arms and pretend they wouldn’t prefer to murder each other. It makes no sense—no moral person could think it—that savage terrorist attacks in Paris inspired this response, but Boko Haram slaughtered 2,000 people in a day; no one blinked.
How he meant “wrong with the world,” I don’t know. How I mean it: First the morally obvious. I’ve no idea what God has in mind—clearly—but He is said by some to believe every life of equal value, even if the world displays scant evidence that He feels strongly about it. I happen to believe it, even when I’m in no mood to believe in Him.
Next the politically obvious. When you grasp the connection between “pain in places no one cares about” and terrorist attacks in Paris, you won’t be surprised. Nothing justifies them. But they explain—in the strict sense that such knowledge may be used to make better than random predictions. I have been enraged this week. But not one bit surprised.
My response to the Egyptian stranger: “It is the response everyone’s pain deserves. But it is also the response Paris’s deserved.” Paris entirely deserved this response. Paris is worth a mass. It is also worth a massive show—of global outrage, of what civilization looks like. No one of conscience can regret that the whole world saw that. No one can regret its condolences, nor the interest of its useless media, even if they smothered the scene in treacle that would have made Charb vomit. That is the proper response to an abomination. Were it only so for all of them.
The pain of the victims’ families is forever, even if the media’s attention is not. How quickly we speak of the pain of the victims’ families. Even their pain is not the main point. The main point? They were alive on Wednesday morning, like you and me. Look at your hands: See the blood pulsing through the veins in your wrists? Your fingers moving? Alive. The difference between alive and dead is even greater than the difference between “parent” and “parent of a child who was shopping for groceries and murdered because he was a Jew.” One hell of a difference, to be sure.
The first who matter in this story are dead. After that, their families. After that, their real friends. After that, this country. Very far down the list is the American President, whether he spent the day golfing or attending to what you’d hope he is when the terrorist chatter is a shriek from hell. Had we sent the staff of The Onion, it would have been just as nice a gesture. It would have suggested we grasped something about Charlie Hebdo, and what it meant to France to see helpless, elderly men slaughtered for being amusing.
That Obama was absent upset Americans. No one here cared. This was about France. It is injurious to American pride—and dangerous to the world—that we are so irrelevant. But it’s true. Instructions for becoming a global superpower? One whose President might be missed? Step 1: Extract gaze from umbilicus. Step 2: Look at the globe.
What Americans should have seen, looking at France, was not the absence of their President, but the presence of the largest number of French citizens ever to unite to display the values of their Republic, and how seriously they take the words “the values of our Republic.” America is relevant to this, because many my age never knew their grandfathers. They lie in graves in Normandy. If they were yours, be comforted: France is worthy of their sacrifice.
An America that notices this—and why—will again be relevant. Not one that sees only its President refraining for once from a grotesque opportunity for international grandstanding. Nor one with a media equally eager to seize that opportunity for grotesque domestic grandstanding.
No one (left alive) who mattered gave a damn about Obama. A shaken city was at moments grateful for the comic relief it afforded them to consider the visiting dignitaries as they struggled to resist killing each other. Most appreciated the courtesy of their refraining. I confess slight disappointment. It would have been more fitting. Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu, of all people, showing up at a march to support freedom of expression and conscience? Turks wondered—not as a joke—whether their own rally in Istanbul would be tear-gassed.
Those who mattered most might have been amused that many politicians found in their deaths a peculiar and telegenic opportunity to link arms. But had their security details wound up in a firefight—as I’m sure they were most eager—Charb, I reckon, like me, would have found it hilarious.
But I have a distaste for grotesque hypocrisy. That’s perhaps why I took his death poorly. Which does not matter.