The Paris attacks have occasioned a wide-ranging debate about what they mean and how to respond, involving Islam and its role, military strategy and, oddly enough, how Muslims in New Jersey reacted to Sept. 11 (thanks, Donald Trump). It’s all very interesting and, for the most part, quite important.
At bottom, though, the import of the Paris attacks is not complicated: ISIS terrorists are enemies of our civilization.
In Paris, they chose their target well. They assaulted a city that dates back thousands of years and has been a leading Western capital going back to the Capetians, a site of soaring endeavor (Notre Dame) and extraordinary learning (University of Paris) since the 12th century, a place representing geological layers of Western civilization, and its glories and conflicts and follies.
Paris has seen its share of sectarian hatred (the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre), violent upheavals (too many to count), and authoritarians (Napoleon Bonaparte, most notably) but it is synonymous with an appreciation for the finest things wrought by human talent and discernment. You don’t have to be fond of France’s centralizing political culture or its statist economics (I’m not) to recognize its achievements or honored place in the West.
To simplify crudely, the Western story began in the 5th century B.C. on an Athenian hillside where people sat and voted on public questions and, over the course of millennia — and with multiple, often clashing sources, from the Romans to the Catholic Church to the Enlightenment — produced our current liberal dispensation.
The West respects the rule of law, which protects the individual from the caprice and degradations of the powerful. It divides church and state. It governs by the consent of the governed. It honors the dignity — and the conscience and the rights — of the individual. It celebrates reason, discovery and creativity, and gives a wide berth to commerce and entrepreneurial energy.
Obviously, this hasn’t always been true, and the road to the adoption of these norms has been winding and bloody, sometimes spectacularly so, in great clashes within and among Western powers. These qualities are never perfectly realized and always are under both internal and external threat.
But they have created the conditions for stupendous human flourishing. It is represented in staggering artistic and literary expression, in awe-inspiring scientific, technological and medical advances, and in mind-boggling levels of economic development that mean the average Westerner lives like a sultan compared to the average person throughout most of history.
If we are inclined to take any of this for granted, we should have a renewed sense of its wonder and fragility when it is under attack from barbarism. ISIS embodies a theocratic totalitarianism that seeks to subject the human spirit to its perverted dictates. It kills, in part, as an advertisement for its own vileness and brutality. It gleefully vandalizes ancient cultural treasures, and considers Paris “the capital of prostitution and obscenity.”
To borrow from Orwell, the ISIS picture of the future is whipping the non-conforming women of Raqqa — forever.
We are different, although we aren’t ourselves responsible for that. The West is our windfall. None of us were at Runnymede in 1215 or Philadelphia in 1787. None of us knocked a chip off the block of marble that became Michelangelo’s David or contributed a brush stroke to a Rembrandt. None of us invented the steam engine or the iPhone. None of us discovered penicillin or the polio vaccine. None of us fought at Poitiers, and very few of us at Normandy.
If you are not thankful and humbled by all of this, you are an ingrate. Your freedom and material comfort depend on generations of sacrifice and effort before you. It is your privilege to enjoy all that our enemies — if they had the power — would wantonly destroy. If nothing else, Paris should be a reminder of that. What they hate, we should hold all the dearer.