I remember, being in DC on 9/11. I remember the empty streets, the sudden and strange military presence, the impossibility of knowing what to do. It felt like a space, in my mind; a void, when I tried to think past what was happening to what I needed to do. There was no possibility of an answer, no possibility even at the heart of the most powerful nation in the world, because the problem, the situation, was too complex.
On that day I remember thinking ‘I hope it doesn’t cause a war’, and thinking too that was a silly thing to hope for because it was impossible. Impossible that there wouldn’t be military action in response to such an egregious terrorist act, and impossible that military action could possibly work to stop something like it happening again. Impossible that military action wouldn’t mean many more deaths, which in turn would mean more people seeking vengeance.
What has happened in Paris is shocking and heart-breaking and horrifying. And I see the outpouring of solidarity, and the supportive statements of political leaders, and the media attention, and this is as it should be; because what do we have but words in the face of this?
But as some have pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, similar attacks, such as the one only two days ago in Beirut, did not receive the same outcry, the same emotional response. As refugees from Syria pour into Europe, we cannot help but be aware of the ongoing crisis, and yet we still hold it at arms length.
I will not say we are ignoring it, the news reports are there, petitions are sent to European governments demanding support for those fleeing the seemingly endless conflict – but who has changed their Facebook photo to signal support for Lebanon? For Syrian refugees?
Is this racism?
The attacks in Paris, like the attack on the Boston marathon, feel more shocking than the bombing in Beirut. Why? Because, to my shame, I expect violence in the Middle East. It is, in my subconscious, an unsafe place compared to Western Europe or the US or Canada. But France? The US? I expect a different level of personal safety. Does this mean the lives taken in France are different from those in Lebanon? The answer is both no and yes.
No, each human life is equally valuable, and each death an egregious affront to justice.
And then, yes. A life taken in Paris, a less dangerous city, has different implications because of the presumption of the level of safety. The underlying thought is, if people are not safe in Paris, are we safe anywhere? London? Berlin? Amsterdam?
Syrian refugees flock to Europe because it is a haven. Because on a day-to-day basis, we do not live in fear of losing our lives to senseless violence.
My heart breaks for those in Paris. I feel rage towards those who dare to treat life with such cavalier disregard. I want those responsible crushed.
And yet. I cannot ignore the bigger picture. No one is born a murderous religious extremist. The financial and military powers of the world, no doubt with at least some good intention, pour money and weapons to different sides of an ever-more divided set of opposing forces who tear the region to shreds.
What would I do, if I saw my country, my home, bombed by drones? My friends and family attacked by my own government’s military? Who would I blame? Feeling that powerless, that subject to the whims of people so powerful that my life was, to them, invisible and therefore expendable?
What would I do, if someone told me there was a God who wanted me to fight back?
I want to believe with all my heart that I would run, rather than harm innocent people.
But I cannot know.
When an oppressive regime maims and kills its own people, of course I do not want other countries to stand aside and ignore it. Action must be taken in the face of inhumanity – World War 2 surely taught the world that.
Violence begets violence.
There is no right answer. I can say with utter certainty that it is wrong to kill people. But that is not good enough, is it? Because wars and terrorist acts are an ugly, painful reality; and they are without question a tangled morass of influences – so often made worse, more deadly, more complicated, by the interference of other countries trying to protect themselves or their ‘interests’.
My heart breaks because it seems to me that there is only one impossible answer. For peace to be real, everyone must be united in deciding to forgo violence. And they cannot, because there will always be someone who will use force to get what they want. So in turn, force is used to protect those against that malignant power.
Where can we draw the line? If we can imagine a peaceful world there must be a way to achieve it. But perhaps that would mean more forgetting than we are capable of.
It is at times like this where I wish I could believe in a benevolent God. An all-powerful, all-knowing entity who could bring justice, and see justice, where we poor limited humans cannot. Because I want to pray. I want to pray for Paris, for Beirut, for Syria. For those who lost their lives and those who run to save them. For the terrible people who commit such atrocities in the hope that some of God’s power might be put to use in changing such a broken mind. Such a broken world. Because I do not know what would stop this unbearable cruelty and I want there to be a power that can.
But I cannot. I do not have faith. Usually, I have faith only in us poor limited humans. Because we have come so far. Because although it is a long road, there are so many ways in which life is improving. We are getting better at being fair, at being kind, at seeing injustice and fighting tooth and nail to end it. So many ways in which people show they care for other people who are in trouble.
I have faith that we are not an evil species – that we are kind and strong and generous. That even those I vehemently disagree with are capable of compassion and understanding.
And there are some days when my faith in us stumbles. When I stare without mercy at the long harsh list of ways we hurt each other and wonder if we are, perhaps, doomed to war. If violence and cruelty and mindlessness and selfishness are part of our chaotic makeup. If our destiny is blood.
Perhaps I could believe in a different kind of God. Not all-powerful. Not all-knowing. Just old, and patient, and sad. One who watches us and tries, with their limited power, to bring us dreams of peace so that we can learn to be peaceful. One who weeps with us when we fail, and feels proud when we succeed. One who can hope, with the patience of immortality, when I cannot.
A man played ‘Imagine’ on the piano near the Bataclan today.
Perhaps that’s all there is.