I haven’t fully gathered my thoughts on the mass murder that took place in Paris yesterday morning, so just think of this as a kind of musing on what’s going on and where to go from here.
Extremists like the men who gunned down Paris’s satirists are everywhere, in every community. I’m not talking about Muslims, or not just Muslims anyway. I’m talking about political and religious extremists of all kinds, manning the ramparts of their grudges against the world, ever vigilant against any assault from those who aren’t like them. All of these groups are marginalized. Since they assume the rest of the world is their enemy and devote most of their time to making sure that’s true, it’s impossible for them not to be. And every once in a while, a tiny percentage of these extremists find a target and lash out at it.
Yesterday it was the employees of Charlie Hebdo. Twenty-five years ago, it was radio talk show host Alan Berg. And before and in between thousands of others. It’s scary stuff, and it hurts like hell to have it strike.
But we can’t simply lash back just because we’re in pain. We don’t need to, and when we do, we often pick our targets badly. We have to remember that, though this hurts us, we’re still by far stronger than the extremists and fundamentalists. We have, over the last couple of centuries, built a fantastically advanced and interconnected civil society where human rights are increasingly respected and protected by law. It’ll take a lot more than a few fanatics gunning people down in an office building to wreck that, unless they provoke us into wrecking it ourselves. We should have every confidence that we can bring the Paris killers, and those like them, to justice.
Toward that end, French authorities would do well to resist the temptation, and likely pressure from the ever-irresponsible French National Front, to clamp down on French Muslims. It isn’t just a question of being nice to people. As a practical matter, the people who did this likely have some connections within the French Muslim community. To get information about them, and evidence against them, French authorities will need amenable contacts within that community, contacts that’ll dry up fast if they’re cracking down on everyone with a headscarf or a Middle Eastern-sounding name.
Most Muslims like these killers about as much as most Christians like the killers of George Tiller, Shannon Lowney, and Lee Ann Nichols, or most Jews like the guy who gunned down Yitzhak Rabin. Demonstrating that we really understand that is a good way to show the world that we’re not the caricature that obsesses the paranoid fundamentalist imagination, and to form a more productive solidarity with our neighbors, whatever invisible beings they may or may not worship.
At the same time, we can’t stop mocking religious traditions. One of the reasons we built this civil society is to safeguard our liberty to take nothing as sacred. It’s the most vital liberty because religion has two nasty habits that make satirizing it an imperative: it seeks to exempt itself from criticism, and it seeks to impress itself on political institutions. This combination, left unchecked, has always led to grief.
The best check we have against it is humor. We need to lampoon, parody, riff, satirize, burlesque, and otherwise rip on every religious and political ideology we find. And when a disgruntled religious adherent attacks or even kills one of us, the next person has to step up and keep laughing, just keep right on laughing until all but the most hardened fanatics and bigots learn that no violence they can do will ever make us stop.