In the two days since the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve seen plenty of expressions of sadness, sympathy, and solidarity for the people of that city on social media. But I’ve also seen a growing number of complaints about those expressions.
“Stop saying you’ll pray.”
“Don’t turn your profile picture red, white, and blue.”
“Where were they when we needed them?”
“Where were you when others were attacked?”
Maybe I’m naïve, but I didn’t see this coming – at least not so soon. Victims of those horrible attacks still wait to be identified, to be claimed, to be buried, and already we’re attacking each other. Why? Why can’t the answer just be that we mourn?
“I pray because I mourn.”
“I show these colors because I mourn.”
“It doesn’t matter where they were; I mourn.”
“Maybe I mourned then, unseen. Maybe I didn’t mourn and I should have. But still, today I mourn.”
I wish we would stop questioning others’ motivations. If there are ever motivations to question, they’re our own: If I say I’m praying, am I actually doing it? If I express solidarity, do I feel it? If I’m riveted by this situation today, will I be paying attention tomorrow? Will I pay attention to the next one? Do I feel that people in some parts of the world are more worthy of my grief than others?
Ask yourself these questions; don’t ask them of others.
If you didn’t read the lengthy Atlantic piece on ISIS months ago, take the time to read it now. It’s not an unquestioned account of the organization and its aims, but I think it makes an important overarching point: ISIS does not operate under the assumptions we’re accustomed to. It does not make the same calculations. It doesn’t seek the kinds of goals we’re used to confronting. It is an organization that is inherently difficult for the West to understand, let alone counter. (Also take the time to read Elizabeth Scalia’s post from a year ago: The West Lacks One Essential Tool to Defeat ISIS.)
All that said, I think we can be reasonably sure that ISIS aims to sow fear, discord, and anger. Why in the world should we help them along by questioning people who are struggling to adequately express their sorrow?
In my own piece on ISIS and evil a year ago, I said:
I’m just trying to call it like it is. When people do such terrible things to one another [i.e. the ISIS attacks against innocent civilians in Iraq], I can’t help but see evil’s mark. I can’t help but envision evil seeping like a deadly, insidious disease from the heart of one man to another. And then another, and another, and another…
Some situations seem ripe for spectacular displays of evil. Evil must find fertile soil, after all, in lands where oppression, poverty, and war have been present for generations. What terrific places to be planting seeds of anger, fear, and hopelessness. What good chances that they’ll grow in individuals’ hearts until they spill over, manifesting themselves in violence and injustice towards others. What likelihood that those fruits will begin the cycle anew.
That’s how I think of the ISIS fighters: as men whose circumstances and life experiences have made them angry and resentful… men who have sought sympathy and camaraderie amongst those who would encourage their indignation… men who feel more powerful and more right the more they work together toward a dramatic goal… men who have so convinced themselves of their righteousness that they view those who are unlike them as less than human… men who start by seeing violence as a necessary tool and end by relishing violence for its own sake. I trace evil’s influence throughout.
But that – that far-away place, in those foreign hearts – is not the only place where evil lurks. Evil would not be content to bear only a few thousand ISIS souls away from God. Evil works on the rest of us too…
Evil tells us that what we have is insufficient, that we will always need more. It encourages us to nourish our anger and resentment. It emphasizes our fears. It helps us divide people into “us” and “them.” It tempts us to seek fleeting satisfactions that harm our bodies and souls. It entices us to take pleasure in media that glamorize violence and disordered relationships. It convinces us that righteous indignation is indeed righteous. It leads us to think we’re alone and unloved.
Evil finds success in such “small” things all the time, all over the world. I can’t help but wonder whether, when evil has become sufficiently emboldened by its quiet successes, perhaps that’s when it taunts us, leers at us, with acts so glaringly evil that we’re stopped short.
We have a role here. We are part of this story. And we have a say in how we play our part.
Will we respond to terrorism by despairing? By accusing? By stoking self-righteous anger? By questioning the sincerity of those who are supposedly our friends? I don’t think we should.
I think we ought to take people’s expressions of mourning at face value.
I think we ought to pray — for the victims of terrorism in Paris and elsewhere, for those in harm’s way, for those who are tempted to do harm, for each other.
I think we ought to pay attention to events across the world and extend our sympathy to victims of violence wherever they’re found.
I think we ought to act against terrorism and fear and hate and evil however we’re able.
I think we should all feel free, when the situation calls for it, to simply… mourn.