The lights of civilization are again dimming across Europe. War between sovereign powers has returned to the continent, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim violence is flaring, and the most common response to aggressors from those in positions of authority has been to empathize with the conditions that led them to their barbarity.
Pope Francis disappointed millions on Thursday when he confirmed what the editors of Charlie Hebdo feared: That those who condemn the murder of their friends would add a “but” to that denunciation.
“You cannot provoke,” Pope Francis said on Thursday. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
Though he defended the principle of free expression and paid lip service to the notion that violence is always wrong, he warned “you can’t make a toy out of the religions of others.”
“To kill in the name of God is an aberration,” Francis said. However, he added that it was natural for those who have been insulted to lash out violently.
“In freedom of expression, there are limits, like in regard to my mom,” Francis continued. “If he says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose. That’s normal.”
No, it’s not “normal.” The individual moved to violence over an insult has lost control, and that’s unacceptable. It is unequivocally wrong to hit someone in the face regardless of the circumstances that led to that outburst, which is a lesson that parents around the world teach their children every day. Good luck now, mom and dad. When even the Pope says it’s “normal” to go on a violent rampage because your feelings were hurt, those opposed to this uncivilized behavior have lost the ability to appeal to moral authority.
When broadcasters effusively praise the bravery of the Charlie Hebdo journalists but refuse to show the work they are praising for fear of retribution from either extremists or attorneys; when the head of the Catholic Church can find some sensibleness in religious violence; when those who speak their minds are imprisoned for doing so, you know that Europe is on the verge of a new dark age.
There are others who cling with a conviction bordering on faith to the idea that the West is responsible for Islamist terrorism. Western nations gave birth to Islamist extremism as a result of their geopolitical meddling, this theory holds. Writing in Quartz, Red Flag editor Corey Oakley gave voice to this theory in what read like an agitprop leaflet circulating on the average college campus.
For the last decade and a half the US, backed to varying degrees by the governments of other Western countries, has rained violence and destruction on the Arab and Muslim world with a ferocity that has few parallels in the history of modern warfare.
It was not pencils and pens—let alone ideas—that left Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan shattered and hundreds of thousands of human beings dead. Not twelve. Hundreds of thousands. All with stories, with lives, with families. Tens of millions who have lost friends, family, homes and watched their country be torn apart.
To the victims of military occupation; to the people in the houses that bore the brunt of “shock and awe” bombing in Iraq; to those whose bodies were disfigured by white phosphorous and depleted uranium; to the parents of children who disappeared into the torture cells of Abu Ghraib; to all of them—what but cruel mockery is the contention that Western “civilization” fights its wars with the pen and not the sword?
And that is only to concern ourselves with the latest round of atrocities. It is not even to consider the century or more of Western colonial policies that through blood and iron have consigned all but a tiny few among the population of the Arab world to poverty and hopelessness.
Oakley went on to indict French colonialism in Algeria and indicated that this period, which ended in 1962, inspired two French citizens who were born in Paris in the 1980s to kill cartoonists. If the logic of this claim escapes you, then you haven’t read enough Howard Zinn.
Pope Francis’ subtle excuse-making for the indefensible acts of violent extremists, so long as those who engage in murderous bloodletting do so in the defense of their religion, is no better than Oakley’s profession of sympathy for killers who murder or maim in the name of his secular faith.
There are predictable consequences when those of good conscience display cowardice in the face of evil. Europe is all too familiar with them, and history has a tendency to repeat.