Murder most foul in Paris
Ghost : Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Hamlet: Haste me to know’t that I with wings as swift as meditation….may sweep to my revenge.
Shakespeare seems a good place to start since for many in the secular culture of the West – or at least Western Europe – the bard stands in the place of God as the author of truth. Hamlet – as we are to discover over five long hours – turns out not to be who he says he is at all at this introduction – not at all the man to sweep to his revenge – rather he’s a man prone to endless agonising and postponement. It is rather that flaw of character – rather than the murder most foul – that actually makes Tragedy.
Tragedy: last week seventeen people were shot in Paris. Roughly half of them were journalists. It has generated a blinding blizzard of comment. In Nigeria Boka Harem – another Muslim fundamentalist terror group – has killed 2000 people in recent times – practically without comment in the Western media. This week in Sri Lanka the pope canonised a local saint Joseph Vaz. This briefly refocused our memories of the terrible civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the minority Tamils – both non Abrahamic religious cultures. That war was crowned by a decade long period of government by Mahinda Rajapaksa – supported vigorously by the West and China – who crushed the Tamils and then went on to mercilessly persecute them. We saw no evil; we heard of no evil; no one wrote of any evil; we did nothing. Tomorrow in the Kingdom of Saud a man who wanted to speak his mind freely will receive his second fifty lashes out of 1000. This week in PMQs the Prime Minister in the House of Commons refused to condemn the Saudi regime.The House of Saud is the West’s loyal ally – purveyor of oil and Arabian stallions by royal appointment by exchange of favours they buy our military weaponry. Elsewhere in mainland Europe this week anti-semites have been prosecuted for inciting hate crimes in writing – particularly in denying the Holocaust. In France Charlie Hebdo again published a cartoon of the Prophet Mohamed. In the same France a self-styled comedian (Dieudonné) was arrested for ‘defending terrorism’ after publishing a comment on Facebook. He is a notorious anti semite who has previously been arrested for expressing repugnant opinions in Media and onstage. In Afghanistan the new government supported by the Western powers is in negotiation with the Taliban. Five years ago the Taliban were regarded as ‘terrorists’ and as our enemies. This week also saw Tony Blair summoned to Parliament by Mr Speaker to account for his actions in Northern Ireland – in respect of on-the-run IRA men accused of but not charged with terrorist crimes of gravest brutality including murder. This list is random but representative. It represents a complicated reality behind the mask of liberal democracy.
Culturally, we are apt to see crimes we elect to be inhuman as indisputably crimes and those we elect not to see or comment upon as pragmatically passable. It is therefore not surprising than some viewing us from the safe distance of their own culture look on us as self serving hypocrites. Yes, indeed the demonstrations in France brought together a shocked French people but in its wake it also gave a respectable public platform to a collection of very dubious political leaders who seem to think Free Speech is fine for journalists in Paris but not for those Ankara or Jerusalem or Moscow or Cairo. Given we are metaphorically linking our arms with such company it seems inexplicable altogether to have excluded Marine Le Pen whose political views are certainly no worse.
Alas, this is not the Age of Reason and it is quite clear reason has little to do with all that has been going on and is now ongoing. This is a surge of irrational emotionalism of the sort we have seen before in modern times – say the death of Diana, Princess of Wales for example. We have also for example seen these emotionalised outbursts in the aftermath of gun murder sprees in the USA but as yet they have not yet led to gun control. They play particularly well in modern Media as they fill the void that’s between the horror of an event and the sober reflection upon it.
This is powerful stuff – in the aftermath of 9/11 it led to two wars – one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. These were the first of the so-called ‘wars on terror’. Like the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘wars on crime’ before and the subsequent wars on ‘terror’ – for example since in Libya and Syria – these have not ended well for those who declared them. The cost in blood and treasure is almost unmeasured – and on all sides – but would certainly have more than filled the hole made by the financial crash and filled many bellies long left empty in the Third World.
Most of this week muslims being interviewed in the Media have been asked to profess their horror at these murders in Paris – as if they might feel otherwise. Is that assumption not just a tad racist? It was the sort of dehumanising tactic the Nazi propagandists employed against the Jews in the 1930’s. When Anders Behring Breivik – murdered eight people to save Norway and Western Europe from a Muslim takeover – proclaiming that the Norwegian Labour Party had to “pay the price” for “letting down Norway and the Norwegian people” – I do not recall leaders of Christian denominations being asked to dissociate themselves from this practising Lutheran; nor do I recall Media journalists asking spokespersons for right wing political parties first make ritual denunciation of this act of ‘terrorism’ or ‘murder’ – call it what you will – before making any further comment. We can be skilled with double standards – they’re all about us if we open our eyes wide.
Since those terrible events in Paris further comment seems to be the order of the day. For example – Suzanne Moore in the Guardian on 14th January has spoken-up for women – who appointed her as their spokeswoman is not clear – although from her comments it is clear this is not the job that any man might do – so much for equality. Her article alchemised what she calls ‘feminism’ and what she calls ‘faithophobia’ – which would – if the word were to mean anything – mean the irrational fear of faiths. Judging from the tone of her column that is its meaning as quite a lot of what she said was fluently irrational – not least her digression into ritual religious practices of Christian and Muslim religions in the seventh century – I best say Common Era – lest Anno Domini sets off another avalanche of ‘faithophobia’. She is not alone. Most of those engaged in this running commentary in the Media – commercial and social – seems to want to talk up for everyone else. Whilst I am as anxious as any to have my say I must first make it clear I speak for myself alone. I do not speak for men – gay men – Roman Catholic or Christian gay men – historians in general or Tudor historians in particular – my friends – my neighbours or any I know, living or dead.
I lived most of my life in this society as a member of one or other despised minority. I am gay; I am irish ; I am Roman Catholic; I’m also left handed – that is sinister rather than dexter. Therefore, I am extremely dubious of any debate that demonises others for their beliefs or conduct or nationality. Frankly quite a bit that has been said under the guise of enlightened comment about freedom of speech has been little short of racism dipped in the blood of martyrs. In this case the martyrs are secular – martyrs of the Media. They have shed their blood for a noble cause, the freedom of the press. The journalists knew they were taking risks and like Salman Rushdie refused to be silent and be dammed. They were murdered for not being cowed. It is important for the rest of us not to be cowed. The Jews in the kosher supermarket were getting ready for Sabbath. They were deemed guilty by racial association with the actions of the Israeli state against the Palestinians. They were shot for no good reason. The policemen were only doing their job – apparently it is not a job any decent Muslim may do if their murderers are to be believed. That of course begs the real question – are these murderers to be believed any more than Anders Breivik is to be believed or any of the IRA who killed indiscriminately for their cause?
However, it is more than a little ironic that those who now shout most loudly about freedom of speech – citing Voltaire (a man who happily took the coin of absolute monarchs for his fee – no questions asked) mostly are employed by newspapers and media groups that would have happily seen these left wing intellectuals who worked on Charlie Hebdo publically traduced as knaves and mocked fools before the fatal shots were fired.
It is not part of my brief to defend religions or defend my religious beliefs. The febrile aftermath of Murder is not a good time to start a reflective discourse on these matters. I know as plainly as the nose of my face that whatever these guys say – they are essentially unreliable sociopaths who – like serial killers – have a totally warped view of the rest of humanity. In their heads they justify actions that taken from any other rational moral standpoint – secular – atheist – religious – are wholly immoral and irrational. This is not the first time such evil has seeped into our lives. It will not be the last.
This lot may carry the Koran and call itself Muslim but before it carried Mein Kampf and called itself National Socialist – it has carried in its time the works of Aristotle; of Plutarch or Seneca; the works of Voltaire or Rousseau; it has carried the Communist Manifesto and the little red book of Chairman Mao; it has certainly carried the Bible; it has certainly worn the the habit of the humble friar in the cause of the Inquisition; it has mounted the arms of the Crusader; it has also worn the uniform of the freedom fighter. Time and again – it has usurped the piety of good men and of good philosophy and made them serve its evil heart. It is in mankind. It is in our imagining and we carry it from generation to generation. The greatest danger to this sort of evil is to think either we are immune from it – or by some simple nostrum – we can make ourselves immune to its effects – or that we can stop it happening again by simple acts of commemoration. Horrors fade overtime and what was unthinkable fifty years ago many will feel free to think again. That is the history whether we wish it to be or not.
What I choose to believe about this world – how it came to be – or my place in it – or indeed my relationship to anyone one I know – or to any I have known – or to any I believe I know or any you imagine I imagine I believe I know – does not make me a serial murderer or a suicide bomber. True Philosophies reflect on life they are not susceptible to simple cause and to a single effect, murder. Cod philosophy through time walks with murder – as immortalised by Shakespeare’s Jack Cade in Henry VI Part II. The act of killing is unlicensed in society – save in War – formal or otherwise – when we may kill many with impunity. When we fight – it is a good war or, neutrally, perhaps a mistaken war. When our enemies fight – it is an evil war and neutrally, deliberate aggression. Beware the double standard it often leads to double vision – or even blindness.
Voltaire and the ‘philosophes’ took an essentially optimistic view of mankind – as a creature of reason and enlightenment. in the event – of Revolution – it turned out we were less reasonable and enlightened than they supposed. Noble causes and good intentions often end in bloody chaos. Perhaps there is something to be said for all the religions which take a more pessimistic view of men and women – vain to self; prone to venality; likely to take what we can for ourselves by force and to call it principle. One man’s law maybe another’s tyranny. Many written constitutions of such tyrannies are replete with high flown sentiment. We all worship lots of things but we don’t always deign to call them a deity but the acts of worship can demand just as much ritual sacrifice from someone – usually someone else’s expense. Over the time of our evolution and particularly over the last ten thousand years we have grown better at organising ourselves and our lives in a way that permits the majority to enjoy some sort of life. Civilisation is but a work in progress and what is here today may be gone tomorrow replaced by something we think better or believe worse. But whatever we build will always contain all of our flaws. Anything else is fairytales and best left to children and to childhood where black and white reign supreme and easy judgements come in one dizzying rush one after another.
I prefer a grown up world of complex cause with multiple effects. I prefer to call murder by its proper name and be done with it. I prefer to treat those kill for no good reason as murderers not as terrorists. They do not kill for a cause because there is no cause for which we should unilaterally assume we own the right to take another’s life. We do not need to mix up murder with a debate about morals, religion and philosophy because the men who pulled those triggers in Paris – like all those before them and those who will come after – had already resolved to go beyond reason, beyond argument and beyond belief. They’re gangsters and bullies and whatever they said they believed – they would still be gangsters and bullies. And given what they are willing to do – we have no reason to think of them in terms other.
For the rest I’ll leave that to the commentariat with their retweeting Media multiplications and rhetorical lowest common denominators – and their jargon – ‘faithophobia – yes indeed like all phobias – an irrational fear.