I have been following the news from Paris closely: My oldest friends in Paris were big fans of Charlie Hebdo with some slight social connections to the cartoonists. Since my initial shock–and seeing the world take sides in new and original ways–I find it impossible to find a voice in the discussion that I can really say I share. I would like to see at least one item in my Facebook news-feed that I can ‘like’ without feeling compromised and queasy. So, I’ll write one myself!
It is good and necessary for a peaceworker to try to understanding the political context and personal history behind an act of violence. However, this has to be done without validating any of the identities and narratives used to justify the violence. Nearly all the commentary I’ve seen, as well as the commentary about the commentary, has included an attempt to assign various people to different categories, in the service of the writer’s agenda. For example: The attackers were not real representatives of Islam. Or the cartoonists were racists, or moderate Muslims have failed to speak out against violence, or defenders of Charlie Hebdo are complicit in colonialism and white privilege, or political correctness is complicit in the Islamification of the Europe, etc. Within the world-views they represent, some of these statements may have some truth in them. But they all serve division and war, to the extent we fall into the trap of believing in the labels and categories. The acts of people within identity-groups are the symptoms; the belief in identity is the disease.
Here are some things that happened: A group of human beings put on uniforms in Langley, Virginia, and then assassinated a family in Yemen by remote control, with a missile fired from a drone. Later, another group of human beings who identified themselves as part of an oppressed minority, assassinated some other human beings who publish a newspaper in Paris.
The sense that there are different sides, and that the victims in Yemen and killers in Paris are on one side; while the drone pilots and journalists are on the other, is a form of insanity. It is the insanity of belief in identities and sides. Those suffering from this insanity may perceive a moral and logical connection between the murders in Yemen and the murders in Paris. And there is a connection. But it’s not a logical connection. It’s an insane connection. It’s insane if you’re on one of the perceived sides. It’s insane if you’re on the other side. It’s insane even if you’re “neutral.” It’s entirely insane, even if you’re an official UN peace negotiator… to the extent you believe in the identities, labels, and narratives.
These acts of violence will probably spread the insanity. People will stop seeing other human beings, and start seeing jihadis, or Zionists, or martyrs for free speech… or racists, oppressed minorities, privileged majorities, Islamofascists, liberals, colonialists, Jews, Americans, Muslims, soldiers, peace activists, secularists. When people allow these labels to be applied to themselves, even if they have good intentions, they give energy to a world-view based on heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators. They make themselves small, governable, and subject to manipulation.
The bullets, the drones, the uniforms are real. The historical events really happened, but the narratives are all social fictions. It’s all insane: the rage, the fear, the collective guilt, the racism. Everyone involved is a human being, but insane. And part of the solution is to try to understand it, but never, never to believe that the stories are real.