Friday, 9 January 2015

Understanding the Massacre at Charlie Hebdo

In the attack on Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, witnesses said they heard the gunmen shouting "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad" and "God is Great" in Arabic ("Allahu Akbar")

What is great about this God? And why should God need defending in this way?

And yet the murderers in Paris clearly thought their God was not sufficient in himself, and was helpless to do anything, which is why they took direct action.

Yet what is great about a God who needs people with guns to back him up? Is their God so pitiful, so weak that he needs help? I can see very little to shout about. What is really great about attacking unarmed civilians?

The tragic murder in Paris shows just where religious fanaticism can lead. But the murderers were not brave men, but instead hid behind masks, for all their bravado, and cries. That surely is a statement of cowardice. They were indeed “cowardly glory-seekers”.

If we are to combat this kind of evil, we need to get inside the minds of these killers, and understand the deeper impulses that motivate them. It is easy to brand them fanatics, which of course they were. But fanaticism does not always lead to violence in this manner.

Not all fanatics are killers. Simeon Stylites was clearly a religious fanatic – he lived for 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo in Syria. He was fanatical about religious austerity. But he did not seek to impose it on others, only give an example. So to say these men were religious fanatics, or to suggest that Islam was itself to blame for their actions is too wide a generalisation.

So how can we understand what motivates and drives them?

On this, I think we can find Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher a useful guide. He had this to say about causes of conflicts, writing in his book “The Leviathan” (1651):

“In the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second for safety; and the third for reputation.”

“The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.’

It is within the context of this third kind of conflict – for “a different opinion”, for a “sign of undervalue” by reflection on their beliefs that we find the roots of their behaviour.

Hobbes sees that a perceived sleight against self - or against that which a self holds to be important - can be enough for conflict to take place, and there was certainly a provocation which fits, in this respect, by the satirical magazine. That does not exonerate the killers, but we can see how it fits with Hobbes view of conflict, and explains why they might act as they do.

When we ask why people behave like this, Hobbes suggests that it is implicit in some form, within everyone. It is part of the human condition to seek to be valued, and to have ones own values respected by others, and approved by others. As he puts it:

“every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe: And upon all signes of contempt, or undervaluing, naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power to keep them all in quiet, is far enough to make them destroy each other,) to extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage; and from others, by the example”

As Michael N. Di Gregorio comments, Hobbes idea of glory is “rooted not in fear, but in hope – the hope to be treated justly, to be properly esteemed, or to get one’s due, and to extort it violently if necessary”. Everyone, in Hobbes view, has an impulse to seek glory, to be valued. It is this natural impulse which can be taken up and taken further by those who “extort it violently”.

As Partel Piirimae explains, for Hobbes:

“A man can build up reputation by attacking those who condemn him, because they learn from their own experience that his power is actually not inferior to theirs, at least with regard to his capacity to inflict damage on them. And this also sets an example to people not involved in the conflict, as it makes clear that he is not someone who can be subdued without resistance.”

In the case of these killers, it is not their own glory seeking for themselves which has led to their actions, but they seek glory for their religious cause, for their God, for their prophet. It is what Hobbes calls a “sign of undervalue”.

Dr. Haig Patapan, reflecting on Hobbe’s ideas, says:

“Glory seekers often pursue glory ‘farther than their security requires,’ creating the problem that some seek glory even at the risk of their lives. ... The difficulty of acquiring and maintaining glory, due to our inability to judge or “value” accurately, the problem of construing “signs” of valuing, and the need of the glory seeker to ‘extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage; and from others, by example’ mean that the glory seeker is compelled to risk himself to show his power.”

“In the extreme case, the glorious may risk his own life to show his power. Therefore, the pleasure of glory is not checked by the moderating demands of security and property in two senses. The first is in the sense that we have noted—the glorious will illogically sacrifice his life for his name. The second is that the pleasure of glory seeks to ever increase its delectation—glory will in social terms seek ever greater mastery, at the risk of security”

The result – as Emmett Gilles notes - is that “the majority suffer from the strife brought on by the selfish competition, diffidence, and glory-seeking of uninhibited individuals.”

How can this be countered? The solution for Hobbes lies in the social contract. Emmett Gilles notes that:

“The social contract requires all persons to subsume a certain degree of absolute liberty to government in exchange for guaranteed recognition of their rights and interests, thereby preserving the community’s peace and welfare.”

But that means that when the community’s peace and welfare is threatened, a greater degree of liberty may be subsumed by the State. We can see this in the legal measures taken against terrorism, which also reduce our own freedoms, so that detention can be imposed in such a fashion as to apparently bypass the normal legal processes, and even the possession of certain books in electronic form becomes an offence. While a Jerseyman was charged with disseminating bomb making procedures from a prohibited journal, it should be noted that simple possession of that journal would itself have been an offence under the law..

This is the price we pay for generally going about our business protected – that we surrender part of our liberty to remain safe. Laws against terrorism, against fanatics, are seen as the instruments by which the many can be protected from the few.

We should be aware that those same laws may be capable of abuse, and more stringent laws and processes may keep us safe, but will diminish our freedom. The reaction by the State must be scrutinised carefully to ensure that it does not take too many freedoms away in the name of preserving freedom.

That would indeed by ironical if it occurred as a result of these shootings. An irony that would, I am sure, not have gone unnoticed among those poor people who were tragically murdered at Charlie Hebdo.

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