The terrorist attacks in Paris also represent an attack on European values. And yet, these values must not be compromised in the fight against terrorism.
In the weeks following the terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015 the French daily Le Monde published pictures and profiles of the 130 victims. It was moving to read their life stories, so brutally cut short, as so many of them were still young. Among them was Hélène Muyal-Leiris, a make-up artist and also a 35 year-old mother of a 17-month old son.
On 16 November, Helene’s husband, Antoine Leiris, wrote an open letter to his wife’s murderers: “On Friday evening, you stole away the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred (…). If the God for whom you kill so blindly made us in His image, then each bullet in my wife’s body would have been a wound in His heart.” With these poignant words Antoine drives home the message that it is impossible to use religion to justify violence, neither can God’s name be invoked to make violence a righteous cause.
Antoine Leiris added: “Therefore, I will not give you the gift of hating you. You have obviously sought it, but – but responding to it with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that has made you what you are.” Hating somebody means letting yourself be controlled by him. Antoine Leiris is aware of this and he denies the murderers this victory. This letter has gone global. It is an outstanding testament to humanity.
The terrorist attacks in Paris were rightly seen as an assault on Europe and its values. These values are listed in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women prevail.” These values must not be called into question or compromised even in the fight against terrorism. The perpetrators of terror would otherwise gain a victory similar to that denied them by Antoine Leiris.
These thoughts arise in the context of the strong tension between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility, between the morals of individuals and those of society. Christian moral teaching is aware of the right to self-defence and, in consequence, of the doctrine of a just war between nation states. Jesus, too, did not accept in silence being struck by the servant of the high priest. However, he reacted with words rather than with violence. He was all too aware that, in the end, violence will never be overcome by violent means.
On 8 December 2015, Pope Francis launched an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy. He clearly perceives this as a Christian response to the violence raging across the world. The Pope’s sentence: “Leaving resentment, anger and revenge behind us is a necessary prerequisite for a successful life” sounds like an echo of the letter by Antoine Leiris. In view of the terrorist violence that raged in Paris, this is anything but easy. The Christian response to misanthropy and terror par excellence was given by Martin Luther King: “We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us.”
Martin Maier SJ