The attacks in three different nations’ capitals last Thursday and Friday were terrorist attacks. Their respective motivations and goals vary, but the underlying reasons why these repugnant crimes were committed by cowardly, violent extremists are largely similar: people are afraid, people are angry, people want a kind of freedom they don’t currently possess.
These sentiments have manifested as violence time and time again, and are found in the history of any religion, and that of the non-religious. The reason for that is simple: we may have built a civilization, but humankind is not quite yet civilized. Taken as a whole species, we’re very much just in the process of getting there, and extremists have a much longer way to go, still.
Violent extremism tends to breed violent reactions — whether defensive or reactionary — and often there are only two ways of breaking that cycle. The first is where one party demonstrates a disproportionate and unbalancing display of power. Given the past 70 years of technological advances in weaponry, no one wants to open that door. The alternative is when diplomacy succeeds in convincing people (however begrudgingly) that violence is not a real solution.
As a mediating effort, there is nothing we can do for the victims, but there is value in supporting the victims’ families, and in preventing subsequent violence from taking even more lives.
There are many avenues that open up after a terrorist attack for people to go down and end up at violence: anger, gravely misplaced, at people who in some minor way are similar to the attackers. Anger at the establishment causing the problem to exist, or failing to prevent it from existing. Fear of others. Feeling like you have nothing left to lose. Feeling resentment and wanting to punish someone, feeling oppressed, and so on.
All of these avenues don’t close on their own. It takes a huge, loving and dedicated support network between people of all stripes coming together to do that. And that’s hard to do when you’re filled with shock, rage, fear, unhappiness, anguish or sorrow. Still, together we do stand stronger, and we are increasingly seeing people coming together in this manner.
Violence is a characteristic found in almost all animal species. What sets us apart is our great capacity for humanity, our humaneness. But for people to demonstrate their humaneness, it is important that they see and consider other humans to be exactly as human as they are themselves. That may sound painfully obvious, but unfortunately it is not so commonplace.
Parisians do not need to be humanized; they are not particularly mocked in diminishing manners across large parts of the world. Muslims, on the other hand, are routinely dehumanized in Europe and North America, to the point that we need more effective rebalancing against it. (Collaterally, so too are Sikh people, and atheists and others with Muslim-sounding names; bigotry is, after all, intrinsically undiscerning about directing its anger appropriately.)
In our effort to stop those who are walking down one of the avenues towards violence, it is all too easy for us to lose our own humanity (in a smaller way, but still). If we go by the rule that it’ll take whatever it takes to stop people from being violent against others, we have failed at excluding violence from our available methods.
We should not treat too harshly those who react to terror attacks with bigotry; they may traverse the avenue towards violence, but they originate from a place of fear. They react with anger and hatred because they either do not understand the complexity of our world, or wish to deny it out of a lack of faith in their ability to show the courage and compassion needed to differentiate between those who merely look like the enemy, and those who actually are.
It takes great humanity to accept that the problem is not simple, the enemy is not a clear-cut demographic we can label as “evil”, and that we all have a culpability in shaping the climate wherein these acts of terror occur. It takes great humanity to accept that the humans who committed such atrocities have gone through a terrible series of life experiences, and that, were we ourselves to go through those same experience, we might not have come out as morally superior as we may think.
We all carry that humanity inside us; we all have that capacity. Even those among us who, through environment or psychological or physical reasons, may not come across as if they do. It is there. In all of us. Human.
It’s who we are.
So look to the humanity in the aftermath of terror. Look to the humanity within yourself. And if you do it right, you’ll be part of the safety net spanning across all those avenues, keeping people from reaching that endpoint of violence, and embracing them with a more compassionate, humane message for the future.