When we are confronted once again, half a world away, by the barbaric reality of terrorism, as we were on Nov. 13 when a small group of gunmen and suicide bombers killed more than 120 people and injured hundreds more in coordinated raids in five Paris neighborhoods, what should be our response?
We see the images in the aftermath—confusion, chaos, shock—and we hear the trembling words of witnesses, and in spite of our revulsion we imagine the horror. And we realize that it was a systematic, precisely planned, willful, conscious, cold-blooded slaughter of innocents—the one sin that our Christian tradition holds to be incapable of mitigation. There can be no explanations or excuses. These acts were examples of the purest evil.
So what is our response?
An ocean and a continent away from the carnage, many instincts turn toward vengeance. Reflexive retribution on the malignant entity that gave birth to such chillingly callous inhumanity can easily appear to be an attractive option, a course of action that feeds our natural desire to punish the bully, to topple the despot, to crush the invader.
But that was not the first response of the people of Paris.
At the Stade de France, where explosions rocked a soccer match between France and Germany, fans joined in unison on the pitch to defiantly sing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks Parisian taxi drivers turned off their meters and drove people to their homes or shelters free of charge. The hashtag #RechercheParis was quickly created to help people locate their loved ones who might have been in the area of any of the attacks. Despite warnings to stay indoors, masses of people waited in long lines to donate blood. And, perhaps most extraordinary of all, another social media hashtag appeared–#PorteOurverte (open door)—that allowed Parisians throughout the city to offer their own homes as safe havens and temporary accommodations for anyone stranded on that terrible night.
This good was being done by people of many nationalities and many faiths in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, and the values reflected sprang from the finest of all those places and traditions. On the Sunday following the attacks, the overflow crowd—surely not entirely Catholic—at a special memorial Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame heard Cardinal Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, say, “Faced with the violence of men, may we receive the grace of a firm heart, without hatred… We ask that grace be the artisan of peace.”
This is not to say that national defense is not a fundamental right. In his Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was not advocating meek submission to repetitious suffering at the hands of attackers, but rather personal equanimity in the face of insults and slights. Wounded feelings are one thing; deadly confrontation is another. Hence the specifically targeted air raids on ISIS strongholds by France and the United States that were mounted short days after the Paris attacks, and France’s continuing campaign against ISIS.
Still, what most of the world will take away from the tragedy, as a reminder of how the best of humanity behaves in the face of the worst, will be the remarkable solidarity of the people of Paris.