If, like me, you tend to regard religion as the refuge of the foolish, then there are really only two ways to look at life. Either you can say ‘well, it’s all a bit meaningless, really. What’s the point? I may as well do what I want, when I want, and to hell with anyone else.’ Or you can say ‘well, yes, it is all meaningless, in the sense that there’s no overarching reason for us to be here. We were dust, to dust we’ll return. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of it while we’re here. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be nice to each other. Life is short, let’s enjoy it. Let’s be gracious.’
I’m in the latter camp as, I think, are most of us atheist types. The deists, theists and polydeists can, and often do, point their collective finger and say ‘ah, but without belief what moral framework can you have?’ but we all know that’s bunkum. I know right from wrong. I know a morally good thing from a morally bad one. I know, fundamentally, what will pain my fellow man, and I know, fundamentally, what will please him. I’m well equipped to teach La Child how best to navigate this life, and I think she’s becoming sufficiently adept that she won’t need to consult a 2,000 year old text to tell her that killing is bad or that stealing is undesirable or that being generally unpleasant is wrong.
Which does bring me on to Paris. It’s sad, I think, that it should be such a horrible event that brings me out of my self-imposed silence (I’ve been away, I had a flat tyre, there was a terrible storm, etc), but as the images burn themselves on to my brain and the polemics begin to flow I couldn’t help but wade in. Perhaps it’s catharsis, or just my way of externalising the disappointment, and the frustration, and the grief that comes from witnessing madness and failing to understand it. Perhaps it’s purely self-indulgent, in which case I apologise. Normal service will resume next time.
In the papers today, a picture of Abdelhamid Abaaoud. A young man, 27 years old, sat in the front of a car smiling, wearing a heavy woollen hat. The sun bleaches out half his face. He’s happy, it’s a nice photo. A photo of the man who apparently organised the deliberate, cruel murder of 129 people, who masterminded the terrorising and injuring of hundreds more. Who provided the excuse for the bombing of more others. A picture of a young man who in fact was nothing but a link in the ongoing chain of attack and retaliation and revenge.
It’s heartbreaking. As I sit here now and look at the photo I see someone’s son. I can’t help it, I see someone young and immediately my mind turns to La Child, and in this case I can’t help but wonder what it would take to turn her into him. What does it take to turn any of our children into Abdelhamid? Or Omar Ismail Mostefai, or Samy Animour, or Bilal Hadfi, or Ahmad Almohammad, or any of the other alleged killers in Paris last Saturday? What happens between a child’s birth, free of all preconceptions, prejudice and hatred, and the moment that they walk into a crowded restaurant and fire a Kalashnikov?
Yes, of course religion plays its part. These are people who have come to believe that what they’re doing is right. This is their moral code. Either you believe too or you’re the enemy and therefore are a legitimate target. Their religion says so. Or actually, no. Their interpretation of their religion says so. I dislike religion, I think it enslaves you, robs you of the ability to think and to reason, robs you of responsibility for your own actions, but I don’t for one minute think that all religion is inherently violent. All religions have had a violent past, but all also speak of compassion, and fairness, and justice and of respect. Somewhere along the line people become corrupted not by religion but by their circumstance. Someone vulnerable (because of their upbringing or their environment or their mental issues) meets someone persuasive, add in some old fashioned hatred and bigotry, leave to rest for a few years and voila, lobster: bloodshed, mayhem, outrage.
If only those with power would do something positive to help, but no. In the news today, next to the picture of 27 year old Abdelhamid – a child, for goodness' sake – the main story is France’s ‘retaliation’. Airstrikes on Raqqa, the bombing of headquarters and camps. ‘We can’t let them act without reacting,’ says the French military. ‘What happened yesterday,’ said Francois Hollande, the French president ‘was an act of war.’ No it wasn’t, you opportunist tit. Nation states wage war on each other. Russia can declare war on America. Gremany can declare war on Great Britain. A group of fundamentalist fruitcakes can’t wage war. They might spread terror, they might break the law, but it’s not a war. War justifies retaliatory strikes, war means bombs and strategic campaigns. War means fighter jets and tanks and infantry and collateral damage. And so today we have the bombs, and the fighter jets and the collateral damage. Tomorrow we’ll have the upgraded terror level and the increased police presence. Next week we’ll have stricter border controls, and then, eventually, another indiscriminate attack in the middle of Rome, or Baghdad, or London, or Beirut. More death. More grief. A retaliation for the retaliation, revenge for the revenge. More outrage, more bombs, and on and on we’ll go in a never ending merry-go-round of tit-for-tat.
It’s all rather depressing. I’d usually say something funny now, something positive. Something about breaking the cycle, education being the key, a slow but determined push to eradicate radicalism, to reduce the impact of blind faith, a concerted effort to dismantle the structures necessary to keep people under the yoke of ignorance, but, really, I do feel terribly depressed today. I can’t honestly see how we’ll ever reach a more enlightened state, not while we're nothing but a thin veneer of respectability away from the apes. Evolution, I suppose, will eventually see us right. All will be well, just a few hundred thousand more years required.