There is so much commentary on the Charlie Hebdo (CH) killings and related violence that it’s impossible to digest it all. As best as I can tell, much of it isn’t worth reading anyway. Right now much of the mainstream media’s attention is focused on two things: (A) Who perpetrated the attacks, how, and why; and (B) What the Right, as represented by France’s Front National party, will do to “exploit” this tragedy. Anything which appears critical of CH itself or “the cause” for which 17 people lost their lives is, of course, anathema. The last thing anyone wants to do right now is reflect on what the violence in Paris says about liberal ideology and its attendant pieties, and yet that is exactly what thoughtful persons ought to do at a time like this. Granted, it isn’t easy, as I found out last week when several blogging sites, particularly Patheos’s The Friendly Atheist and the Free Thought Blogs’ Dispatches From the Culture Wars, held my initial reflections on the CH attack up for scorn because I suggested—consistent with traditional Catholic thought and saner periods in Western jurisprudence—that neither blasphemous speech against God and His Church (not Allah and Islam) nor inflammatory speech lacking artistic and intellectual merit deserves legal protection. No, that does not mean CH “got what it deserved.” We might still wonder, however, if the attacks would have occurred at all had French society had not turned a blind eye to barbarism long ago.
Western European liberalism, for the moment, is circling the wagons, anxiously waiting to see what comes next. It is losing faith that it has an “enlightened” answer to give to the “Muslim question” which, of course, is being framed neutrally as the “immigrant question.” Perhaps the Paris terrorist attacks will prove to be Islam’s last chance in Europe. No doubt the pressure to assimilate will be increased in the coming months, and there’s little reason to think it will work this time. Then what? Polite people really do not want to say, but something will need to be said. Rallies and sloganeering wear off quickly, and they’re not very effectual in the first place. For the time being it is only the so-called “far Right” which is starting the voice the steps which ought to be taken to secure Western Europe and its “values” from Islamic encroachment. The Right, by and large, is just one side of the liberalist coin; the Left occupies the other. Its rhetoric right now is more circumspect; they still want to sympathize with “poor immigrants” whose outbursts can be explained sociologically rather than theologically. The Left’s patience—if one can call it that—isn’t inexhaustible. A bomb explosion here and a gunning-down there has the potential to bridge ideological divides, no matter how disparate the two sides seem to be.
American liberalism, for better or worse, does not fully know what to make of the Paris attacks. There is, understandably, less enthusiasm here for the type of “satiric journalism” CH is known for than there is Europe. Although certain media elites and celebrities want to show their solidarity with CH and the other victims of Islamic terror, there is not a robust sense that “our values” are fully under assault. That, too, could change, especially if another terrorist attack takes place on American soil. But by and large Americans, depending on their party preferences, are more concerned with what gun legislation and marijuana laws will or will not do to “our values” to kick up much fuss over Continental violence. Maybe we ought to rejoice in that, at least a little bit. For all of its defects, there are still flickers of moderation in American political life which prevents us from getting too worked up over abstract principles, though often those abstract principles get brought into somewhat trivial political squabbles. The unfortunate cost of what one might call our “distractability” is that far heavier questions concerning race and class often receive little more than superficial attention from politicians and the media alike.
No matter what transpires on either side of the pond in the coming years, and no matter how many cracks begin to show in the liberal artifice, we should keep close to our hearts the truth that liberalism will not disappear without a fight. Anyone who does not remain a flatterer of liberalism and its “values” will become an enemy of liberalism and its “values.” That prospect, which is so understandably frightening for most, may keep the status quo alive for decades, perhaps even another century, but then what? If it’s possible for there to be another way, then we best get on with explaining how. Europe, I fear, is already out of time.