As President Obama courted a 20th-century evil in Havana this week, a 21st-century evil exploded in Brussels.
An 8th-century (B.C.) story — originating on a current fault line separating Christendom and the Islamic World — pegs the people killing our people even as it helps foster an understanding of ourselves.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus’s family endures the suitors, a group of more than 100 men sponging off them under the pretext that they seek Penelope’s hand in marriage, after enduring the prolonged absence of the family patriarch. Rather than gratitude, the parasites repay the beleaguered family with contempt and conspiracies.
When Odysseus, disguised as a beggar after his return from the Trojan War, strings a bow that the beggars disguised as suitors cannot, they resolve to deny Odysseus the food that’s not theirs to withhold and the common decency that they lack to give. Eurymachus laments the beggar’s bow-and-arrow feats eclipsing the talents of the suitors, “This is what will be said, and it will be a scandal against us.”
“People who persist in eating up the estate of a great chieftain and dishonoring his house,” Odysseus’s wife Penelope responds, “must not expect others to speak well of them. Why then should you mind if men talk as you think they will?”
The same question might be posed to the West’s visitors. This week several of their number indiscriminately executed travelers for the crimes of going to work on the subway and preparing to fly at the airport. They did this in the name of Islam but should anyone acknowledge this too loudly — that the loyalty of a significant number of Muslims for our house resembles the loyalty of the suitors for Odysseus’s house — co-religionists cry bigotry.
The West provided a peaceful existence that sheltered the Belgian-born terrorists from the bloodshed of life in many Muslim nations, the freedom to practice their faith, and economic opportunities that include health care, welfare, and other financial benefits unconnected to any obligation to find gainful employment. Counterintuitively, yet commonly, they hate their benefactors.
Unlike Penelope, the West possesses the power to evict its suitors. Instead, we go out of our way to demonstrate that we are the suckers they believe us to be.
One of the airport bombers received a nine-year sentence for shooting at police officers in 2010. His younger brother, who authorities say perished in the subway bombing, received a five-year sentence for carjacking in 2011. With both men behind bars, they could not possibly have carried out the Brussels attacks, right? Right?
Last year, the Turkish government detained airport bomber Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, just five years into his supposed nine-year Belgian prison term, attempting to enter Syria to join ISIS. Turkey deported him. The Netherlands, and later Belgium, accepted him. “Despite our warnings that this person was a foreign terrorist fighter,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained, “the Belgian authorities could not identify a link to terrorism.”
Perhaps their detective work will find some clue establishing a connection now.
The allied ne’er-do-wells who targeted a rock concert and a soccer game in Paris last year similarly acted as takers rather than makers before their final acts of ingratitude.
Ibrahim Abdeslam, for instance, slept his days away, watched DVDs, and smoked pot every day while blaring Arabic rap songs before blowing up himself, but thankfully no one else, outside of a Paris cafe. His ex-wife, perhaps giving insight into this incompetence, explained to the Daily Mail, “We lived on unemployment benefit which was only €1,000 a month between us so we worried a lot about money.” She says he worked a single day during their marriage. When Abdeslam finally went to work, the Islamic fanatic operated a drug den masquerading as a bar.
The arrest last week of his sibling Salah Abdeslam, authorities believe, likely accelerated the plans of the brothers Bakraoui and confederates to murder innocents in Brussels.
We don’t require an Odysseus to emerge from his rags to enact vengeance upon the ingrates. (“You wasted my substance, have forced my women servants to lie with you, and have wooed my wife while I was still living. You have feared neither God nor man, and now you shall die.”) We could use a few Penelopes pointing out the ingratitude, the basic indecency that lashes out against hospitality. (“When men are courting a woman who they think will be a good wife to them and who is of noble birth, and when they are each trying to win her for himself, they usually bring oxen and sheep to feast the friends of the lady, and they make her magnificent presents, instead of eating up other people’s property without paying for it.”)
The compulsion not to offend with words the people who offend us with actions overrides the desire to speak truthfully. But until Westerners identify with volume and clarity the source of the decades-long attack on its civilization, wise actions remain thoughts scattered about.
Great books such as The Odyssey define the West. So, too, does Christianity, which not coincidentally celebrates its foremost religious holiday five days removed from the Brussels attacks. But forgetting who we are we means we can’t begin to defend our civilization. A people who stand for nothing get stepped upon by those who stand for something, even a bad thing.
We wonder why they attack us. We rarely get around to pondering what, precisely, we seek to save, beyond people and property, from the onslaught.