Eighty years ago, a Jew approached the saintly rabbi of the Gerer Hassidic dynasty and asked him for spiritual guidance. “Rabbi, where can I go to find true fear of sin?”
“Paris,” answered the rabbi.
“Because so many good people have left their fear behind in that city.”
Paris has earned a sleazy reputation over centuries. It represents the notion that luxury and style can be achieved without restraint. In many ways London and Paris were opposing symbols in this regard. The English capital stood for the principle that humanity achieves its greatness through limiting indulgent impulses while the French capital scoffed at that assertion. As a general rule, London emerged stronger in head-to-head battles and its empire ranged further and lasted longer.
Now Paris has emerged as a bastion of fortitude in the war against terror. Somehow the rampage at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the murder at the kosher market has galvanized a fierce response from French law enforcement. The man in the street is beginning to show a rhetorical spine as well. A massive march in the heart of the great city drew world leaders and world attention, embarrassing the Obama administration in all its putrid pusillanimity. Now the question remains: can this newfound resolve be sustained?
Which brings us to the man in the street. You know, you and me. We have shown fortitude from the first but all it has earned us is loss of liberty. We are ready to march against terrorism so the government takes our shoes off before we can emplane. We are courageous enough to identify our enemy as radical Islam and to identify with its victims, including its wives and daughters, so the government will not allow us to fly without identification. We are willing to dig into our pockets to pay whatever it takes to beat the bad guys, so the government makes us empty our pockets.
So the government is not terribly helpful beyond border crossings and airport lounges, but the day to day and the week to week is in our civilian little hands. In fact, come to think of it, the word for day to day is “diurnal” but the word for the week to week is “hebdomadal.” There is that Hebdo thing again.
The aim of the terrorist is to disrupt the normal; the hebdomadal if you will. Dying for him is an expected consequence of action, but one which has an excellent mathematical payoff, often better than that of standard military action. For example, the Charlie shooters killed twelve before their own pair of lives was extinguished. A one to six casualty ratio in any conflict would leave no doubt as to the winner.
But put larger definitions of victory aside. The terrorist thrives in the realm of the micro and he thrives on the movable battlefield. He retains the option where to clash, where to crash, where to slash, while you and I do not know where to erect our defenses. With a war that can explode at any time in any place with any weapon, our lives as civilians, as private citizens, are effectively null.
Take an ordinary guy like… well, me. Until recently my range of activities and diversions was conducted in a zone of utmost safety. My creative side was fulfilled by writing in a satirical magazine and my domestic side necessitated my shopping in the Kosher market every Friday for delicious food with which to fete tomorrow’s day of rest. Last Friday, for example, I visited three separate stores fitting that description.
It turns out that none of those activities are as innocuous now as they were scant days ago. Writing my trademark scornful articles about the phonies and the villains of the world now means dodging jihadists with submachine guns. And if I go to buy some chopped liver for the Sabbath, I might find that I am on the menu instead.
I shudder to think the Arab guy I would never dream of profiling because I have the utmost regard for his right to his rite may be one of those Koranic exegetes who lacks the enlightenment of, say, an Eric Holder or a Josh Earnest and who might be using a corrupt view of Mohammedan theology to justify sticking a Kalashnikov in my face. Will I have the equanimity at that juncture to set him straight in Scriptural interpretation? As I ponder this grim new reality, the words of the prophet are being written in Paris on the subway walls and tenement walls — written in blood — while our government offers the sounds of silence.