Nicholas Kristof, in his Thursday op-ed piece for the New York Times, “Satire, Terrorism and Islam,” uttered a statement that seems to summarize what most of the Western world is thinking today: “The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who ‘otherize.’” Kristof then went on to plead, “Let’s stand with Charlie Hebdo, for the global outpouring of support has been inspiring. Let’s denounce terrorism, oppression and misogyny in the Islamic world – and everywhere else. But let’s be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own.”
Wrap that up in a bow, my friends, for therein lies conventional wisdom. Kristof is making several points. The characteristic virtue of our era is tolerance. The characteristic vice is intolerance-fueled violence. Charlie Hebdo speaks with satire (not violence) so we “stand with it.” And we stand with Islam as well as all other races, colors or creeds, because, unlike the “terrorists,” we are “tolerant.”
Obviously, I cannot disagree entirely with Kristof’s comments. Like Kristof, I deeply mourn the deaths of the employees of Charlie Hebdo and all of the others who died in France this week at the hands of religious extremists. Like Kristof, I believe in free speech, including the right of Charlie Hebdo to disseminate its brand of satire. But like most conventional wisdom, Kristof’s point was far too simplistic. For one thing, Charlie Hebdo doesn’t stand for tolerance. Tolerant people don’t depict all Orthodox religious practitioners, let alone the prophets of their faiths, as ugly, sub-human perverts. Tolerant people don’t foment polarization and hatred. Conventional wisdom may say “I am Charlie Hebdo,” but true wisdom says “Thank God I have better things to read than the smut that Charlie Hebdo publishes.”
I also disagree with the idea that the characteristic vice of our times is intolerance-fueled violence. Violence certainly belongs on our short list of vices, but it would be folly to focus exclusively on that violence which is fueled by intolerance. Our problem is violence, period, however it is fueled. And believe me, the violence problem has reached epidemic proportions here in the “tolerant” West, not just in the “intolerant” Middle East.
Conventional wisdom indicates that here in America, we are “tolerant,” we are “moderate,” and we are peaceful. Well, we may be tolerant, but we are certainly not peaceful. In fact, it is precisely our tolerance that fuels our lust for death … or our willingness to look the other way when other people kill, as long as it’s not in the name of “terrorism.”
To begin, we are addicted to eating meat, notwithstanding the effects of that addiction on our environment and our own health. We ourselves don’t kill for our meat, we have others who kill for us, but our demand is what fuels the number of animal killings. What’s more, we are hardly discriminating in the way we take our meat. It’s no secret that factory farms don’t merely kill animals for our eating pleasure; they place their animals in conditions that can only be described as torture. We are aghast when we read these reports. But we eat the flesh that these farms peddle. In other words, we facilitate and look the other way at the unnecessary killing and torture of animals, and as long as we’re not doing the deed (which we define as the killing, not the eating), we can happily view ourselves as non-violent.
We are also addicted to unprotected sex, despite the carnage that flows from such sex. Each year, roughly one million human fetuses are aborted in America. My guess is that most of these abortions come from unprotected, consensual sex. Do we lust for such abortions? Of course not – and that is one reason why we can look at these acts as fundamentally “non-violent.” Another reason is that we are obsessed with the debate about whether abortion should be legal. As a result, as long as we believe, as most of us do (myself included), that abortion should be legal, we can absolve ourselves of moral responsibility for having the unprotected sex that so frequently leads to aborting human life forms. Once again, we are burying our heads in the sand about our violence problem.
When we recreate, we go to the movies, watch TV, or play with video games. And what do we enjoy watching? Mass quantities of gratuitous killings. Even the directors and actors we admire the most peddle murder and torture. It’s become almost de rigeur. Who doesn’t love the Godfather? Who doesn’t like Die Hard? Even a movie like Django Unchanged, which to me is just a stupid orgy of violence with no artistic merit, received an 88% rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for five Academy Awards. The other day I heard on cable news that the members of Al-Qaeda have derived a lot of enjoyment and inspiration from watching violent Hollywood movies. These movies are shown worldwide, and they de-condition all of us to tolerate the abrupt and involuntary termination of human life. There’s that word again: tolerance. Thanks to our entertainment industry and its award-winning stars, we’re plenty tolerant when it comes to watching human beings blow each other away with guns and knives. But are we violent? Nah, because the stuff on the screen isn’t “real” violence, we tell ourselves, it’s only “virtual” violence.
When we elect representatives to serve in Congress, they quickly learn one lesson above all others – don’t mess with guns. Here in America, people are gunned down on the city streets every day, and nobody cares (other than the immediate family members of the deceased). It’s just something we have come to expect. We also frequently have school shootings, and that does kind of tug at our heartstrings a bit – after all, the Hollywood types who have conditioned our “tolerance” haven’t decided to depict kids getting shot in every movie, but only adults. As a result, these school shootings inevitably lead to at least some calls for gun control. Yet even when the gun-control debate forced Congress to debate the issue of whether background checks should be mandatory for gun sales, and even when it became clear that more than nine in ten Americans supported requiring background checks, Congress still voted down that idea. No doubt, our representatives didn’t see themselves as having a “violence” problem – they were only standing up for “liberty” and trying to get re-elected.
The truth is that our whole world has become inured to violence. What scares us here in the West isn’t all forms of gratuitous violence, but only the type known as “terrorism,” by which I mean the taking of innocent life by individuals as a political or religious statement by those who see themselves as fighters for an oppressed people or ideology.
Do I find terrorism disgusting? Absolutely. Do I share Kristof’s views that there is a battle afoot between “terrorists” and “moderates” and that we are responsible for embracing moderate Muslims rather than lumping them in with their terrorist co-religionists? Sure, I subscribe to that statement as well. But where Kristof and I part ways is in taking that difference to be the “great divide” on which we should be focusing most of our attention. To me, the great divide is between those who are working for peace in all its forms and those who are perpetrating, or looking the other way at, violence. When you eat tofu instead of chicken, have sex only when protection is available, watch a comedy instead of an “action” movie, vote for Congressmen with bad NRA ratings, and (if I may add another point) work for climate change before it consumes the lives of millions of Africans and others … then you can talk about being on the right side of the “great divide.” Until then, we’re all just fueling the same fire.