I’m half French. Paris remains my mother’s home though she hasn't lived there in forty years. She is utterly transformed when she returns to Paris. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. I nearly feel at home there. I spent as much time as I could there—all told, several months spread over a decade plus—and if my felicity with the language matched how I feel when walking Parisian streets, then it would be home for me too.
The terror attacks in Paris yesterday are incomprehensible. Really, that’s what terror is—it’s the extreme fear that sets in when reason fails and words end. Violence and the suffering it causes are inscrutable. We might understand some of the motivations—such as ideology, anger, and desperation—that bring people to the point of committing violence, but the violence and the suffering themselves continue to exist beyond our understanding. The question we face at a moment like this, then, is not about understanding what has happened; it’s about how we will now respond to it.
One possibility is that we succumb to the terror that wells up inside when we see—in person or from a distance—others suffering. Terror tempts us to believe that reason’s failure is complete and only violence can meet violence. Terror convinces us that the world operates on an economy of suffering, and that we must be, as Albert Camus put it, either victims or executioners. Camus rejected this false choice because if we nurture this fear, the violence will be endless, and the only thing we’ll be certain of destroying is our own freedom. By freedom I don’t mean concerns about the erosion of privacy rights—though these matter—I mean our freedom as creators of value and meaning.
Freedom in this sense cannot coexist with fear. Fear destroys meaning; freedom sustains it. It seems pretty clear to me that there’s no such thing as dignity and respect in this universe, which is the product of chance. That is, there’s no natural necessity to respect oneself or others. Dignity and respect are freely chosen responses to the world we find ourselves in. These values exist and are real only to the extent that we put them into practice. When we affirm our own dignity and respect the dignity in another, it creates a reality in which respect is a thing. It affects the world and shapes what it means to be part of the human community. If we stop defending and extending respect, then it ceases to exist.
If we allow fear to consume us, and we fail to reignite our reason to figure out how to respond with more than reflexive violence, then we will have lost our freedom. We will sacrifice our freedom for the ever-elusive security we so desire when afraid. Perhaps if violence could create security, then it would be justifiable to exchange freedom for security, but violence only begets more violence. If we respond out of fear, we will end up sharing a vision of the world with the terrorists, believing there’s only violence and suffering and that freedom has no place in this world. We should use our freedom in ways that make the promise of liberté, égalité, et fraternité a real part of this world.