The problem is that we are not all Charlie. The very declaration that we are – our need to identify with the victims of a terrible crime, as if we can protect them by exposing our own breasts to the assassins’ bullets – is based on the understanding that others do not share the same concern.
In this case, the killers have another identity, their own reason to defy death and to express solidarity; their point of reference is their religion. Western liberal thinking is based on individual rights which are protected by the state and enshrined in its institutions. As individuals, we identify with each other as equal members of a group whose function is to protect us and to allow us the freedom to develop. Our allegiance is to a system that tolerates diversity – until differences threaten stability and prosperity. However deep-seated, our beliefs are relative and flexible, our minds are attuned to change and religion is a personal issue. Religious fundamentalism and political extremism see stability as allegiance to absolutes: Their followers cannot improvise, accept or adapt. They either endure or they take action against those who question, who threaten their concept of the world. Their strength and conviction cannot be shaken because it has a divine source.
It may be impossible to defend a tolerant, contemporary society against its enemies without changing that society. Once conflict begins, no policy nor good intentions can reconcile the existence of two very different worlds. The slaughter in Paris will pour fuel on the fire of nationalist extremists across Europe, weakening the concept and the ideals of a united Europe. This will most likely prompt further reaction from Islamist extremists. Moderate forces will be marginalized, threatening the core of liberal society.
In the past, such fundamental differences in world view were separated by geography, by physical and political borders. Within those borders, when minorities drew the attention of the majority it usually ended with their being wiped out. Today, different world views and different frameworks of identity coexist in many societies. Modern weapons allow a few fanatics to wreak maximum havoc and, through modern media, to influence the behavior of the many. Conversely, today’s states have the power to monitor the words and deeds of every individual within their borders and beyond. When those in positions of power feel that the majority’s fear and anger override concerns of civil and personal liberties, they will violate those liberties, setting off a chain reaction that will stop only with total surveillance of the population.
The result will be a monoculture, a dictatorship of those who control the means of monitoring the behavior and, consequently, the thoughts of the population. Whether this is a dictatorship based on protecting the core values of a religious or secular society, the result will be the same: total domination of the individual. Democracy, which harnesses the power of diversity through the imposition of equality, will be impossible. The war that has begun is not between the pen and the sword, between tolerance and intolerance. It is between life, which arises only from the messy marriage of the different, and death, which is impatient to impose its certainty on all.