The Paris attacks have occasioned a wide-ranging debate about what they mean and how to respond, involving Islam and its role, military strategy, and – oddly enough – how Muslims in New Jersey reacted to September 11 (thanks, Donald Trump). It’s all very interesting and, for the most part, quite important.
At bottom, though, the import of the Paris attacks is not complicated: ISIS terrorists are enemies of our civilization.
Paris has seen its share of sectarian hatred (the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre), violent upheavals (too many to count), and authoritarians (Napoleon Bonaparte, most notably), but it is synonymous with an appreciation for the finest things wrought by human talent and discernment. You don’t have to be fond of France’s centralizing political culture or its statist economics (I’m not) to recognize its achievements or honored place in the West.
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Obviously, this hasn’t always been true, and the road to the adoption of these norms has been winding and bloody, sometimes spectacularly so, in great clashes within and among Western powers. These qualities are never perfectly realized and always are under both internal and external threat.
But they have created the conditions for stupendous human flourishing. It is represented in staggering artistic and literary expression, in awe-inspiring scientific, technological, and medical advances, and in mind-boggling levels of economic development that mean the average Westerner lives like a sultan compared to the average person throughout most of history.
If we are inclined to take any of this for granted, we should have a renewed sense of its wonder and fragility when it is under attack from barbarism. ISIS embodies a theocratic totalitarianism that seeks to subject the human spirit to its perverted dictates. It kills, in part, as an advertisement for its own vileness and brutality. It gleefully vandalizes ancient cultural treasures, and considers Paris “the capital of prostitution and obscenity.”To borrow from Orwell, the ISIS picture of the future is whipping the non-conforming women of Raqqa – forever.
We are different, although we aren’t ourselves responsible for that. The West is our windfall. None of us were at Runnymede in 1215 or Philadelphia in 1787. None of us knocked a chip off the block of marble that became Michelangelo’s David or contributed a brush stroke to a Rembrandt. None of us invented the steam engine or the iPhone. None of us discovered penicillin or the polio vaccine. None of us fought at Poitiers, and very few of us at Normandy.
If you are not thankful and humbled by all of this, you are an ingrate. Your freedom and material comfort depend on generations of sacrifice and effort before you. It is your privilege to enjoy all that our enemies – if they had the power – would wantonly destroy. If nothing else, Paris should be a reminder of that. What they hate, we should hold all the dearer.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]. © 2015 King Features Syndicate