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Try winning the peace with ideas

20 November 2015

Responses to terrorism in Paris need to break the cycle of violence, says Paul Vallely

THE week before the massacre in Paris, a great French thinker, René Girard, died. Girard’s contribution to Christian thought and to wider anthropology rested on his persuasive assertion that it was not religion that led to violence, but violence that led to religion.

Girard’s singular insight was that desire leads to violence. Desire is mimetic; that is, we desire things, not for themselves, but because others desire them. Think of how a toddler wants whatever toy another toddler is playing with. Advertisers understand this, which is why they show us happy people, or, better still, happy celebrities, with their products.

This is a deep anthropological truth, Girard says, rooted in our evolutionary history. When the conflicts that ensue reach levels where they endanger personal or social stability, we look for someone to blame. But in the New Testament God reverses the scapegoat mechanism that has characterised human history.

The events in Paris prompt me to a corollary. What about the opposite? St Maximilian Kolbe famously said: “Hatred is not a creative force — only love is creative.” But what if the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. And what if fear is mimetic, too?

The French government responded to mass murder on its streets by blasting the headquarters of the so-called Islamic State in Raqqa. That slakes the thirst of the French people for a swift act of retaliation. But, as the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out last year in writing on Islamic State, even if we cannot avoid some use of force, “that must be done in the context of a greater and more selfless ideal.”

In addition to individual and national responses, we should consider our collective one, and reflect on the borderline between a legitimate act of self-defence, and acts that do not address the real issue, but merely perpetuate the cycle of violence.

We have been told this week that we must not allow our way of life or our values to be compromised by our responses. An unequivocal welcome to those refugees arriving here from this week onwards — people fleeing the same indiscriminate casual brutality — is important. But we must extend the resolve not to compromise more widely, from the conceptual to the practical.

We should not speak of the Paris attackers as “psychopathic monsters”, because, as Jonathan Sacks points out in his book Not in God’s Name (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), “to deny that they are acting on religious motives is absurd”; we will be less effective in combating religious violence if we do not confront its true character.

At the other practical end of the spectrum, surely we are indeed compromising our values when the national news announces that we are doubling spending on security, while the local news is saying that 40 local libraries are to close, robbing lonely elderly people of the comfort of a weekly read.

To be effective, we must not look for quick fixes. Perhaps George Osborne should be looking to pay off the deficit over ten years rather than five. As Lord Sacks writes, “Wars are won by weapons, but it takes ideas to win a peace.”

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