When Islamist terrorists attacked the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this year, I wrote on this blog about how these crimes were not only despicable acts of murder, but assaults on civil society itself. This morning when I woke up and read the terrible news about the killing of 9 innocent people at an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, I had the same thought once again. To attack a place of worship, whether a church, a mosque, a Sikh temple, a synagogue or wherever else people gather in prayer and community, demonstrates a blatant desire to spread terror by undermining the very sense of peace and security that such places are built to foster.
Of course it is for this very reason that terrorists from Hezbollah to the Ku Klux Klan have often targeted symbolically important institutions - any place that serves to bring people together in friendship, anywhere that provides a place for the free exchange of ideas or encourages progressive thinking, is seen as a threat. At a very practical, operational level, I would guess that that the alleged perpetrator chose to target this particular church because he determined that there was a high likelihood of "success" in carrying out this attack. Ideologically, if it was indeed an act motivated by hate as early media reports suggest, this horrible crime was meant to spread fear and damage an important symbol as well.
Inevitably such moments are followed by national soul-searching, as politicians and pundits try to come to grips with what has happened, attempting to understand how prejudice and intolerance can grow into something even more monstrous. There will be practical questions raised and debates begun around gun control, and how to balance the desire for an open society and the need to provide security. While we know that there are ways to make our communities more physically secure. and we applaud the important work that NGO's do to encourage empathy and connections across ethnic, religious and racial boundaries, we are still left with deep questions about what triggers such tragic events, and where, in the human soul, darkness that leads to this kind of bloodshed, dwells. We may never find an adequate answer to this particular question, but on days like today I find myself asking it, again and again.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.