The Paris Attacks and “The Values we Share”

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On Wednesday of last week, a thoughtful fellow named Burt Kerwin was having a beer with a conservative writer of little repute. Burt owns a small gas station in the South, and when he’s not jockeying the register or dipping a long stick into the ground to measure the fuel reserves, he’s usually got his nose in a book. He’s not prone to hysteria, he doesn’t follow the news with any particular interest, and he’s not taken to outlandish statements. So when he said, “You ever get the feeling that something has drastically changed in the last fifty years?,” the lowly conservative writer knew better than to immediately respond.

“How do you mean?”

Burt tipped back his beer. “I mean…look around. This isn’t normal. There’s always been war. Always been murder. Crime. Greed. Religious fanatics. None of that’s new.

“But shooting a class full of kindergartners? Slamming jets into buildings? Killing thousands of people in one day?” He felt around in his breast pocket for his cigarettes, remembered that he quit two years ago, and settled for a deep breath. “I guess what I’m asking is: Where are we headed?”

The lowly conservative writer was perhaps too drunk by that point to offer any words of wisdom – if any he had to give – but that conversation came back to his mind Friday night when word began rolling in about a devastating series of terrorist attacks in Paris. According to the news, the coordinated attacks were carried out by eight terrorists at six different sites. The death tolls always vary wildly in the early hours after these events, but it was clear that more than 100 people had been killed.

The next morning, as hundreds of families confronted the grief that will be their constant companion for the foreseeable future, French President Francois Hollande said his country would not back down in fear. “We will lead the fight,” he said. “It will be ruthless.”

Back at home, President Obama said the bloodshed was “an attack on all humanity and the values that we share.”

Indeed…

For the next couple of weeks, the Paris attacks will dominate the news cycle and likely alter the tone of the American presidential primaries. We will learn more about the individual terrorists who committed the atrocities, we will probably discover warnings that were overlooked, and we will talk about what kinds of security precautions we need to take to keep these things from happening in the U.S. We’ll hear sarcastic remarks about gun control, we’ll debate our role in Iraq and Syria, and then we’ll slowly but surely put this event behind us.

But maybe a southern gas station owner has it right. Maybe this isn’t really about Islam or guns or mental illness or the West’s involvement in the Middle East. Maybe Obama is wrong when he says this is an attack on “the values that we share.” What are those values? Are they written in concrete or are they stored in helium balloons, ready to float away at the slightest gust of wind? Why does every survey show that Americans are less happy than ever before? Why are middle-aged white men dying well before their natural time? Why are black Americans – privileged to live in a society that their forebears could have only dreamed about – so angry? Why would a wealthy Saudi Arabian construction magnate decide that he would rather leave a legacy of bloodshed than one of paved roads?

The world has never been perfect, and one need only look at 1930s Germany to see that evil needs no particular reason to exist. But when we’ve gotten to the point where we’re all just nervously waiting for the next tragedy, knowing to a certainty that it’s coming, maybe it’s time to seriously wonder whether laws and airstrikes and background checks are ever going to be enough. If there is an infection at the root of this, all the band-aids in the world won’t stop it from spreading.