Watching the French National Assembly sing “La Marseillaise” after the Paris attacks last week was very moving. The power of that anthem has not faded in 200 plus years, and the French may very well be thinking that the lyrics are just as appropriate as they ever were too:
“Against us the banner of tyranny is raised,
…do you hear the howl of the savage soldiers?…
They are coming …. Cutting the throats of our sons and our women.”
Reports are in that enlistment in the French army is up, just as they were when the song was written in 1792 at a time when France was invaded by counter-revolutionaries.
On the other hand, it is disturbing to say the least to see President Hollande and all 577 députés of the Assembly singing that they are desirous to “soak the furrows” of our fields with the “impure blood” of the enemy. The final verse goes like this:
Lead on, sacred patriotism,
Support our avenging arms.
Liberty, O cherished liberty,
Join the struggle with your defenders.
Under our flags, let Victory
Hurry to your manly tones
So that in death your enemies
See your triumph and our glory!
Except for the mention of “liberty” this is what the men of the Islamic State could be singing in their training camps to stir up their suicide bombers. It calls to mind the daily chants of “Death to America” that are a staple of the Iranian theocracy.
There are two points to make here: First, the mention of liberty is all-important. The French and their allies are fighting for freedom to live in an open society where they can pursue happiness without worrying that someone is going to enslave them, or force them into believing or acting against their consciences.
Second, although the goal may be worthy, the appeal to bloodlust, glory, and manliness gets us nowhere except back to the madness that is war. This is what destroyed a good part of Europe in the wars of the 20th century. Surely we’ve learned something from past mistakes. Young men can easily be fired up to enlist in campaigns that promise glory and honor, but watch out! The other side is doing the same thing, and all this beating of the chest ends up with young men marching to their doom, while the rest of the country spirals down into a dark hole: witness Syria today. In particular the appeal to patriotism is dangerous. Unless we can rewire ourselves and realize that we are all now citizens of the world, we’re in for a rough ride.
France, and every other country that has suffered a terrorist attack has to fight back, that’s clear. At this point, every country in the world has to sign on to this mission. But appealing to these outdated ideals defeats the purpose. Rather than glorying in the blood that will be spilt and wrapping ourselves in the flag, let’s appeal to our common humanity. Our ideals should be those of Humanism. The Seven Universal Sacraments lie at the heart of this worldview.
We have a tough road ahead. We’re up against well-armed, clever men who have convinced themselves that a supernatural being is ordering them to kill. Let’s figure out how to defeat those who are driven by what they think are commands from a god, while at the same time laying the groundwork for a more just society, without which no lasting peace can ever be achieved. Many commentators are now weighing in on what the terrorists actually want. We’d better start studying if we want to get our old lives back again. Here’s a list for starters.