Periodically one nation or group attacks another. The assault can be shocking. The corporate press, eager to sell news, keeps the headlines going as long as possible. Governments and pundits who have the power to use what’s happened in support of their interests, extrapolate from the particular to the general. They spew accusations that instill fear of everyone who shares a racial or cultural identity with the perpetrators. Before we know it the situation escalates, and we may have another Inquisition, Middle Passage, invasion of First Nations, Holocaust, Patriot Act, or rash of police murders of unarmed youth on our hands. Backtracking is difficult if not impossible.
Many of those reading this may not be old enough to remember how quickly anti-Semitism in Germany morphed into The Final Solution, how insidiously repression of student revolts and union struggles in Latin America became more than 100,000 disappeared persons, or how segregation in the US South exploded into Ku Klux Klan rallies, burning crosses and dead civil rights activists. Most do remember, though, how George W. Bush’s brazen and thoughtless response to 9/11 engulfed our nation in a National Security mentality that has yet to let up, two wars without end, and a history of violence (including torture) hard to imagine even twenty years ago.
Fabricated hate and fear always have a tipping point. During the Inquisition Catholic political power wasn’t able to consolidate its rampage overnight. Rome gained more and more influence, until it was capable of threatening hundreds of thousands, forcing them to convert under penalty of death and casting its shadow all the way to the New World. Jews in Germany and throughout Europe weren’t the targets of discriminatory jokes one day, the next finding themselves trapped in a downward spiral of imprisonment and death.
Each time humans are convinced to hate and betray other humans a series of small gestures lead to larger ones. Official lies and citizen lethargy facilitate the twisted legal maneuvering taking the place of the seemingly insignificant joke. The curtailment of civil rights may be implacably replaced with ovens. Before it can be reversed or stopped, a great sociopolitical and economic policy is firmly in place. Then it takes inordinate courage and thousands (sometimes millions) of deaths to emerge from the siege of terror. Even once it has been stopped, the historic memory of such horror will affect generations.
In retrospect, it is easy to see there was a tipping point, a moment beyond which the unchallenged evil gained a momentum difficult to stop.
The January 7, 2015 murders of 12 people at or around Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian magazine that satirized the Prophet Mohammed as well as many other “sacred” figures, casts renewed light on the danger of extrapolating from a few crazed gunmen to an entire group. Four of the dead were the publication’s courageous editor and cartoonists who regularly aimed their pens at Islamic fundamentalism. Nor had they spared Jewish or Christian fundamentalism. Their quarrel was with fanaticism, not religious belief or cultural identity. They believed in freedom of expression and dedicated themselves to testing the outer limits of that expression. Their thought and action represented a vitally important national characteristic.
Following the horrendous attack, millions in France and around the world wrote, shouted and tweeted: “I am Charlie.” But there have also been some who have declared: “I am not Charlie.” Several surviving Charlie Hebdo journalists also reject some of the support as insincere. They note that many have joined the chorus who criticized the publication’s cartoons as “too far out,” while failing to support journalists and artists in their own communities who have openly critiqued other dogmatic positions. Others point to what they see as hypocrisy on the part of the more than 40 world leaders who came to Paris to take part in the magna demonstration in defense of freedom of expression that took part on January 11th. They want to know why these leaders don’t take more uniform or energetic positions in defense of the freedom to dissent within their own communities.
The corporate press has an important role to play in shaping public opinion following such incidents. More and more, they shirk this role. Generally speaking, rather than ask thoughtful questions and try to get readers to examine their own prejudices, major news outlets allow themselves to be guided by their bottom line: what stories sell the most papers or obtain the highest TV ratings. True, there is the page-six mention of the Muslim clerk who saved lives by hiding people in a walk-in freezer, or the dead policemen outside the Charlie Hebdo office who was herself a Muslim. But the greatest emphasis is always on the national and religious origins of the attackers. Readers and listeners take it from there. It is inevitable that fear of all Muslims tip toward hate and revenge.
Even the cartoons themselves, meant to spoof fundamentalist dogma, may contribute to stereotyping: features are drawn, and dress and accents are mimicked, in such a way as to lump all members of the vulnerable group together.
At that point stratification sets in. On the level of intellectual discussion arguments may be made for discernment. On the popular culture level—especially among people unschooled in international affairs and not taught to respect difference—ignorance prevails. We saw how following the 9/11 attacks, here in the United States the murders of those of Arabic backgrounds skyrocketed. And Muslims weren’t the only victims. The mere sight of a turban or headscarf turned Hindus, Sikhs and others into targets.
Generalization is palpably present in the midst of an upsurge in homegrown violence as well. In the United States over the past several years hundreds of unarmed Black youth have been murdered by white police officers. An epidemic that might logically have resulted in wholesale racial sensitivity training for US police departments, and a questioning of those departments’ use of surplus war materiel, has instead pitted law enforcement against the Black community. Racial profiling has increased. Policemen protect one another. Judges routinely fail to indict the murderers. And when New York mayor Bill de Blasio challenged police brutality in his city, rank and file cops literally turned their backs on him.
Misplaced power also has its say in the wake of an increasing number of school and mall shootings. Rather than enact laws that would limit the number of assault weapons in the hands of a volatile citizenry, the National Rifle Association is able to spew platitudes about the Second Amendment and freedom of individual defense, and keep guns in people’s hands. More licensed and unlicensed firearms exist in the United States than in any other economically advanced country. And of course there is more tragedy as well: from senseless accidents to acts of uncontrolled rage the statistics are hundreds of times higher than in Canada, Japan, or France. Whatever happened to common sense?
Each of these situations has its tipping point, a clearly defined line between the moment when things could go either way and the moment in which there is no turning back. Almost always, that line is only seen clearly in retrospect. The historical analyst has the luxury of pinpointing how things might have been different. Imagining a different future when there’s still time to change the course of history is much more difficult.
In so many different areas—global warming, war, racial and religious intolerance, acceptance of human difference, and more—those capable of exercising such imagination, and those able to steer human response in a life-affirming direction, are sorely needed.
We must learn to act before the tipping point.