Before he turned murderously religious, one of the Belgian bombers had been a bank robber. He fired a Kalashnikov at the police when they interrupted him in an attempted robbery, for which crime, or combination of crimes, he received a sentence of nine years’ imprisonment. Of those nine years he served only four, being conditionally discharged. The principal condition was that he had to attend a probation office once a month: about as much use, one might have supposed, as an igloo in the tropics.
In modern democracies, public discussion of the most momentous matters is bound to be reduced to what the political and media elites believe is the lowest common denominator.
The world is full of little ironies. Last week, for example, I was in the Netherlands, discussing round the breakfast table the latest developments in euthanasia in Holland and Belgium (now the world leader in the field), and today I read in my newspaper the difficulties that the state of Ohio has in executing one Romell Broom.
Harvard Law School, in abject surrender to student activists, is about to change its escutcheon because its design was derived from that of Isaac Royall, Jr., who endowed the first chair at the school. Royall’s father made the family fortune from slave plantations in the West Indies and Massachusetts, a fortune that was therefore tainted (as Balzac said that all great fortunes are).
In the prison in which I used to work as a doctor, I would ask prisoners in confidence who were held pending trial whether they intended to plead guilty or not guilty.
“It depends,” they replied.
“On whether or not you did it?”
“On what my counsel says.”
We all laugh at horoscopes and the people who read them, but I am not sure the financial pages of our newspapers (or the people who read them) are much better. Had I, for example, never read a single article in them, not only would I have been none the poorer, but I suspect I would have been none the less wise (or foolish).
Men squabble as much over symbols as over more tangible realities, and this in itself is a reality of the human condition. It is not surprising, then, that an amendment to the French constitution precipitately proposed by President Hollande in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November should have caused controversy, all the more so as it is admitted on all sides that the amendment is of symbolic rather than of practical significance. The question, then, is what does it symbolize?
My French brother-in-law recently sent me links to videos of two young French Muslims of North African descent inveighing against crimes committed in the name of religion. They were unmistakably angry and sincere. Interestingly, they said it was up to us—that is to say, we, the Muslims of France—to counteract the evil that was besmirching the name and reputation of millions of our coreligionists. It was a brave performance, because neither of them disguised himself. They probably know many people who—to put it mildly—disagree with them. One could easily imagine them being targeted by extremists. My brother-in-law (whose son was in…
One of the greatest plays of the 20th century, at least of those known to me, is Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers (1953). Written in the aftermath of the Second World War as an attempt to explain (and to warn) how a patent evil like Nazism can triumph in a civilized society, this play does what only great literature can do: suggest the universal while using the particular.
Its protagonist, Biedermann, is a comfortable bourgeois living in a town that is beset by several mysterious acts of arson. He is visited at home by Schmitz, a hawker, who half-persuades, half-intimidates his way into an invitation to lodge in Biedermann’s attic, and who soon brings a second hawker, Eisenring, to stay in the house.
By now the story of Omar Ismail Mostefai, the first of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks to be named, is depressingly familiar. One could almost have written his biography before knowing anything about him. A petty criminal of Algerian parentage from what all the world now calls the banlieue, he was sustained largely by the social security system, an erstwhile fan of rap music, and a votary of what might be called the continuation of criminality by other means, which is to say Islamism and the grandiose purpose in life that it gives to its adherents.