I remember the ball of ice that formed in my stomach as I read the news about Orlando. I have no connection with Orlando or the 49 people killed by an ISIS-sympathizing gunman, but my first thought was of my gay friends, who would doubtlessly be affected. And as it became apparent that this was a jihadist attack, I thought of November 13, when terrorists shot up Paris, my home city.
One of the things that impressed me most about America, living as I do across the pond, has been the way the country seemed to come together and unite in a sort of holy fellowship after 9/11.
But things have changed, haven't they? Tragedy no longer seems to bring Americans together, it tears them even further apart. On Twitter, over the prayers and condolences and humane feelings, #take after #take after #take rolled in.
When tragedy strikes, there's a very well known psychological impulse to look for someone to blame. We can't come to grips with the randomness and cruelty of the world. Deep within us remains the urge to make sense out of the chaos. Surely someone must be to blame.
And in a society where politics increasingly becomes the dominant part of our identity, where we're increasingly upset by the idea of a child of ours marrying someone from the Other Side, then the one to blame has to be — must be — the Other Side.
It is the NRA, nevermind that Islamists have been able to find assault weapons in gun-controlled places as well. Or it's the Christian right, nevermind that it has nothing to do with Omar Mateen. Or, as in the case of Donald Trump, it's basically all Muslims. Each example is just another form of scapegoating.
Jihadists sometimes speak of distinguishing between the "near enemy" — regimes in Muslim-majority countries who aren't in thrall to their ideology — and the "far enemy" — the United States, the West, Jews. The idea was to focus on the "near enemy" first and then strike out at the "far enemy." Osama bin Laden's innovation was to take jihad global, with the idea that by striking the far enemy first, you would weaken the near enemy, who is a puppet of the far enemy.
But we see the same sort of dichotomy at work among some of our cultural warriors. Jihadism may be the far enemy, but there is also the near enemy of the political and cultural right. The far enemy is complex, and doesn't fit neatly into the familiar pattern of our political Kulturkampf. The near enemy is easier to understand (or so we think), and easier to blame.
What do you do about the cultural alienation and incredibly complex geopolitical, technological, historical, and socioeconomic phenomena that drive radicalization? Tough. But man, you can tweet angrily about the NRA or the importance of saying "radical Islamic terror." That's easier. The near enemy is right there. Fight the near enemy first, take care of the far enemy later. Except that's nonsense. The two are different. And maybe life is more complex than enemies and non-enemies.
It's so human, though.
Some people will defend "politicizing a tragedy," because doing so creates political capital for positive change. I don't doubt their good intentions, and I believe politics is important, or else I wouldn't write and think about it for a living. But they are missing the forest for the trees. Politics is also the stage of perpetual conflict and perpetual de-humanization of the other side. The good that comes out of tragedy is precisely that it reminds us of that aspect of humanity we all share — mortality — and thereby reminds us of what is more important than politics. Politics can do a lot of good in the world but it becomes a most fearsome vehicle for evil once we lose our awareness of our shared humanity. Politicizing a tragedy robs it of exactly the good that can be drawn from it.
The writers of Charlie Hebdo were my political "enemies," but I proudly proclaimed "Je suis Charlie" because their massacre reminded me that what I have in common with them is orders of magnitude bigger than what divides us.
But it feels so good to lash out. It feels so good to blame the other side.
The problem is that it's a distraction. By blaming whoever seems the juicier target, by looking for a scapegoat, we just obscure reality, feed what is worst in us and starve what is best. We all deserve better.