Terror in Europe

France, The Myths Of Human Freedom And Terror

With the third major terrorism attack on French soil in 18 months, the question "Why France?" is another way to measure the stakes that apply to us all.

Liberte, Egalite, Pot de Fleurs
Liberte, Egalite, Pot de Fleurs
Jeff Israely*

PARIS — With friends in town visiting for the long weekend, we opted for dinner in our quiet neighborhood rather than jostling down by the Seine for a good view of the Bastille Day fireworks.

But once the bill was paid, we decided to haul our out-of-town guests up the hill to the Montmartre quarter to try and find a good perch to see the show exploding across town. Peering through the winding streets, we caught the grand finale with a small crowd that had gathered. It was, admittedly, a bit too far away to really count. Yet as we ambled back down the hill, that warm feeling washed over me of having just shared a moment of summer with complete strangers. Like the Fourth of July celebrations of my youth.

Sadly, of course, the Fourteenth of July festivities that honor the 18th-century revolutionary French ideal of freedom will now also mark the anniversary of an unspeakable act of 21st-century cruelty. With last Thursday's truck attack in Nice that killed 84 people who'd just finished sharing that city's own fireworks display, France has now suffered three major terrorist attacks in 18 months. This nation today stands as the West's prime target in an ongoing, generation-long campaign of radical Islamist terrorism.

"Why France?" is a question (both inside and outside the country) that is as imperative as it is a perilous slide into blaming-the-victim. Answers will depend on whom you ask: politics, demographics, the strict French form of state secularism they call laïcité, abandoned ghettos, colonial sins of the past, Syrian air raids of today, this country's role as standard bearer of Western freedom.

The targets have each been charged with carefully plotted symbolism: a satirical magazine's freedom of expression, Jews in a kosher supermarket, the freedom and fun of rock 'n' roll at the Bataclan concert hall — and now, on Bastille Day, the French Republic itself.

Another cafe

Without plunging into the colonial past, it's worth recalling the 1966 cinema masterpiece Battle of Algiers, which depicts the violent and victorious movement for Algerian independence from France. One scene expand=1] in particular shows a woman enter a crowded cafe to plant a handbag containing a bomb. We see the would-be terrorist look around and notice the smiling faces. There's a young child among them who would almost certainly die if she leaves the rigged device in the cafe. We see tension, even a glimmer of doubt, in the woman's face. She places the bag down as planned, and walks out. Boom.

Violence of course has been a means for both political and religious ends since humans first began to organize themselves in such ways. The storming of the Bastille after all was hardly an act of Gandhian nonviolent resistance. Since then, French ideals of freedom and equality have too often been an alibi for great swaths of historical arrogance and bloody errors. The freedom-loving U.S. where I was born and raised has, of course, had its own share of hubris that is more recent than either Napoleonic invasions or Algerian colonialism — and hardly disconnected from what's happening today in France.

But that scene from the movie came back to mind for another reason after the carnage in the south of France. It was the Nice attacker's chosen method for killing that was striking. Unlike the conflicted terrorist in the Battle Of Algiers film, there is no nervous glance at the faces of those about to be blown up. The driver on the Promenade des Anglais aimed straight at his victims, like some kind of rudimentary human-guided bomb detonating over time and space.

There has been much said about the reported mental illness of the 31-year-old killer, about how he had only recently started following the radical Islamist ideology. Perhaps the nature of this attack was different from Paris, Istanbul, Baghdad or Manhattan? No. Even if the details are different, it's more of the same. And it is quite obviously, for lack of a better word, war. Needless to say, a very different war than the one for Algerian independence — both in its ends and means.

In the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, the British debated whether to join France and the U.S. in airstrikes against the Islamist State (ISIS) terror group in Syria. In a memorable speech in Parliament, Labour leader Hilary Benn, laid out what the West is up against with ISIS:

"We are here faced by fascists — not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in the chamber tonight, and the people we represent.

They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated."

But beyond military action abroad, the trickier question is how to fight this war on the home front, and not kill the ideals of the French Republic in the process.

Power of myths

In his 2011 book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari explains how the human race managed to rise from a relatively insignificant species to eventually conquer the planet, largely thanks to our unique ability for "mass cooperation." One of Harari's most provocative theses is that such cooperation — everything from the establishment of villages and nations to local business contracts and global religions — has been made possible for millennia by the use of "myths" that are (falsely) propagated as verifiable truths, based on divine authority or natural law, or both. In current terms, this would apply to both ISIS's bloodthirsty Islamist self-proclaimed caliphate, and the Enlightenment ideas of freedom, equality and human rights that were born somewhere between Philadelphia and Paris. Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Harari says: No, there is nothing either natural or "self-evident" in these or any other such principles.

Still, even if Jefferson and Lafayette were selling myths, centuries later so many of us can't imagine life without them, while others are still ready to die to obtain them. Despite the failings of the nations that have relied on them as organizing principles, the principles themselves continue to represent a path to human progress in the best sense of the term.

The more frightening lesson in Harari's book is that the sheer scale of human history makes our supposedly self-evident progress look immensely small and fragile. We must, with both care and commitment, fight for it. So here's to the "myth" of the French Revolution, and seeing you at the fireworks next summer.


*Jeff Israely is the editor of Worldcrunch

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


Keep reading... Show less
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