Like all of us, I remember that day a decade ago – where I was, what I was doing on that beautiful, sunny day. But to dwell upon individual recollections of events on 11th September 2001 seen or heard from a safe distance seems disgracefully self-indulgent given the scale of destruction and grief generated by those murderous attacks . But, of course, that wasn’t all: the world changed that day and the West lost what innocence it had. Vigilance – with its customary corollaries, political, economic and psychological – has become a drearily necessary part of all our lives. And taken up permanent presence in our minds.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if we are applying it properly – so as to safeguard the innocent and preserve our hard-won democratic traditions. When I read the following passage forty years ago, it was revelatory. How much more important are its lessons now:
‘Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.’
Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato (1945)
A sober argument of fundamental force and importance, presented with painstaking clarity. There is nothing to be gained from tolerating the intolerant for they produce nothing but a fast route into a nihilistic abyss: aut nihil nil nisi bonum. But we might consider why Popper’s words have such impact, and here I’d prefer to let one of my favourite English writers remind us of the possibility of good prevailing over even the most incomprehensibly reprehensible people:
‘There is surely a piece of divinity in us, something that was before the elements, and owes no homage to the sun.’
Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1642)
We saw plentiful evidence of that ‘piece of divinity’ among the heroes of 9/11, and those whose dignity in loss has proved so impressive since.
Those who perpetrated these acts were – and are – in the dark. And there is no light in them. They chose to pursue petty and irrational hatreds promoted to insane levels. These they nurtured in tandem with a sense of victimhood (characteristically an excuse for childishness when not used as a spur to constructive action). They chose killing other human beings rather than at least accepting the right of those others to live. They could have chosen joy and wonder. And they are owed no more respect than any other violent criminals who get off on hatred, selfishness and killing.
Thoughts and prayers today to those who have suffered because of the stupid, vicious and destructive tenets of terrorism – among them, the only son of my neighbours, les Pastorelli. Monsieur et Madame Pastorelli, whose unfailing kindness and humour in the face of unfathomable sadness continues to inspire and illuminate the lives of all who know them.
Pic sourced from Commons Wiki.
Note/update: Martin Robb, a clever blogging friend, has included an extract from this post in his own, thoughtful and thought-provoking selection of quotes for that day. It is a great accolade for me. And Martin’s blog is always worth a visit.
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