This past Friday night, coordinated terrorist attacks took place in Paris, killing over 100 people. Many more were maimed and injured. Witnesses described scenes of carnage as attackers opened fire and detonated explosives.(1) These horrific crimes against humanity speak of the power man has to be violent and cruel, to grossly disrespect the value of human life. Yet, amidst the pain and fear, there are those who responded with kindness towards the afflicted and exemplified the great power man also has to be selfless and charitable.
There is no way to diminish the absolute barbarity of these attacks. Every person who died was a friend, child, sibling, or spouse to someone. Each and every one of their deaths is a travesty, one that can never truly be rectified. Those who sustained injuries and witnessed the attacks were also subjected to a most cruel and unjust ordeal. In such situations, there seems little that any one person can do to help in the face of such tremendous losses. Yet, there is always some hope that arises to renew faith in mankind.
The Parisian people have already begun to show reasons for such hope. In an overwhelming show of kindness, many people have opened their homes to those who have no place to go. Using the hashtag #porteouverte (“open door”), many locals have posted their addresses on the internet with the intent of sheltering those in need. (2) This response of charity and trust among the Parisian people is a testament to the profound love that humanity is indeed capable of. Though this in no way can make up for the staggering loss of life and peace, it is indeed a step on the road to healing through true community.
Oftentimes, after harrowing loss, there may arise a communal spirit in which people lay down social barriers and come together in grief and love. This by no means justifies violence, but it may help console those who suffer. When a person dies, a funeral is a time for those who were close to the deceased to grieve in community with one another, to draw strength from each other. Such events will be taking place all over Paris very soon. In this way, there is hope that these occasions of community may bring some comfort.
True community is brought about by instances of genuine love. It is love that allows us to reach out to each other, particularly in times of great sadness. There are those who claim that such outreach is fueled by empathy, by a feeling that we identify with those who suffer; in reality, there can be no such understanding. I can only imagine the absolute fear of those who endured such attacks; I cannot experience it, and I cannot understand it. In this way, it cannot be mere empathy that drives us to charity. If one believes that it is love that allows us to reach out to each other, then we must suppose, as Dietrich von Hildebrand claims, that “[t]he specific structure of ‘community’ as such necessarily presupposes the spiritual person.” (3) By respecting the spirit of each person as that which brings about love, we come to see them as individuals, and come to know them as unique and unrepeatable. In this way, the horror of such violence is renewed as we look at the loss of not just a group of people, but the demise of over one hundred unique, unrepeatable persons, whose lives are irreplaceable, and whose deaths were wholly unjust. The loss is great, but, the instinctive reaction of those surrounded by such horror to pull together in community is a testament to the innate desire of mankind to reach out with love, and this gives hope.