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OPINION: Paris, Politics, and the Human Mind

by Germaine Descant, published
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them. - Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, 1676


It is OK to hate some human actions, but never stop trying to understand them and never let the hate get in the way of seeing clearly, even if understanding isn’t ultimately possible. Understanding is first, moral judgment and intuition is second. - Dissident Politics, 2015

What happened in Paris last Friday to the innocents needs no elaboration. We all know what happened.

In the aftermath, there are at least two groups of people: those of us who mourn and a small coterie that celebrates the heartless slaughter.

For the mourners, it is not possible to really understand it. In the minds of the murderers, the underlying superiority of their ideology and the logic of senseless butchery that it prompted are clear. For them, it wasn’t murder, it was righteous war.

Common sense like that is simply not understandable from any rational point of view. In the modern world, there is probably no clearer example of how human minds can accommodate such vast differences.

The ideology of modern terrorism is an ugly form of politics. Common sense within that ideology can lead its followers to see a need to kill innocents. Furthering ideological goals and attaining tactical objectives trumps the value of human life. Followers simply follow the ideology without seeing beyond it and commit the slaughter.

What, if anything, is to be learned? Agencies and people involved in security will no doubt analyze what happened and review their protocols. They will adjust what they can, if changes are perceived to be needed. But that isn’t the real lesson.

What this profoundly sad episode has to teach goes beyond day-to-day planning and tactics. The lesson transcends endless liberal vs. conservative discord.

What happened in Paris last Friday night plainly shows what human minds can and will accept in the name of an ideology, no matter how odious. From an objective point of view, there is no logic in this slaughter. The logic or common sense of terrorist ideology is persuasive only in the minds of its believers, not the rest of us.

The best lesson that the lives lost in Paris can teach us is to try to see and understand how the human mind sees and thinks about politics. Yes, the Paris tragedy was all about politics.

If the Paris tragedy inspires in some of us who mourn a moment of reflection, and a better understanding of the limited capacity of the human mind to see reality and think rationally about it, then the lives in Paris were not lost in vain.

Better understanding of this human frailty cannot change what happened. But, it can open minds and that helps to see people and what they do in new ways. Something in that better understanding might point to a better solution.

The solution may be slow, messy, and painful. And, it may be too late to affect this particular brand of terror. Despite that, it just might be a path without war, if not now, then in the future.

Photo Credit: Nebojsa Markovic /

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