Many of us were struck by the events in the legendary city of Paris on Friday night. As Parisians settled into cafes, filed into theatre seats, and gathered by the tens of thousands at the soccer stadium, seven young men perpetrated six separate mass shootings and three suicide bombings. At least 129 people died while sharing coffee with friends or trapped like cattle in an art centre. Another 400 were injured, and the morale of a nation is stirred.
ISIS/ISIL has claimed responsibility, and I have little doubt that they were the perpetrators. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 we have been conscience of various Islamist organizations who use civilian populations as tools in their warfare, from Lebanese hijackers to Boko Haram in West Africa to large scale Western strikes like 9/11 and 7/7. As ISIS has terrorized a large region of Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East, beginning the largest migration of Muslims in history, ISIS has now brought fear and blood to one of the great cities of the West.
As French fighter jets streak across the Levant and refugees prepare for another night sleeping on foreign ground, it might be helpful to take a Screwtapian view of things.
The Screwtape Letters is one side of a demonic correspondence discovered 75 years ago and then published by C.S. Lewis. Screwtape, a senior demon who had spent his career tempting humans on the front lines, offers advice to his protégé. Peaking in on this manual of anti-spiritual advice gives us an intriguing view of sin and brokenness from the other angle.
We discover quickly that Screwtape loves extremism. The issue in Screwtape’s context is WWII, so the extremes in England then were pacifism and patriotism, rather than today’s political ideology that harnesses the religious passions of oppressed and disillusioned young men. But all extremes are to be encouraged, and it is up to the demon to know which extreme to encourage. And Screwtape was able to predict exactly how young men become suicide bombers. Let me quote a portion of Letter VII, changing some of the words for the new context:
Whichever the young man you are tempting adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the political action as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which religion is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the end of Western tyranny.
Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and pilgrimages and charity, he is ours—and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here,
It is a pretty good recipe for creating a terrorist out of a disillusioned youth. Doubtless a senior demon like Screwtape can be effective in destroying souls among the disaffected, even if the context is quite different. Indeed, it could be that Screwtape’s protégés are hardly necessary in certain parts of the world as cultures of soul destruction are functioning well without any need of attention.
But a clever fiend like Screwtape would have some concern by the particular actions of Paris Attackers. Screwtape divides cultures into two ages:
Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.
It could be that Paris and the West are ripe for being inflamed because of unbalance and partisan spirits. Divisions of culture certainly exist, not least in the United States and France.
But are these terror attacks not more like waking sleeping giants? I suspect, despite the culture wars we wage, we are an age of apathy. In Screwtape’s recipe, our complacency should be soothed, our consciences left in slumber. I would argue that our culture’s entrenched battles of ideas are fought by a very few while most people are watching TV or doing puzzles of pictures of the Eiffel Tower or the New York skyline. Probably the shrill tenor of our partisan politicians and frontline culture warriors is because most people just don’t give a damn.
What of the Paris Attacks?
“Of course a war is entertaining,” Screwtape admits to the up and coming tempter. The next sentence could have been a demonic tweet last Friday night: “The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers.” But Screwtape gives two warnings to young fiends who delight in carnage.
We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy [i.e., God], while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.
As François Hollande hastily sends young men and women into battle, there is no doubt hatred and revenge and panic. On the edges, the tangs of evil may not be unlike the response of whoever set fire to a mosque in Ontario yesterday. There will be evil in the response to terror, as there was evil after 9/11, even if there is good. Probably the people to suffer the most will be the 100,000 people who call refugee camps their home tonight.
But the event may cause thousands of Parisians to awaken to something other than whatever the French equivalent to TV and puzzles is. On his first day in France one of my former students was at the Stadium when it was attacked. Interviewed by CBC, he said that the Paris Attacks are “a turning point for the city.”
What if he is right?
What if a conversion of hearth is the result of the terrorists’ attack? What if people turn from self-occupation and culturally acceptable levels of narcissism and apathy to hearts bent with concern for the suffering and the oppressed? If this is what happens, there could be some good emerge from the blood and fear in Paris.
Second, those involved in the destroying of souls relish in keeping a human preoccupied with anything but their own mortality, while slowly stripping the soul of its immortal vision. “Wartime,” or times of terror like right now, are exciting to demons because of the carnage. But events like the Paris Attacks really work against what Screwtape thinks is the most successful plan for soul destruction—even if it is the least sexy approach:
Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.
“Contented worldliness”—I called it a life devoted to a flickering screen and puzzles of places the puzzle-doer will never visit—is a powerful tool of soul destruction. Honestly, in my own life it is not the tragedies that drain me of spirit. It is the relentless pace of Monday to Monday, the blather of media, and a world more committed to office politics than real issues of truth and beauty and love. I have had tragedy, and you can bear up against it. You can emerge from the cloud of pain and see the world again.
But we can never escape from what we’ve made of everyday life. It is all there is left to us in the imaginative landscape of possibility.
How do we respond to the Paris Attacks? How do we resist Screwtapian evil and turn this fear and blood into good? We hear the prophet who cries, ““Awake, O sleeper!” Awake.
As it turns out, the Paris Attacks will probably have unintended consequences for the terrorists and for the Islamism that supported it. Events like 7/7 and 9/11 are not the first surgical strike of an energized movement. They are the desperate attempt of dying idea perpetrated by a community desperate for change. As frightful and frustrating as we urbanites find them, they do not produce the results that support the initial cause. Or at least not for long.
So our response of caring, connecting, and giving encouragement to those suffering is a great way to resist demonic actions of whatever stripe. It would be no small thing if terrorism served to awaken our cultures to systems of oppression, to the effect of our choices, and to the spiritual need that goes unmet in our neighbourhoods.
That, I think, is how we respond to the Paris Attacks.