How to make sense of a beheading

I’ve been thinking all weekend about the murder and decapitation of the teacher in France who showed his middle school class controversial cartoons of the “Prophet Mohammed” as part of a lesson on freedom of expression. The murderer: an 18 year old Chechen refugee who was shot dead on the street by French security forces. The implications: immense, for the five million Muslims in France who by and large live peacefully in that country and have integrated into French society.

I’ve been going over it again and again and thinking about what it means, what it doesn’t mean. There are no easy conclusions to reach. “He shouldn’t have done it” is being applied to both the murderer and the victim, but they both did “it”, and now we are left to make sense of the senseless. Of what cannot be explained. Of what can be understood on an intellectual level, but not on visceral level.

And yet on a primal level, we understand this slaying all too well. The world is not divided into people who kill and people who do not. There are only people who have been given the circumstances and opportunity and those who have not. “I could kill him” is an easy part of our spoken language. We flirt with life and death, we look at our hands and know that they are instruments. We make a choice. Then we spend our lives rubbing out the spots of blood that will not disappear.

I lack the words to express my sadness that such a thing should happen, in the 21st century, when humanity should be evolving, when the events of 2020 should have taught us the need for unity and strength. And yet it has happened, and may well happen again.

Does “why” and “how” even apply to something as terrible as the taking of a human life, for a principle? Cain picked up a knife and slew Abel and was forever marked, left to wander the earth, cursed for eternity. Since that first murder, humans have been taught that it is wrong to kill. Humans have also been taught that killing under certain circumstances is justified. We’re a contradictory, feckless lot, we humans. We kill when we want to and twist the reasons as an excuse for our actions. We claim that we kill for God, for country, for prophets, for self-defense, for honor. We claim we kill because we have no choice. The only other choice is to die.

Everything that can be said about Muslims, religion, barbarism, France, freedom of expression, the right to provoke, to criticise, to mock and mimic, has also already been said a thousand million times over. If you can’t tolerate Western values, get out of the West. If you punch down on a marginalized community, they’ll snap. A lone wolf. A terrorist with links to known networks. A religion that is a death cult. A country with a dirty colonialist past. Hypocrisy. Barbarity.

All the words in the world can’t erase the image from my mind: a teenager carrying the severed head of a man down the street. The children, traumatized and hysterical. The family of the dead man, grieving a senseless death. The teenager shot dead, lying in the street in a pool of his own blood. Another family, some members under arrest, grieving a senseless life.

What happened? How did we get here? Words won’t solve this murder that is no mystery. I have the right to provoke. You have no right to be offended. Take the provocation until you snap, and then suffer the consequences because you do not belong in civilized society. Is this how we got here?

I am a teacher. I shape young minds. It’s my job to teach my students about freedom of expression, about liberty, about the values that shape the nation we live in. I will ask some students to leave, because I know they may be offended by the cartoons I will show them in order to illustrate my lesson. I am doing this out of respect to those students and their beliefs. This is the way around the dilemma. It’s the humane thing to do. I make my choice, and I act.

I am a teenager, but I am also a man. I have been raised to think that my prophet and my religion are more important than anything on this earth. I am a refugee. I have seen things that are unspeakable. They may have disturbed my mind, or perhaps I am evil at heart. I hear of this provocation, and I must act. My life is meaningless if I do not defend my principles, my prophet’s honor. I make my choice, and I act.

It is an endless cycle. It is a trap. It is humanity presented as two polar opposites, when in reality, all of human life, of creation, of thinking and of belief lies on a spectrum. We have made humans out of monsters and monsters out of humans in our need to understand a beheading after the fact.

Religion tells us that human life is sacred, that we don’t have the right to kill under any circumstances, that everything we do has consequences. The existentialists, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus among them, tell us that life is meaningless, that nothing we do will make any difference in the grand scale. And yet we have religious wars and human rights declarations, theocracies and democracies.

When you really look at it, the only thing we have is the freedom to choose. Everything else is white noise. That is the only way to make sense of a beheading.