Getting it wrong

I was offline most of yesterday until late, so I took what I thought would be a quick peek at Twitter over my coffee before work. Heh. I should know better: I saw a tweet go by and felt that old twitch start up, the “shoot off my stupid mouth” twitch.

Alas, I was stupid. And wrong.

Now, it’s been standard practice for Rueters, the AP, et als to get Catholic stuff wrong, often with the classic “accidentally on purpose” method. The earliest example in my adult life was in the early 90s, when the Church was ready to release the latest Catechism. The New York Times went ahead with some pointless verbiage days before the official English translation was even available, and of course it turned out that the Times was talking out its ass.

Further examples are legion. (My well-meaning Aunt emails them regularly.) Therefore I felt no hesitation in scoffing at an AP report (via a Charles Cooke retweet) that Pope Francis had said that violence was understandable regarding Charlie Hebdo’s cartooning.

Mr. Cooke had to put me some blinking knowledge. I had to apologize. I was in error; in fact, it was the same category of mistake as His Holiness made, that of talking off the cuff without thinking. Unlike either of his two predecessors, he seems to make it a lot.

I’m no stranger to shooting off my mouth, but one hopes the actual Pontiff has more restraint than some randomly-chosen Internet-era pontificator.

Still, I am a random Internet-era pontificator. (During our courtship, my wife once offered to buy me an antique wooden soap box, so I could store things in it when I wasn’t up on it.) My measured pontification is that what Pope Francis said was clumsy and inelegant. He ignored the context of what’s been going on in the world for the last several decades.

So, the takeaway from Pope Francis’ interview seems to be that insulting a religion is provocative and you can expect a violent response.

“It’s true, one cannot react violently, but if Dr. Gasbarri, a great friend, says a swear word against my mother, then he is going to get a punch. But it’s normal, it’s normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith … make fun or toy with other people’s religions, these people provoke, and there can happen what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mother. That is, there is a limit.”

Bitch had it comin’. That’s what you might expect from your garden-variety Islamist, hot to trot for the jihad, but not at all what one wants to hear from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rome.

This is what I find somewhat frustrating with our current pope: he doesn’t seem to get that he can’t shoot from the lip without having it all taken as the official word of Catholicism. Like it or not, a lot if the world despises Christ and his Church, and they have invested too much of themselves to give the benefit of the doubt. They aren’t going to draw a distinction between a bull session and an official papal encyclical promulgating doctrine. They lie enough to try to damage the faith without being handed a truth to do it with. This is where one should apply the Scripture verse about being both harmless as doves AND as cunning as serpents.

I want to be fair to Pope Francis. I get about 75% of what he’s saying. The word provocative implicitly understands the chance of a violent reply; else we would use a word like annoying. And like he said, it’s a normal human response to respond with force to certain provocations.

I confess that I can’t watch that clip without cheering for Mr. Aldrin. That guy was a jackass, he actively harassed and confronted Mr. Aldrin, and he got chin-checked on merit. More importantly: any society where that kind of a response is permanently out-of-bounds quickly devolves into a society ruled by the rudest and most ruthless among us. Some bullies and cowards will never get the message unless it’s slapped into them; this actually makes society more polite and courteous as a result, because someone with no moral compunction about haranguing an old man in the streets now has a more visceral reason to think twice. This is a well-known paradox, where trying to enforce the “right” choice actually makes the right choice impossible, while permitting the “wrong” choice makes a world where the right choice is much safer and therefore much more common.

That brings us to the other 25%, which is what turned even the reasonable parts of Pope Francis’ statements into nonsense.

Had His Holiness said that he understands the anger because of the slanders that his own faith endures, and then quoted “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26), then we have a teachable moment that reinforces all that he said about forgiveness during his recent visit to Sri Lanka. More importantly, it would put the blame for murder and mayhem squarely on the shoulders of the actual murderers. There’s a huge difference socking some guy who’s mouthing off and won’t shut up, vs. taking lives because you can’t handle a few insults like an adult.

Because whatever else one could say about the Charlie Hebdo staff and their work, the one thing it doesn’t do is chase you across the street, dodge two people politely insisting you stop, ignore the threat of police involvement, and confront you on camera while you try to mind your own business. It’s beyond easy to shrug off Charlie Hebdo; if one must reply, then one could always do it with words and ideas – much like I’m writing this to counter the careless half-baked statements of my own religious leader. That’s the distinction that Francis glossed over; notably it’s also a distinction that the Islamists do not acknowledge at all. So long as they judge the topic to be important enough, then there is a simple binary test – did you respect it or not? And if the answer is “not” then you may be killed for it.

Under Francis’ logic, I could say with all honesty that he had insulted the memory of the dead victims, and under that provocation I could slug him when he stepped off the plane. On those grounds alone, what he said is provably, logically dumb. And if the jihad took it as an insult, then they would blow up the plane before it landed.

Aldrin didn’t seek out this guy to sock him, even though he’s been preaching for years that the moon landings were faked. He reacted when he was sought out and harassed. Had someone taken copies of these cartoons and stuck them under the wiper blades of every car in a mosque parking lot, and then waited until prayer was over to try to stuff them into the hands of the worshippers, I would neither be surprised nor particularly angry if he got his lights punched out. That very notably is NOT what happened here. Far the reverse – Islamists have been carrying out a constant campaign of murder, intimidation, and conflict simply because such things happen to exist. Charlie Hebdo is not a provocation, but a response to a provocation.

The desire to think of civilization’s struggle with Islam as a mere tussle between brands of the same thing, distinct without a real difference, is morally and mentally blinding. It’s a much more visceral fight – a war launched against civilization itself by a centuries-old enemy, wearing a new costume and waving a new flag of supposed grievances. Giving them any sort of intellectual cover for their operations is a small treason against humanity. Likewise, any mental or moral ammunition to bolster our morale is a boon. In a strange way, those cartoons are more on the side of actual decency and respect than any of the weak-kneed refusals to print them or even mention them. A world where those things are tolerated is a safer and saner world, and using actual death and tyranny to silence them is to submit to the cruel and grim logic of barbarity.

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