By Eugène E.
In the 25th chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli outlines his view of the way human affairs are governed. Aside from acknowledging the role of fortune (read: fate) in the lives of men, Machiavelli introduces the concept of “virtù”, which represents a certain force – a certain vitality – that rules over that half of human destiny that is beyond the purview of fortune. Fortune, which is female in Machiavelli’s conception of world order, cannot be tamed, but virtù – a term that evades a precise translation – lends itself to the human touch; to resist the caprices of fortune, it is necessary to be able to harvest and manage the power of virtù. Such was the weltanschauung of a great thinker living in medieval Florence. What would he think about the state of the world today? This kind of speculation is mischievous but, if Machiavelli were alive, he might be inclined to say that Europe lost its virtù, leaving itself entirely at the mercy of fortune; and yours truly would be inclined to agree.
After a brief hiatus, two horrific events that took place in France last month served as reminders that Islamism and its derivatives had been merely hibernating in the West – as if there had been any doubt, that is. Officially, only one of the two incidents – the supermarket attack in Trèbes, in the south of France – qualifies as a terrorist attack, but the nature of the second incident cannot be divorced from the first, since it’s one and the same disease. Both tragedies received sufficient but brief coverage before being tossed into Lethe to be sent further downstream and, eventually, empty out into the lake of oblivion.
In the first attack, a gunman acting alone highjacked a car in Carcassonne, drove to nearby Trèbes, and burst into a supermarket to take hostages. Aside from the gunman himself, the attack claimed a total of four victims, including a police officer who had voluntarily swapped places with one of the hostages in the supermarket.
The other incident involved the violent murder of an octogenarian woman who had successfully evaded a certain death at the hands of Nazi butchers decades before, only to be bludgeoned in the safety of her home in Paris in what was supposedly a burglary. On the face of it, the murder had nothing to do with the Trèbes attack. However, you know there’s more to the story than meets the eye when the authorities refuse to disclose the identities of the men charged with the crime while diffidently conceding that anti-Semitism might have been a factor. The media have been less timid; according to a number of newspapers, one of the suspects is Muslim and knew his victim since childhood. He believed that the elderly lady, by dint of being a Jew, must have been rich and was consequently an attractive target.
The ultraliberal establishment would have us believe that both cases are isolated episodes committed by fringe lunatics. At no point should society conclude that both attacks are part of the same pattern or that there is a pattern in the first place. To admit that there is would be tantamount to admitting that there is a problem in dire need of resolution, something ultraliberals are loathe to do – out of ideological fealty, political helplessness, or both. In all fairness, the scale of the problem is so daunting that any such admissions are problematic, but they are no less pressing for it.
In the case of the Trèbes attack, the terrorist has been described as having had minor brushes with the law in the past, which is somehow supposed to make the citizenry feel better. Neither Islam nor Islamist terrorism is the problem: the author of the carnage was simply a wastrel, a ne’er-do-well, a lowlife with a troubled past, who had decided to pen the last chapters of his sad biography by taking up the Islamic banner. The root of the problem, we’re made to understand, is nothing more than a troubled individual. In other words, roulez, il n’y a rien à voir, as the French expression goes.
Two things should be pointed out. One is that contemporary Islam seems to be soaking up those who want to inflict maximum damage to the lives and well-being of others; and when one dares to ask why it is Islam (and not, say, Buddhism) that, like a solitary lamp drawing moths on a sultry night, attracts the violent and the marginalized, answers are not forthcoming. The other is that, if the Carcassonne terrorist was an aberration, we still need to explain away the local youths who attacked journalists reporting on the story in the Carcassonne neighbourhood where the terrorist had lived, and who greeted the police by saluting the terrorist. Photos of the neighbourhood in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, showing heavily armed police in riot gear, suggest a city preparing for a second revolution. That is the truly frightening thing about the Trèbes attack: the Carcassonne terrorist has far more sympathizers living in France’s bosom than the media would care to admit or the French would be willing to imagine, sympathizers who demonstrate their visceral hatred of France and everything it stands for by attacking members of one of its most important institutions – the security apparatus (recall the disturbing episode on New Year’s Eve, when two police officers responding to an emergency call were savagely attacked by a crowd in a Paris suburb full of non-European immigrants). Many of these youths were born in France and are French citizens, but they do not identify with France, nor will they ever do so, which means that France’s immigration policy is nothing but a fiasco, and the “Frenchness” of some of those who are French by birth and citizenship is highly suspect, however unsanitary such a statement might be in political terms. It is no exaggeration to say that France, along with the major European countries, has a fifth column in its midst. If one were to reach for platitudes, it would be appropriate to speak of a ticking bomb – only the bombs are already going off.
In the case of the second attack, there’s more to the murder of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll than a case of a burglary gone wrong, even when the anti-Semitism said to have been a factor in the crime has been fully accounted for. Anti-Semitism has a long history in France, as it does in other European countries; and the history is a complex one. But modern French anti-Semitism is very different from its traditional variant. The traditional strain of anti-Semitism was mostly (though certainly not entirely) the preserve of the far right, inspired by ethnic, religious, and class prejudice. The contemporary strain has all of that, but it also contains a geopolitical dimension, since the growing Muslim polity in France has been issued by countries where anti-Semitic sentiment is a function of politics in the Middle East – namely, that of the existence of a Jewish state and the animosity that it inspires among its Arab-Muslim neighbours. Arguably this makes the French anti-Semitism of today far more virulent and violent than it has ever been throughout French history – when someone like Bernard-Henri Lévy claims that Jews have never felt as unsafe in France as they do now, alarm bells should go off. If Lévy’s observation is accurate, it is probably not due to the Le Pen dynasty, the National Front, Action Française, or the atavistic stirrings of the Dreyfus Affair; it is a result of France’s surging Muslim population and the politics it has brought to France. There is nothing more impervious to borders and customs than ideological baggage. The most important source of anti-Semitism today is the Muslim community – the same community whose members routinely attack French police and soldiers, drive trucks into crowds, gun down concertgoers, decapitate priests, and plant bombs. In this sense, there is a link between the Carcassonne atrocities and the killing of Mireille Knoll, however tenuous. Incidentally, the purported comment made by one of Knoll’s alleged killers, to the effect that she must have had money since she was Jewish, echoes the reasoning, if it can be called that, of those who kidnapped, tortured and murdered Ilan Halimi, another Frenchman of Jewish origin, in 2007.
There was a time, not that long ago, when Europe knew how to make use of virtù, which made it possible for European powers to dominate much of the world and project its will far beyond the European continent. As one journalist has written, when European states were the colonizers, the colonized did not blow up people in European capitals. However simplistic this might sound, the general idea behind the statement is solid. For Machiavelli, virtù is associated with impetuousness, daring, and audacity, qualities that are favoured by fortune. Europe was certainly all those things before it turned to navel-gazing, self-loathing, and auto-flagellation. It doesn’t follow that colonialism should be restored, but it does mean that, by abandoning the colonial experience and other such nastiness, Europe also relinquished its virtù, losing the vital force that underwrote its identity and Europe’s ability to assert it. The most powerful civilization on the planet proceeded to dismantle itself, gradually eradicating its very Europeanness. Ultraliberalism was adopted as the guiding dogma, spawning a remarkable asymmetry in relations between the West and “the rest”. Ultraliberals have imputed to their doctrine a kind of universalism born of arrogance and complacency. The arrogance made it a truism that ultraliberalism was the best doctrine available to humanity, while the complacency held that the adoption of the ultraliberalism of the West by “the rest” was a foregone conclusion.
As we have learned, these assumptions were misplaced. Recognizing this, however, does not make the asymmetry go away. Muslims are not just free to roam about Europe; they demand – and are accorded – the right to build mosques and bring their customs to the streets of European cities. On the other hand, foreigners cannot enter Saudi Arabia without a visa, which is not easily obtainable, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are strictly off-limits to non-Muslims. In Canada, Sikhs asked that they be allowed to wear turbans as part of their Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) uniform instead of the traditional flat-brimmed hat; and the request was approved. It is hard to imagine that a similar request filed by a westerner aspiring to join India’s law enforcement agencies will be looked upon with the same indulgence. Where’s the reciprocity in that? Europe (and, more generally, the West) is obligated to accommodate non-Europeans at the expense of its Europeanness, while non-European societies suffer from no such compunction.
During a television talk show a few years ago, Nadine Morano, a French politician and former cabinet minister, called France a country of “the white race” and Judeo-Christian roots, and expressed her desire that it remain so, a remark for which she was naturally taken to task. It was the reaction of her interlocutor, a French journalist, that was curious. Debating with Morano, he asserted that France could well become a Muslim country one day and that there was nothing wrong with the idea anyhow. When an individual thinks that the disappearance of his own society and its replacement by another is not a big deal, that individual cannot lay claim to having virtù; or else, it’s a very peculiar kind of virtù. While one can only guess at how many people share these feelings in Europe today, the current situation suggests that legion is their name.
When Europe had virtù, its destiny was cosseted by fortune (fortune favours the brave); when it lost its virtù, it exposed itself to the ravages of fate and chance. Fortune moved on to rain its privileges down on those who wield virtù more deftly – perhaps on those who are sufficiently impetuous to cross a sea, disembark on strange but affluent shores, and displace the host peoples. While fortune-favoured Muslim migrants pour in, virtù-less Europeans organize gay parades, make gender-neutral arrangements, and pass legislation that is inimical to family life and population growth. The contemporary West is thus short on both virtue and virtù. No doubt there will be another Trèbes that will claim more innocent lives – in France or in some other (West) European country. No doubt the French president (or his European colleague) will talk about meting out justice to those who have committed the heinous crime, and remind the world that we will not cave in and that ultraliberal values will continue to be upheld, complete with more gay parades, more gender-neutral arrangements, and more multicivilizationalism. No doubt, then, the root causes will remain unaddressed, and yet another terrorist attack will follow. Such is the price of losing virtù and leaving yourself open to the blows of fortune – the price of being virtù-less.
One might well ask whether the loss of virtù preceded the advent of ultraliberalism, or whether it was ultraliberalism that gave rise to the loss of virtù. What came first, the chicken or the egg? This question must remain unanswered. Perhaps the loss of virtù and the rise of ultraliberalism took place concurrently; there might well have been a reflexive relationship between the two. The exact answer is not that important. A more urgent question is whether Europe can recover virtù and use it to build a stronger, healthier and richer Europe, a Europe that is proud of its Europeanness and whose very existence continues to be predicated on the quality of being European. The answer to that question can’t come soon enough.