It is becoming difficult to remember all the killings. Among the places draped in black are Brussels, Lahore, Germany twice over, Japan, the terror-torn countries of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya ― again and again, Egypt, Turkey, Paris, Nice, and now, yesterday, Normandy.
An 86-year-old priest, Père Jacques Hamel, was saying Mass in a parish church with a handful of congregants when two attackers took his life and injured the others, one critically. ISIL claims “responsibility” for the acts of these faux soldiers of Islam. But the symbolism of this killing is deep and physically disruptive: The priest was saying Mass, a celebration of Christ. His life was taken by cutting his throat, an allusion to the sacrifice of the lamb, and Christ the lamb.
The church was in a small city of 30,000; while not a village, the spread of terror continues to migrate without boundaries to large and small sites. The town, Saint-Entienne-du-Rouvray, is in Normandy, where thousands of Allied and German soldiers lie at rest in cemeteries that appear at this time of year as curtains of green and white that seem to spread forever. There is nothing notable about the location of the Normandy city or this now scarred church, which makes it a mere one degree of separation from anywhere and everywhere.
This morning, I spoke with a French priest, almost as old as Hamel and still active in his parish in a small rural village. He was shaken by the death of a brother clergyman but more so for the manner of the murder, because of how Mass and sacrifice have been etched into his heart and faithful soul. A knife to the heart might have been more bearable, he said.
This morning, I also spoke with a Dominican priest from western France, a young man at the beginning of his calling. He echoed comments last night from the Cardinal of Paris, referring to the despairing psyches of those who are radicalized to kill. And he went on, knowing more than his youth betrayed. It seemed to him, me too, that it feels as if the center cannot hold. The countries of Europe (the U.S. too) have lost the firmer footing of 70 years ago, even 50 years ago, and are emerging from a romance with wealth and fame that has proven an empty partner in life’s journey. What do young people today have to hold their center, to give meaning and purpose to their lives, to show a path for a future of hope and the prospect of fulfillment?
We are in a war with no name. We did not start it, but we are engaged in it. The Pope, the father of all Catholic Fathers, has asked his followers to be inspired by fraternity, by the pursuit of peace. This is a war that cannot be won by guns, by more violence, but violence will surely be needed as a means of protection against those that decry us as the enemy. This is not a sanguine future to face.
We must also recognize contagion, a concept well known in infectious disease, which has as much application in matters of the mind. Suicides are known to spread by contagion. Illnesses without a medical basis have a long history of appearing and spreading, especially in schools and among young girls (a form of conversion) until they devolve and pass. Violence too is contagious. As is the allure of media attention: There is the prospect of a grand public moment of fanatical, self-destructive devotion in the name of a cause, this time jihad, because every outlet will broadcast the actions of the killer. We will see more of these horrific murders, I am afraid, even when responsible journalism (e.g., withholding the names of the perpetrators) tries to dampen the enthusiasm of those looking for glory as a means out of the desperation of their lives.
The word massacre, comes from old German, matskelen, which means to slaughter. And slaughter it was in Normandy, in the most biblical of ways.
Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law (Psalm 118:18, King James Bible). The events of murder upon murder now fix our eyes on the cruel and inhumane. It is hard to see past the fog of the war with no name but unless and until we do we will become its spiritual victims.
My thanks to Dr. Isabelle Amado for the title of this post.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.