THE BLOG
11/19/2015 03:39 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2016

Laments for My Native Paris: What Motivates Acts Of Horror?

The rue des Ternes presents a sharp contrast to the conventional perception of Paris. In a city of wide and bright avenues, it is narrow and poorly lit. It is the street on which my two sisters, my brother and I grew up, on a fourth floor apartment that our parents lovingly crafted into a happy childhood home. The rue is quiet without any significant history. But, as with all major European cities, it does not take a long walk from the peaceful side street to reach sites associated with bloody events. Behind a façade of perfect perspectives and romantic atmosphere hides a history of sinister brutality.

Strolling along elegant Paris boulevards and pausing to enjoy a café and croissant on a lively patio, it is hard to imagine that the same ground witnessed notoriously brutal Viking raids (845), violent clashes of the hundred years war (1429), the frightful St Bartholomew's day massacre during the war of religion (1572), the great "Terreur" of the French Revolution (1794), the Commune (1871) and the Nazi occupation (1940-1944) that our father experienced and fought.

There were many other historic massacres. But few of them were more senseless, more shocking that the one perpetrated, last Friday, on innocent and defenseless Parisians and visitors having dinner, watching a soccer game, enjoying a Rock concert. The night brought its ominous darkness very close to our family, since one of my nephews was at the attacked stadium. The infinite sadness and traumatic shock of Parisians have inspired a worldwide response of spontaneous solidarity and support. My family and I have been deeply moved by it.

What is the motivation of this kind of horror? You cannot dismiss the stated motivations of the killers which in the Paris attack are religious and associated with a radical branch of Islam. But, in light of the considerable power of our unconscious, I am skeptical about the human ability to accurately identify and properly self-report genuine motivations. Is the ideology or the religion the true motivator or just a convenient channel through which to vent hatred, to exercise dominance and to practice sadistic racism?

The seemingly universal human ability, in the appropriate circumstances, to be complicit in atrocities is a very disturbing reality. The biography of some SS men who went seamlessly from normal life to monsters back to normal life has always haunted me. The findings of "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission" in South Africa has become a perfect source of study of the human capacity for horrific behavior among a wide variety of so called respectable people. US history has its own dark episodes. No nation is exempt.

The ease with which, after 1941, some soviets became enthusiastic Nazi camp guards in German occupied territories of the Eastern front, is rather well documented. They changed masters but remained dedicated practitioners of the same sadistic thoroughness. After the war some Nazis converted into very docile and conscientious communist agents of coercion in East Germany. The commonality, the constant is not the stated motivation or the driving justification but the evil conduct. The ideology is just an excuse.

Beyond the question of its motivation is the other fundamental question of how to respond to horror. For over 12 months we have been receiving very reliable reports from Iraq and Syria of ISIS' massacres of children, enslavement of women, religious and ethnic cleansing and execution of gays. The scale of these war crimes is horrifying, their consistent viciousness rarely seen throughout history. Pope Francis rightly condemned the widespread indifference towards it. To allow this to happen without doing more to prevent it will define our time. Already it is threatening it. With relative inaction our proudly professed values appear hollow and rhetorical. A clear moral imperative is at risk of being entirely missed.

"The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children." wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor and outspoken critic of Hitler's regime.

Free societies, by their very nature, are vulnerable. Free speech is often used to silence others. Pluralistic tolerance can be manipulated to impose intolerant uniformity. It is not only wise but also vital for an open society to demand respect of its values as a condition for new inclusions. But in spite of these intrinsic vulnerabilities, the free societies have proven remarkably strong and resilient in face of the grave twentieth century threats of Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism and others. Freedom's ability to survive, prevail and flourish, in spite of the considerable power mobilized against it, is a shining light of history. Today, it should encourage us.

Our current century is now confronted by new menaces illustrated by the ISIS' horrid slaughter in Paris. It has now become urgent to be reminded that the brilliant successes of the recent past did not come easily. They were the results of a painful, determined and very courageous fight.