A Beheading in Paris—What We Know And Pretend Not To

by Jai Menon - Oct 17, 2020 10:41 AM
A Beheading in Paris—What We Know And Pretend Not ToArc de Triomph (Wikimedia Commons)
  • If we tolerate these acts of violence, calls to violence or normalisation of such discourse, then it will be the end of democracy, the end of basic freedoms and the start of a new dark age.

A teacher has been decapitated in a Parisian suburb. The teacher, in a discussion about the Charlie Hebdo slaughter, had allegedly shown the students cartoons similar or identical to the ones which led to that massacre. He did this after apparently telling a section of the students to leave the room because “I don’t want it to hurt your feelings”.

The world as a whole is well beyond the phase where we need to examine the question of who did it and why. Everyone knows. Most people in the democratic world even know what was probably yelled out by the murderer as the beheading took place. They may be wrong. But chances are that they are not. Everyone reading this knows that too.

We already know what the mainstream media will say and what the social media will say. And, for the most part, we also know what the politicians will say. More importantly, what they will not say. What’s worse, we already know for what political reasons they will not say it. The more informed among us are well enough acquainted with such situations that we can even predict by name politicians who will make one type of statement or the other. But let’s not blame the politicians here.

For the next week, maximum two, the talk shows will be populated by think-tankers who will be exercised by the impact and implications of the incident. French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement after the attack will be examined, in light of his recent “controversial” statement that “Islam is in crisis”. The global implications will be considered too. Everyone will weigh in. Then, just as fast as it came into our field of perception, all of it will disappear.

The incident will end as it started. The man who was killed and his killer who is also dead, shot by police. Two bodies lying on the streets of Conflans Sainte-Honorine - identities deleted from this world, and for all we know, never to be replicated. There is a grieving family, perhaps two.

We know this: an 18-year-old at some point on 16 October decided to cut off the head of a teacher more than double his age, with a sharp instrument, likely a knife. He then acted on it. Having acquired a weapon, he walked up to middle-aged and unarmed Samuel Paty, probably stabbed him first and then cut his head off.

People do not die easily. It is not like in the movies where, with one choreographed slice, the thing is done. Humans resist, the body struggles instinctively even if the mind is transfixed in fear. It is a slow process, as these things go. Stroke after stroke in sawing motion, until the body stops struggling and the head is separated from it.

Clearly, the killer has not done this before. He was only a teenager after all. What might have been going through his mind as he proceeded to decapitate Samuel Paty? What was he thinking about when his weapon penetrated flesh the first time? Was he surprised by how easily it went in, the fragility of man? Did he step back in horror, even for a moment at the prospect of cutting down a living being, of ending life?

We cannot know with any level of certainty. French President Emmanuel Macron has called it “an Islamist attack”

So we also know this: the killer, whose name and background we are not informed of officially yet, did this because his religious belief told him so. There are enough videos online from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria of beheadings for anyone to become more than casually acquainted with the process. It is certain that his actions will get support from quite a large number of people although it is said they only form a small proportion of the total population of believers.

As for you and me, what are we do make of this, yet again? Can it happen to you or me? It seems that it can, if you say or do things that might offend. That is what is truly meant by terror. Fear of violent repercussion for what you might write, say, do or even think. It is a slippery slope to hell with the gradient determined by the readily violent.

There are no simple answers to this challenge to democracy, to civilisation really. What is clear as daylight is that if we tolerate these acts of violence, calls to violence or normalisation of such discourse – no matter which source it comes from and in what form – then it will be the end of democracy, the end of basic freedoms and the start of a new dark age. Alarmist?

Do not worry though, reader. You will forget. See, you have already forgotten that, only 3 weeks ago, in Paris, a young 18-year-old Pakistani, Ali Hassan (aka Zaheer Hassan Mehmood) stabbed people outside the city block which used to house the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Hassan’s father later confirmed, from Pakistan, that he was “proud” of his son who “has the heart of a lion”. The man has five sons, of whom two are in France and one in Italy.

You may have heard sometime in school, during your history lesson, that civilisations come to an end from barbarian attacks because they become effete and decadent. That they are weakened by pinpricks on the boundaries, and tolerate it because their concerns are more mundane, personal and comfort-oriented. That by the time the people of a dying civilisation realise what is happening to them, it is already too late.

We can still ensure it is not too late. Do what you can, democratically and non-violently, with all the means at your disposal. This is the means I have at mine.

An EU citizen of Indian origin, Jai is based in East Africa and is a keen observer of Eurasian and South Asian developments.

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