Sunday, 22 November 2015

Tragedy of Paris leaves us facing tough challenges in days to come - my Catholic Universe column

There are sometimes events that happen in our world when  we all remember where we were when we heard of them.

For past generations those events, I am told, were few and far between; VE day, the assassination of President Kennedy, man landing on the moon.

For my generation they appear to be altogether more frequent: the death of Princess Diana, the bringing down of the World Trade Centre, the London 7/7 bombings and now another one.

I shall never forget where I was when I heard of last weeks horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. I am sure every reader of this newspaper in the years to come will be able to do the same.

For me, I was sat in a hotel room overlooking the runway of an inordinately busy airport in Las Vegas, Nevada five thousand miles away from home, my wife and my children. I have never felt so far away.

I’ve written in these pages before about the American media being insular of not telling stories, no matter their gravity, outside the boundaries of their nation. For once I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The national news networks Fox and CNN dedicated their coverage solely to the emerging story. Local network affiliates lead their news programmes with the latest updates.

In a city so dedicated to enjoying oneself tourists were noticeably a little more sombre.

Just like many notable structures around the world the lights of Las Vegas’ equivalent to our own London Eye were changed to those of the French Tricolor.

Perhaps the most poignant moment came when the lights on The Strip’s own scaled down version of the Eiffel Tower at the suitably named Paris Las Vegas hotel were turned off. A small number of people mostly European and lead by our French brothers and sisters gathered to pray and comfort one another.

That a place normally of such excess became a makeshift shrine mirrors the stories of 14 years ago when tourists congregated across the other side of the road outside the appropriately named New York New York hotel with its own smaller version of the Statue of Liberty.

Watching the news and hearing witness statements from those caught up in the Paris atrocities makes it very easy to talk of a fractured world.

It is absolutely clear to us in the west that whilst the vast majority of our Muslim brethren  have no sympathy for the actions of murderers and terrorists there is a small number of extremists who misguidedly espouse that great religion. Those awful people have now misappropriated a region and have renamed themselves, and it, Islamic State.

The reason I was in Las Vegas was to escort my mother and step-father on what will in all likelihood will be their final trip to the United States, a country which they both love.

Whilst both of them, at 79, are in decent health for their age my mum cannot walk any great distance and uses a wheelchair for anything further than a hundred or so metres. I am sure that whilst both of them would love to return in the future once they tick over to 80 years old the cost of travel insurance will become prohibitive.

The reason I tell you this is simple, if not in small part hoping that you don’t think less of me for visiting such an hedonistic place. Accompanying two older people to Las Vegas highlights to me at least the genuine decency of ordinary people.

Time and time again this week I have pushed my mother, in her wheelchair, along The Strip. Time and time again when going through a door or trying to navigate a step strangers have paused their own holiday momentarily to ask if they can help with anything.

These people, more often than not young men and women, are taking a couple of days off from their jobs and could quite understandably be focussed on enjoying themselves to the full but instead at the sight of someone struggling with a wheelchair they pause and they help.

To me those momentary interventions are more than a sign of good manners, although my experience is that most Americans tend to have manners  in bucketloads, they are small glimpses into the genuine generosity of the human spirit.

On the whole our communities are full of good people, our society is a decent one. Of course, not everything in Britain, France or the United States is perfect but it is firmly my belief that we massively benefit from a socially progressive, Christianity derived values culture.

It was a surprise to absolutely no one that in the hours and days that followed those Paris atrocities countless people took the minuscule but in these days important step of changing their profile pictures and saying  ‘we stand together’, ‘we will not be bowed by terrorism’, ‘our way of life, the freedoms, the tolerances enjoyed by us and our neighbours will go on’.

For all of our faults our western way of our life with our values, our democracy, our tolerance is desirable not just to me, a middle aged white man, but to countless millions of others irrespective of their race, colour or religion.

It is a way of life that we pride and it is a way of life that we must, sadly, at times be willing to fight in order to protect.

Following the world changing events on September 11 2001 US President George W Bush in a speech to a joint session of Congress declared that America, and by definition its allies, was locked in a ‘war on terror’.

14 years later and French President Francois Hollande has used very similar words to describe the events in his country.

There is absolutely no doubt that our  western democracies are not ‘at war with Islam’ but with extremists willing to use the name of that religion for their purposes.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear. Defence by military force can be used where the damage inflected by the aggressor is lasting, grave and certain. Force can be utilised where other means of putting an end to the aggression have been shown to be impractical or ineffective, where there are serious prospects of success and where our use of arms does not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated.

In taking on extremists willing to use terrorist tactics against us, who claim statehood for their enclave despite millions of decent followers of Islam trying to escape their control, it is time to think very seriously once more whether the use of force in the air and on the ground is necessary.

Such a step should never be easy to palate but it is right to consider taking it, keeping in mind the teaching of the church, for our allies, for our way of life but most importantly because overwhelmingly we are decent people.

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