“It has been almost a week since a truck plowed through a Christmas market in the heart of Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring dozens. In the following days, the city, the country — all of Europe — were gripped by the Continent-wide manhunt for the suspect, Anis Amri, who was shot and killed by the Italian police on Friday.
Certainly, sadness prevails in Berlin. At Breitscheidplatz, many have left flowers and candles. Some cry. “I just don’t get it,” said a man who lives nearby.
“We have helped so many. Why do they attack us?””
Out of the senseless violence of the past years, this sentence expresses what I fear most. Who are “they”? Probably Muslims. Daesh and its victims all put in the same bag, without distinctions. Just like, in the 30s and 40s, German Jews and North American citizens of Japanese origin were too often associated with the enemy and collectively considered suspicious. Just like gay men, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, were often indiscriminately considered responsible for its dissemination. This is the most terrifying prospect of the populist onslaught: treating everyone with only one identity marker, thus seeing only a threatening throng, an unindividualised mass.
The great lesson of the human rights doctrine has been to teach us to individualise our judgments and never blindly apply collective tags to individuals. We cannot say any more that Jews “are like this”, or women “are like that”, or Blacks “do this”, or gays and lesbians “do that”, or Aboriginals “are different”, or Muslims “are not like us”, or Mexicans are “rapists”. Each of these collective tags cannot wholly define any individual: we are not unidimensional. We are all complex human beings, with numerous identity markers, which affect us in multiple different ways.
We also make individual moral decisions about our lives and that of others. People placed in the same circumstances may take very different courses of action. This is the essence of criminal responsibility and legal liability. One cannot be held responsible for the action of another, whatever one’s identity markers.
We must always look for the individual’s defining complexity and learn from it. Appreciating human diversity is acquired taste: it comes from experience in dealing with “others” and feeling our common assumptions challenged, thus taking us out of our comfort zones. This leads us to appreciate more the commonalities than the differences, just as we do within our families. It is not chance that the most xenophobic communities are those which have seldom encountered the “other”: cosmopolitan cities are least anti-immigrant.
As long as we use collective tags, we can only repeat the most vicious fantasies and encourage stereotypical behaviour around us. The lessons of the human rights doctrine over the past 70 years can never be taken for granted. They must be constantly learned, taught, expanded, disseminated and shared: aggressive public discourse and political leadership are urgently needed.
As liberals, we must “stand our ground and toughen up” (How do liberals halt the march of the right?). Pushing back hard against the nationalist populist bullying is the only option.
To read the full article, in the NY Times, please click here.