When terrorists attack innocents, when barbarians slaughter concertgoers, when zealots target outdoor cafes, when fundamentalists murder “infidels” on the streets of Paris, New York, Madrid, and Mumbai—when these things happen, we are reminded of just what a unique civilization we have inherited in the West and just how fragile that inheritance is. We are reminded, too, that among us are those who would be content to toss it all away.
In the darker corners of the Internet and the leftward precincts of academia, the Enlightenment values of liberty, reason, and universal human rights—not to mention the world-changing political revolutions they inspired in Europe and the Americas—amount to little more than a cheap intellectual justification for the historical forces of imperialism, slaughter, and subjugation. Usually, it’s easy to ignore those who respond to events such as the attacks in Paris with soliloquies to the effect of: “Well, you know who the real terrorists are, don’t you?” Or, “You can’t expect an entire civilization to take centuries of insults lying down.” Or, “Do you know what’s happening in Palestine right now, yesterday, and every day?”
It’s not easy to ignore those sentiments today. We’ve only just realized in the last week that a significant cadre of college-age Americans put no stock in the Enlightenment principles enshrined in our Constitution. Maybe you saw the vice president of the University of Missouri’s student body telling an MSBNC anchor, “I personally am tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.” Maybe you saw the video of the young Yalie shrieking at a professor to “Shut up” because he had the arrogance to suggest that she and her compatriots could handle being treated like adults. Maybe you read the op-ed in the Yale Herald in which another student claimed to be uninterested in debate. “I just want to talk about my pain,” she wrote.
Maybe, too, you noticed how the adults at Missouri and Yale (and at other schools) reacted to these bullies. They scampered. They caved. They groveled. They apologized. And they resigned. It doesn’t bode well for Western civilization, does it, that our best and brightest young things are less than convinced that it’s better to live in an open society governed by laws than it is to live in a society governed by subjective notions of fairness and progress. I’m sure Isis would love to get its hands on such a place. Far easier to hijack a population in thrall to relativism than to conquer a free people who know why they’re free and are committed to remaining so.
Isis and its admirers are surely banking on our civilizational response to its aggressions resembling the reactions of Missouri president Tim Wolfe and Silliman College master Nicholas Christakis to the insubordination of their students. They expect us to freeze up. The expect us to be cowed. They expect that we will apologize and give them what they want.
And why wouldn’t they? Every time they hit us, we make a big show of our outrage and resolve. Ultimately, though, we find a way to pull back from doing the job that needs to be done. Our memories are short—they can be measured in the four-year cycles of presidencies and academic life. Their memories are long—they can be measured in centuries and millennia. They see our civilization as a Johnny-come-lately, wet behind the ears and unsure how to respond to a bully. They may be right. I hope not. I hope French president François Hollande means it when he promises that France’s response will be pitiless—for civilization’s sake.