I’m sitting in a café on a cold misty Monday morning, on my way into work. For the past few weeks I’ve had writers block – unable to put down on paper the thoughts in my head, whether around climate change or around the state of the world. The Paris terrorist attacks have left me without words. I know these attacks happen all the time, and we in the West don’t pay enough attention to the violence in other parts of the world. There is a profound inequality in our concern, perpetuated by the media. Still, Paris is a city I know well. Paris is where I got engaged, where I have many friends, where I am due to go in two weeks for the COP climate negotiations. Of course it feels like it could have been me, us. I feel wounded.
Moreover, even my coffee this morning seems different. Suddenly a simple everyday act like taking my morning coffee in peace is not something to be completely taken for granted, as my many friends in Brussels are learning. The pernicious fear which terrorism breeds is game changing – it has to be. We can be defiant, for sure, but it shakes the fundamental security on which all European societies rest: that sense of safety that comes from the knowledge that you respect me enough not to seriously harm me and vice versa. Collectively, it means that for the most part, we can go about our daily lives serenely, without looking over our shoulder or carrying weapons. Of course, all those who have been victims of violent crime know what it is like when this is violated. Those who live in insecure cities right across the world know all too well what fear of random acts of violence breeds.
Listening to the Bee Gees in the café this morning has given me a sudden unexpected spurt of inspiration. Their forty year old song rings as true today as ever – How deep is your love? It is perhaps one of the critical questions today for each of us. Perhaps the question today is not only about how deep, but how big our love is. Who and what does our love embrace? We all think of our love for our families, our friends, our nations, perhaps nature – but does our love have to go beyond that?
It is a big question, and one which has really emerged as key in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Countering hatred with love, violence with peace, intolerance with dialogue – has become a leitmotif in many responses. It may even seem like a cliché. Yet it echoes Martin Luther King’s famous words that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I think it says something important as a response. Faced with the spectre of terrorism, which is consequence of disunity and division, the only long-term response which can counter it are strong communities, where mutual care and even love prevails. The big question today is how we can translate our sense of care, empathy, which we take as a given (if not always lived up to) within families into a renaissance of civic love – that sense of neighbourliness, universal fraternity which knows no borders?
In our bid to speed up our world, it is this sense of empathy, civic love in the community that often suffers most. Ignorance of each other breeds suspicion and division. You cannot be neighbours unless you have time to get to know each other, to build friendship and dialogue. This is a continual process of bridging which requires time, energy and commitment. Only such communities, where there is a strong sense of dialogue, of belonging to one humanity can drive out the profound isolation that breeds such a lack of empathy and distorted ideology. Interestingly the exact same kinds of things are said about the need to build resilient local communities to tackle climate change.
I’m not saying no other measures are necessary. There are immanent, known threats which require urgent measures to protect lives, but in the long-term, it is our capacity to transcend our differences and become communities of respect and love which is the best defence. Justice is required for the victims and perpetrators need to be caught and stopped from committing more atrocities. But as one father movingly said to his young son in the aftermath of the attacks, when asked how they would defend themselves from the bad guys: “our candles and our flowers are our best protection.” Candles and flowers do not offer the protection of a steel cage or razor wire fence, but his words reflected a profound truth: our capacity to empathise protects our common humanity and transcends the most unspeakable evil.
Next weekend, there is a unique opportunity to show we care on a global scale. All over the world, people will march to protect our common home, this planet – and the people who live on it. In marching for climate justice, we will also march for peace and for the people of Paris. If you can, join us.