Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bravery and heroism

I have begun a wonderful novel by Lucy Beckett (Ignatius Press), whom I met at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture conference this weekend. It is about the life of a man named Max who grows up in East Prussia during the period between the two world wars. His father is seeking to imbue him with a Prussian love for the glory of war. His tutor is a Jew who has fled Alsace-Lorraine because of the French persecution of the Jews.

When Max is eight he has a conversation with his tutor about the events which precipitated World War I, which had just started. They were discussing the Serbian youth who had plotted to kill Archduke Ferdinand. In this conversation Dr. Mendel makes a very useful distinction between bravery and nobility.
"So are they good, like heroes are good? Or bad, like murderers are bad?"
"They are murderers, not heroes. They thought what they were doing was brave, which it was. They also thought it was noble, which it was not. Some Serbs may think them heroes for a while, but they will be wrong. The lives they have given up [because they will be executed] would have been more use to Serbia than their deaths will be."
Then the possibility that they are martyrs is discussed.
"But they could still be heroes when they're dead? Like martyrs?"
"A martyr is a witness to the truth. Whether Bosnia is part of Serbia or part of the Empire is not a matter of truth, but a matter of politics. Politics is about power, not about truth. And now nearly all of Europe is at war because of these foolish boys."
Terrorists, no matter what side they are on or how just their cause, have lost all understanding of these distinctions. Islamic terrorists may be brave, because they've overcome fear and danger, but they are not heroes. We need to be clear and direct about this, and about any contemporary or historical act of terrorism. Bravery and a just cause does not make you a hero if you engage in ignoble acts.

I think this also applies to those who would promote a totalitarian state. Terrorists and totalitarians are cut from the same cloth. The difference is that one has the reins of state in hand, and the other does not. Neither is consistent with the Catholic faith. That is why Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were not genuinely representative of the Catholic religion. Nor are those who commit acts of murder in the name of the pro life movement.

I think it interesting, by the way, that some of the earlier instances of both errors appeared in England--Fawkes and Cromwell.

I also think that burning figures of Fawkes in effigy doesn't rise much above the ignobility of Fawkes himself.

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