A lot has been written about the recent murder of 12 journalists and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. It’s a good sign that so much has been said – freedom of expression is alive and well – at least in the West. In many Muslim countries, by contrast, saying what you think can get you flogged or executed.
The British author, Ian McEwan, wrote that, “radical Islam has become a global attractor for psychopaths,” and there does seem to be a lot of evidence supporting this. But religions in general attract nutcases. In fact, many big causes attract such people, or perhaps turn ordinary people into fervent, raving monsters. Islamists are doing much of the killing these days, but Christians, Communists and Fascists have done at least as much in the past.
It’s not surprising. Big causes rouse the passions. They give us something to fight for, something that’s bigger than ourselves. They can often make individuals seem unimportant.
But one thing prevents big ideas from becoming dangerous. It’s the principle that the rights of individual human beings always come before abstract intellectual ideas. Cross that invisible line and you switch from good to evil.
Place ideas before people and you’ll become a fanatic.
Place ideas before people and you’ll hate those who disagree with you.
Place ideas before people and you’ll kill those you hate.
Putting people first isn’t an original idea. It’s been said over and over again, very often by religious leaders. The problem is, it’s not a Big Idea. It doesn’t say that there’s something more important than ourselves. It says precisely the opposite – that individual people are the most important thing, and that their lives, liberties and rights are never trumped by abstract ideas.