On July 2, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel passed away in Manhattan at age 87. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was strewn with bodies and debris, after Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen terrorists slaughtered 24 people.
Early Sunday, hours after Wiesel’s death, a truck bomb devastated a shopping district in Baghdad, Iraq, killing nearly 300 people. Islamic State has claimed responsibility.
Other bombings, smaller but deadly nonetheless, took place in the week following Wiesel’s death. Two people in Southern France were murdered by a jihadist. There were several attacks in Saudi Arabia. Another blast in Iraq was carried out by Sunni extremists targeting a Shiite shrine.
And on July 7, a former U.S. Army reservist shot and killed five police officers and wounded other officers and civilians during an otherwise peaceful protest in Dallas over the deaths of two black men shot by police in Louisiana and Minnesota days earlier.
Thinking back over these recent events, and the history of the last 30 or so years, I am struck by how little our world seems to have heeded voices such as Elie Wiesel’s.
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From the Balkans to the Mideast, Sri Lanka to Central Africa – pick nearly any spot on the planet, really – we humans seem to have done a poor job with the concept of “never again.”
A little more than a decade ago, on a December evening at St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, I heard Wiesel give a speech, and met him afterward.
Wiesel’s theme that evening was the importance of recognizing and confronting evil in “an indifferent” world. And, to be sure, he spoke specifically of the terrible destruction that befell the Jews of Europe. But his words had a broader application, as well.
Wiesel told how, as a child in Romania, he would cross the street when headed to his synagogue, simply to avoid passing a church.
That small example of fear of those different from ourselves seems almost quaint in light of the horrors of the Holocaust.
But it is remarkable that where fear and mistrust once dominated relations between Christians and Jews, we now generally see acceptance and friendship. Not perfection, but as Wiesel remarked in 2005 – and as remains true – relations between Christians and Jews are much closer than in the past.
Sadly, that is not true of relations among all the world’s religions and peoples.
“I swear to you,” Wiesel said, “I was convinced at the end of the twentieth century that the twenty-first century would be better. Here we are five years into it, and we have a new scourge, a new danger, which brings with it a new weapon – suicide terror.”
And here we now are 16 years into that new century, and that terror has only grown. I mean not only suicide bombing by those killing in the name of Islam. As terrible as Islamic State is, it has no monopoly on hatred and nihilism.
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Leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin who annex the sovereign territory of their neighbors, and foment war and unrest, are guilty of terror. Turkey’s ruling elite, which have stifled a free press, are guilty of terror. And those who target law enforcement officers – believing they are justified in doing so because some police have been guilty of misconduct or homicide – are guilty of terror, as well.
Like Wiesel, I am an optimist. I believe civilization will meet the challenges of 21st-century terror because the only option is a world of anarchy and dissolution.
But to do so we must understand, as Wiesel understood, that the battle for civilization is not primarily one of outgunning the terrorists, or prosecuting those who commit violent crimes, as vital as those tasks are. The ultimate battleground is ideological, a matter of converting hearts and minds from violence to peaceful coexistence.
Only in education, advocating peace, and unrelenting opposition to hatred, Wiesel said that evening in 2005, can the world find hope.
That needn’t mean erasing all cultural and religious differences, but it surely means uprooting anti-Semitism, militarism, and whatever twisted ideologies lead so many to kill in the name of Islam or any other religion.
If anyone had reason to hate, surely it was a man like Wiesel, who saw so many perish at the hands of Nazi fanaticism. Yet he transcended that evil and suffering to become one of the most genuine voices for peace on the planet. His words will surely endure.
But will the world ever listen?