The terrorist attack in New Zealand is an attack upon Islam, in particular, and upon the freedom of conscience more generally.
It’s an attack upon Islam for the obvious reason that the terrorist targeted Muslims worshiping at a mosque on Friday, Islam’s weekly day of congregational prayer. No parsing of the terrorist’s manifesto or mental health alters this fact.
But because the terrorist attacked Islam, he also attacked the freedom of conscience. The freedom of conscience is the freedom to follow one’s chosen beliefs: political, moral, existential, or aesthetic. Nobody who believes in the freedom of conscience would commit violence against another person simply because that person believes in something different.
All people possess the right to choose and practice their beliefs. Some say we are endowed with this right by our divine Creator: God designed us with free will, therefore, we have a God-given right to exercise our free will, even against man-made authorities who insist otherwise. But atheists recognize this right, too: the fact that we are individual beings, with our own individual minds, implies that we have a right to use them. Our mere existence justifies our freedom to choose any religion or moral philosophy. Cogito ergo sum.
This mental autonomy gives rise to more specific freedoms, such as the freedoms of speech and press. Likewise, just as the existence of an individual mind implies a freedom to use it, so does the existence of an individual body imply the same. Hence the freedoms of self-determination and property. And some freedoms are simultaneously rooted in both our physical and mental autonomy, such as the freedoms of assembly and association.
Our legal rights protect these freedoms. We possess the right to physically defend ourselves, to hire an attorney, to vote, and to receive due process both for redressing our private grievances and for protecting ourselves from arbitrary deprivations against our freedoms.
And because these rights and freedoms are rooted in our individual autonomy, they transcend divisions of race, national origin, and sex. We possess these freedoms simply because we are individual beings, not because we belong to any particular group. Our individual autonomy is the one thing that we all have in common, regardless of everything else that separates us.
That’s why a terrorist attack against some people is an attack against all people. Of course, a terrorist’s primary and secondary victims are the people he kills and injures, and everyone else who shares the same characteristics as those victims: race, religion, or politics. But the successful execution of a terrorist attack reminds us all that we could be next. All terrorism, regardless of its motivations, emboldens others to commit violence for their respective motivations.
Terrorism is socially destabilizing because it reveals how fragile our freedoms are. Your survival and safety depends upon the fact that virtually none of the thousands of strangers you might encounter on a daily basis intends to do you any harm. But all it takes is for one such person to commit violence one time. A few strategic terrorist attacks can transform an entire society. Terrorism causes people to discourage behavior that “provokes” it, and it causes people to be suspicious of each others’ group identities.
Thankfully, terrorism is rare in the United States. But lesser attacks on the freedom of conscience are increasingly common. Examples abound of people physically attacking others over their political beliefs, or exploiting the power of government to deprive others of their religious autonomy, or otherwise bullying each other over the exercise of essential freedoms. Each such instance causes people to fear for their own freedom and to distrust the strangers that might threaten it.
Because terrorism is an abuse of individual autonomy — the terrorist uses his freedom to deprive others of theirs — terrorism empowers the worst elements in our society. It provides a ready excuse for depriving individuals of their freedom, for sowing group division, and for anchoring ourselves in our socially-manufactured group identities rather than in our reality-based individual identities.
Thus terrorism should be an occasion for solidarity and empathy. Whatever might separate us from the perpetrators and the victims of today’s terrorist attacks, focusing on such differences exacerbates the impact of such terrorism. We should instead blunt the impact of terrorism by redoubling our efforts to defend everyone’s freedoms and focusing our minds on the dignity, rights, and freedoms that we all share in common — thoughts and prayers are a good place to start.
Lew Olowski is an attorney and formerly a clerk to Radovan Karadzic, president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Lew served under Peter Robinson, who is among the world’s premiere international criminal trial lawyers litigating war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. He is a graduate of Georgetown Law School.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.