In the weeks since the appalling atrocities in Paris on the night of November 13, many inspiring stories of bravery and heroism have emerged: the people who shielded others from the terrorists’ bullets, those who ‘played dead’ in order to protect loved ones, and the locals who risked their lives to bring injured strangers to safety.
Breaking the ring of hate
But, for me, one of the greatest heroes of those dark days was Antoine Leiris. His poignant and defiant open letter to those who killed his wife Helene at the Bataclan Theatre was posted on Facebook and has been viewed and shared around the globe.
Speaking directly to the terrorists, he wrote: “On Friday night, you took an exceptional life – the love of my life, the mother of my son – but you will not have my hatred. I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know – you are dead souls. If this God, for whom you kill blindly, made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife would have been one more wound in his heart.”
He went on: “So, no, I will not grant you the gift of my hatred. You’re asking for it, but responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost.”
Doctor’s ring of truth
It’s almost impossible to imagine how or where Antoine found the strength to write such words. It’s also almost impossible to honour Antoine’s plea and to refuse to respond in kind to those who killed Helene and 129 other innocent people.
Yet, as Martin Luther King Jr wrote in ‘Strength to Love’, Antoine’s attitude is our only hope: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Forging a ring of peace
But how, practically speaking, do we do it? Here in Copenhagen, in the wake of the terror attacks in February, we saw what it might look like when local resident Niddal El-Jabri proposed a human peace ring around the synagogue in Krystalgade where Dan Uzan was shot dead while doing volunteer guard duty at a bat mitzvah.
While the police initially opposed El-Jabri’s plan due to security concerns, the young Muslim organiser persisted and up to 1,000 people showed up on March 14 to create a human ring around the Jewish place of worship.
It was a powerful symbol of unity across difference and a strong signal to those who, in Antoine Leiris’s words, want us to view our fellow citizens with suspicion and mistrust. Perhaps others will be inspired to organise similarly imaginative shows of solidarity around the world in the coming weeks and months. I certainly hope so.
Because as Rabbi Menachem Margolin, who presented El-Jabri with a peace prize earlier this year, said: “History continues to show us that good people are needed to fight evil … peaceful actions from civilians work as an anti-venom against hateful violence and intolerance.”
Now, more than ever, we need that anti-venom. We need to say – together – “You will not have my hate.”