What did I think I was doing getting ambushed in Misrata in July?
The answer will disappoint conspiracists in France and Libya alike.
I was no one’s emissary. I was the bearer of no messages of any kind. I was acting solely on my own behalf. I was following my own star. What bothers me in retrospect were not the local responses to my presence, which are explicable in local terms, but the responses in the West, which are a measure of the progress of the sickness to which our societies are falling prey.
I landed in Misrata on Saturday, July 25, in two capacities, and two only.
First, as a reporter accredited by the local authorities. And, second, as a thinker and writer who, in accordance with the famous definition coined by Sartre, Zola, or Maurice Blanchot (I can’t remember which), decides to get mixed up in other people’s business in a country not necessarily his own but where he believes that justice, truth, and the lesser evil are at stake.
By what right? Well, precisely: no right other than that laid out by Sartre, Blanchot, and others in the canonical texts that define the figure of the French intellectual.
No mandate other than the irrevocable one that I gave myself, as they had done, to reach out to those distant from me and to acknowledge their aspirations for freedom as if they were my neighbors, with no other agenda than to do my writing and to pursue my goals. A quest, in this case, to revisit a country that I know a little less badly than do most others; a wish to see once again the faces of the men and women whose recent determination to take down a tyrant and assume control of their own destiny I had been honored to support; and the burning desire to know where this ancient people stood, nine years later, on the questions of democracy, law, human rights, civil society, and nation-building.
That we live in an era when such considerations seem like Greek to most people now seems clear.
That we have entered a world in which a thinker who is not beholden to a party, a community, or an authority other than his own has become an alien concept—that much is obvious.
I realize that my own points of reference, the ideas that drive me, no longer mean much to many; that the names that made me dream, that inspired me, are distant antiquities increasingly prone to defamation; and that the way in which Xenophon, Byron, Lawrence, Malraux, and others led their lives, placing themselves in the service of causes that one might not have expected of them, is fast becoming unintelligible.
In other words, I see and understand that the will to confront what was once called History and to look it squarely in the face, to bear honest witness to it, to act on it when one can and to do so in one’s own name and with no other mandate than the one issued by one’s own conscience is today nearly unthinkable and, to most people, suspect.
But that is the era’s problem, not mine.
It is one of the poverties of a time when nothing remotely related to greatness or even loftiness can be uttered without incurring the wrath or the modern Eumenides of bounded thinking.
And to that, as to the rest, I say no.
Nothing about this episode has dissuaded me from continuing to do what I have always done, even if I am one of the last to do it—namely, to believe in human fraternity; to have faith that freedom is always and everywhere possible; to oppose whenever I am able, whether near at hand or far away, the curse of blind mobs and their litany of violence. That is my thinking, and those who don’t like it can call it madness if it suits them.
It is my conviction, forged 50 years ago while fighting with the underground in Bangladesh, that a human life can be the life of a free subject, one indifferent to race, age, sex, or other conditions but fascinated by the singularity of the people and events that cross his path.
The small-minded can bray, in the Turkish press, that I am a “Jewish dog”; in my own country, they can swell up with bourgeois self-satisfaction while pillorying a writer who has an idea of France different from theirs; in Libya, they can wipe their feet on my effigy. That does not matter to me; it hardly affects me. Having come to terms long ago with the death wish that grips humans on a nearly equal basis, it does not discourage me in the least.
When one’s goal is to document a mass grave, when the purpose of one’s trip is to appeal for peace and unity in league with Libyans on all sides, without regard to rank or affiliation—that goal, that purpose, is never completely out of reach.
And when one is trying to say that every human life, French, Arab, or any other, can and should be a singular adventure, it is sometimes necessary to cross a road, even if that road is blocked by people packing Kalashnikovs—that is, by barbarians filled with hate and willing to mount an ambush.
Yet a road under fire can still be crossed.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.