I feel I must hand it to those stalwart souls investigating the devastating conflagration at the Cathedral of Notre Dame Monday. The flames were not quenched at the 12th-century masterpiece of Gothic architecture when the authorities announced that they had ruled out arson as the cause of the blaze. (Some reports hedged their bets by adding “for now”; most were more apodictic.)
That was an extraordinary, not to say amazing, piece of forensic prognostication. Not only were the flames still lapping at the timbers of the cathedral when this conclusion was announced, but also think about the context. The fire broke out on Monday of Holy Week, the apex of the Christian religious calendar. For Catholics, Notre Dame is a focal point of what remains of the religion in a country besotted for decades by its adherence to “laïcité,” to aggressive secularism. For France generally, however, I suspect that the important thing is that Notre Dame is home to some 13 million tourists per annum, all armed with fist-fulls of dollars, euros, and yen.
In any event, the holocaust at Notre Dame was by no means unique. Last month, a fire broke out at Saint-Sulpice, the second largest church in Paris. Within a day or two, the authorities had determined that the fire had been deliberately set. You didn’t read about it in The New York Times, but what happened at Saint-Sulpice was only one of the most destructive acts of vandalism directed against Christian churches in France.
Over the past month, in fact, there have been at least twelve reported acts of vandalism against French churches: statues smashed or beheaded, altars desecrated, human excrement smeared on church walls in the shape of a cross and decorated with communion hosts. France, like many countries in Western Europe, is swaddled in a nervous silence about the inroads made into their society by militant Islam. They, like many Americans, are terrified of being accused of “Islamophobia.” Yet the Ministry of the Interior reported that in 2018 there were recorded 541 anti-Semitic acts, 100 anti-Muslim acts, and 1063 anti-Christian acts.
Auric Goldfinger, in the Ian Fleming novel, dryly observes to James Bond that “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”
The French investigators have such extraordinary powers of forensic penetration that they can dispense with all such inductive aids to inquiry. Here they have not one, not two or three, but twelve acts of violent desecration in the past month, including an arsonist attack against the second largest church in Paris. Then Notre Dame catches fire-and what a fire it was-on Monday of Holy Week. Even before the fire was brought under control, the authorities ruled out arson. Has the world ever seen a more potent demonstration of investigative prowess?