In that spirit, it’s essential that we talk about events such as those at Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday and all that has followed it. All young people (of secondary age) ought to have found out about it via their own news listening, paper reading, website surfing. But how should we respond?
First, we should respond with compassion. Compassion for the bereaved families, compassion for the injured, compassion for those most scarred – whether with guilt, fear or another emotion. How will the Charlie Hebdo employee forced to admit the gunmen to her office at gunpoint recover?Secondly we should react with a sincere and authentic attempt to understand. What forces drive people to the extraordinary, savage, barbaric acts of this week? Are there social factors which we are somehow tied up in? How can we lead our lives as responsible citizens and voters in such a way as to recognise these forces and seek to improve the lot of any critically disenfranchised, or neglected, groups in our society. This attempt at understanding does NOT in any way justify the actions of terrorists, or indeed of any law-breakers, but it may help society to strike at the root of problems.
Thirdly, we re-iterate our values. In the 24 hours immediately following the assault on Charlie Hebdo, the crowds that gathered in French town squares were moving and instructive. An instinctive restatement of the values of French people was taking place. In our context, we should restate our commitment to free speech; and we should have civilised conversations about where the line lies between free speech and gratuitous offensiveness. In the context of a school, free speech is also important, in transparency, in the reasonableness of the pupils asking ‘Why?’ and in open and unheated discussions of contentious issues, both inside and outside the classroom.We should also, and most obviously, reaffirm our commitment to the resolution of difference without force. We should remind each other that using force to impose one’s will on others is wrong, whether it is in the queue for a meal, over the remote control for the television in a boarding house, or for the imposition of one’s own views on others.
When and where we perceive injustice or wrongdoing, we should pursue change through political, legal or legitimate methods. In any assembly of young people in a good school should be one or two, or more, pupils who are putting together their vision of public service in politics, in law – maybe as a lawyer, or as a judge, or as a lawmaker in the Civil Service – or in the Police force.Finally, we should resist any pressure, through the media, or any other source, to stereotype people. The actions of those who have assaulted Charlie Hebdo are representative only of themselves, and it reflects nothing on the French people, or those of Algerian descent, or of Islamic faith that they have done so. To stereotype any of these groups as being terrorists is as offensive as it would be to say that all disabled people are violent in the wake of the Oscar Pistorius trial, or that all Christians are cheats because one famous Christian cheated at international cricket. The creation and sustaining of stereotypes is one of the most destructive forces to any community.
In our reaction to such terrible circumstances, we can reject the values of those inclined to terrorism with such quiet and effective collective force that, far from undermining our version of society, such attacks serve to strengthen it, tragic though their consequences are.