It is hard to write anything at all today without the dark pall of the Paris massacres hanging over the words. What happened on Friday night turned an ordinary day and week into an atrocious nightmare for hundreds upon hundreds of people, and as the ripples of the murders spread out into the wider world – families, friends, neighbours, members of the local, national and international communities – then we find ourselves all touched to some degree by what happened. On Saturday morning, flowers were already thick on the ground at French embassies and consulates around the world and the worldwide web was riven by words of consolation, of solidarity and of friendship. The sadness of Paris was in our minds and hearts.
A deeper sadness can be found too when we reflect that not only were there people who were prepared to kill other human beings who posed no threat to them, but there were other people – scores? hundreds? thousands? more? – who were prepared to plan to kill and to derive immense satisfaction from killing. The act of killing another human being – of extinguishing their life – has a finality about it; it presumes, given all that we know about the human consciousness and social connectedness, that the perpetrator does not regard his or her victims as equal to him, but rather as beings unworthy of respect and of life. Throughout history, people have thought in this way of fellow human beings who have disabilities, or who are of a different sexual orientation, or who are of a different ethnic background. We are undeniably all united in sameness, but we are all, too, uniquely different, and these differences have often been the focus of misunderstanding and hatred.
How have we been able to rise above these differences and appreciate the togetherness of humankind rather than its fractures? In truth, of course, we cannot say that we have succeeded entirely in any realm as yet, but when we look back at the advances in the past few decades especially at a national and international level in areas of gender equality, access of all children to schooling and anti-discrimination laws, to name a few, we can see the progress that we have made. This is not true in every case, nor in every country – far from it – but we can see it happening, and this should give us courage and hope. There may be a long way to go, but a retrospective view of what we can achieve enables us to renew our commitment to respecting others, to kindness, to understanding, to helping our fellow human beings.
When human beings feel justified in killing other human beings, we know that we are a long way from a vision of harmony and tolerance in our world. But we know too that we can effect change, and that we must. It is never easy – education is not a straightforward process, in which, simplistically, both carrot and stick have their place; moreover, when ideas and perceptions of the world are deeply embedded, they are hard to shift, and it can test all our imaginative powers to work out how to do this. We know that we must, though – we must teach our children not to hate others, and we must reach out across the world, to every corner, to every child. We must lead by example, by caring and loving. We teach by being and doing, and we all have a hugely important role to play in this education of the world.
And – above all – we must not give up believing this.