It dawned on me just how terrifying the world can seem when I was on a train to York with my 11 year old daughter last half term break. She was unusually quiet, glancing anxiously about at our fellow passengers, before finally blurting, “How do we know there’s not a bomb on the train?” I asked her to explain. “Well nobody checked our bags before we got on – like they do at airports. So there could be a bomb on this train.”
A quick google search and I was able to reassure her that the odds of us dying in a terrorist attack on the 10.15 from Newark to York were approximately 9.3 million to one. For some context, and because she loves dogs, I advised her that the odds of dying from a dog bite were greater, around one in 700,000 poor souls suffering this fate.
Unfortunately, the facts of the matter didn’t do anything to reduce Josie’s fear – she was on the platform at York before I was even out of my seat. This troubled me – I don’t want any of my children or indeed any of you to be unreasonably frightened of the world, or anxious about something so thrilling as travel. It was therefore a relief to find recently some better advice than mine, from an expert in childhood called Fred Rogers. Recalling his own fears as a boy, he wrote these words.
Tragically, with the Isis attacks in Paris and scenes of slaughter, carnage and grief dominating the news, there’s been plenty of opportunity to act on Rogers’ advice. Josie knows about the shootings in bars, in restaurants, in a packed concert hall; she knows about the senseless murder of well over a hundred people, most of them young. But she also knows about the helpers.
The helpers are the subject of this assembly.
Isobel Bowdery is a 22 year old survivor of the concert hall massacre. She played dead for over an hour as those lying face down around her were callously executed by the “circling vultures”. Her account is harrowing but its also inspirational. Its mainly about the helpers.
But being a survivor of this horror lets me shed light on the heroes. To the man who put his life on the line by covering my brain while I whimpered … to the complete strangers who picked me up from the road and consoled me during the 45 minutes I genuinely thought my boyfriend was dead .. to the man who held me and told me everything was going to be alright despite being all alone and scared himself, to the friend who offered me shelter and went out to buy me clothes so I wouldn’t have to wear my blood-stained top. To all of you who have sent caring messages – you make me believe this world has the potential to be better.
As multiple attacks were reported that terrible night, a state of emergency was declared with people directed to stay inside their homes. But taxi drivers worked through the night, switching off their meters and driving stranded people to safety. Those indoors took to Twitter to become helpers, using the hashtag ‘porteouverte’, which means ‘open door’, to offer stranded strangers somewhere to sleep. Facebook immediately launched its safety check.
This feature reminded users in the region to tell friends they were safe, through one quick click. It connected people even in the midst of chaos.
By morning, images like this one were flooding social media.
Just as the lights went out in Paris that night, so the French tricolour lit up landmark buildings across the globe in a beautiful show of solidarity.
With ‘muslimsarenotterrorists’ and ‘pray4paris’ trending on Twitter the whole of the next day, never did the words of Martin Luther King seem more resonant.
It seemed we were determined not to reply to Isis hate with more hate. This Facebook status was shared several thousand times.
Of course, Isis terrorists hate the sentiment expressed here – that we mustn’t condemn a whole community of innocent people for the actions of a tiny minority; they despise our modern, multi-racial societies. They want Muslim people to feel loathed in their European homes and driven to join them in Syria. They want them to feel that they have only one true home – within Islamic state. They want our western countries to become fearful, closed, authoritarian societies. They want us to divide and become weaker, less tolerant, less together – they want us more like them.
So we must not let these attacks, those merciless bandits, create tension and division between us. We mustn’t let a climate of fear and suspicion unbalance our richly diverse communities. When this happens, not only do the terrorists win, but innocent human beings – as closely linked with Isis as you or I – suffer greatly. Look at what happened to Ahmed.
Imagine how that talented Year 9 student felt when he shared his passion for robotics with the teachers he trusted, only to discover that they viewed him as a plotting mass murderer. Because of his race and religion. Thank goodness for the hashtag #IStandwithAhmed. This allowed people to become helpers; to express solidarity with the wronged boy. They tweeted in their thousands …
“IstandwithAhmed because when I brought my robotics project into class noone labelled me a terrorist.”
“Most kids who made a clock in 20 minutes would be hailed as Jimmy Neutron. Muslim kid? Potential bomb maker. Sad.” #IStandwithAhmed
“Society is teaching a young mind that no matter what he accomplishes, society will only see the colour of his skin. #IStandwithAhmed
After the trauma of being humiliated, arrested, labelled, how heartened Ahmed must have felt by this huge wave of support. How grateful for the existence of helpers.
So I end today’s assembly by urging all of you to become helpers. Because you can be – simply through the language you use and the climate your words create. Don’t give way to lazy thinking and prejudice – challenge it in yourself and in others. And my special plea to you, since much of this assembly has been about social media, is to use it in a really positive way. Use it, referring back to the words of Martin Luther King, to drive out the threatening darkness with light and to drive out hate with love.
Antoine lost the love of his life in the Paris attacks. And made this.