How the Paris attacks affect all young people and how we can respond

Iona Bain

I have been reflecting so much on the terrible events in Paris last week. I realise that by getting some of my thoughts out in this blog, I can begin to deal with what happened and hope that other people don’t feel quite as alone in their own shock and grief.

Even by sharing just a fraction of what I feel, I feel a bit less stunned and slightly better equipped to go back out into a world that I realise has changed immeasurably.

Let me just acknowledge that whatever I express here can do no justice to the repulsive nature of the situation that occurred on Friday evening. I also know I can never be as viscerally cut to the core as those who have lost loved ones in these attacks. The grief and rage they are experiencing right now is unimaginable.

Before today, I would never have dreamed of publishing my thoughts about a major terrorist incident. Who cares what I have to say? Yet nothing really prepares you for the inescapable reality of terror in a major Western city and how it profoundly disturbs your view of human nature. You never know how you will react to an incident like this until it happens, and then suddenly you can’t stop thinking about it and the future every young person now faces. And you just want some way to project what you think and feel so that you can start to discern the right way forward.

I do not know how anyone could have gone back to work, to school, to college, to everyday life today without feeling deeply numb and unsettled. That would be the most natural and human response to such an unnatural and inhuman event.

As a journalist, it has proved impossible for me to stop watching the news, yet it has left me – and everybody else, I dare say – with all manner of grotesque visions that can never be softened.

I cannot bear the thought that young people my age, doing the same things I do and living out their lives in a free and tolerant society like mine, endured an ordeal that no human being should ever have to face. It is knowing that no air strike, bombing raid or counter intelligence operation can undo the mental and physical torture those defenceless individuals sustained in their last moments, let alone restore their lives.

And that is how terrorists inflict their greatest damage – they not only take lives, but traumatise everybody left behind. Even people with no connection to these events can feel restricted, paranoid and frightened in their own cities, in places where they should feel safe.

So this wasn’t just an attack on those young people and their freedoms. It was an attack on ALL young people and their freedoms. These murderers have deliberately set out to demoralise and confuse a generation of young Westerners.

We instinctively know that terrorism will not win out, will not push our countries into a horrible timewarp where people are deprived of free will, and that our values and ways of doing things can’t simply be eradicated on the say so of deranged nihilists. We know that nations can and do come together to protect their cultures – highly flawed but immeasurably better and more natural for the human condition than the mental prisons being erected by terrorists.

Yet this won’t stop a lot of young people feeling timid and spiteful right now, tempted to do things differently and meet hatred with hatred. The urge to extend the contempt we have for the attackers towards all Muslims is understandable and is exactly what terrorists need. After all, further division can push alienated young Muslims into the arms of extremists.

This was a repulsive attempt to put fear and loathing into idealistic young people, to stop them doing all the things that are their birth-right and force them to copy all the hateful characteristics of intolerant death cults like Isis.

But today I now realise that we can all be truly civilised and do our country proud by being an example. By bringing people of all faiths and none into our lives, and treating them with kindness and decency, we can show a better path for the human spirit that will eclipse Isis orthodoxy.

When people feel safe, loved and respected in a society like ours, what right thinking person – regardless of faith – will reject our values and attempt to undermine or destroy them? No death cult can appeal to a young person who feels they can practise their faith and yet still live a full, rich and happy life.

As a French saint, Francis de Sales, once said:

“If you would fall into any extreme, let it be on the side of gentleness. The human mind is so constructed that it resists vigour and yields to softness.”

When we show that we enjoy our lives and love indiscriminately, we provide the best possible weapon to fight extremism. The young people who committed those atrocities in France were too far gone. But perhaps we can stop more getting sucked into a fruitless annihilation by personally promoting and embodying a very simple fact. Freedom and love bring indescribable meaning to life – nothing else comes close.

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