In the Name of Paris

Mon, 11/16/2015 - 11:06am

Paris. The way we think of that beautiful city has changed. That's what they want. They want us to think about things differently, to use Paris as a symbol of bloodshed and fear, not the one we know and love of liberty and culture. That is the nature of extremism: It tries to change who we are, how we see the world, to change our habits and our patterns of thought, to enjoy our freedoms less, to exert control.

Friday’s terrorist act in France comes as a twist of the knife in the long history of human endeavor. They have imposed their will. Nearly 500 killed or hurt, 500 families with friends and relatives and colleagues across the world, ripples of devastation that touch so many, including friends, right here in California. They want to make us fear our neighbors, tighten the hatches, pull back from the progress we want in civil society, warp our sense of community.

Our human response is to call for more security. If ever we have shown the need for security to be tightened, the casualty figures both in France and a day earlier in Beirut demonstrate that. But security comes in many forms. One of the most important securities we have is our sense of belonging, our trust in each other. When trust fails within our communities and fear prevails, we give currency to the extremists to undermine the foundation of our freedom.

We are at war with a determined and dangerous, but nonetheless pathetic cause. It has wreaked terrible harm and will likely do so again. But we know from extreme ideologies in the past that violence is all they have to offer. That’s what makes them so pathetic. They are weaker in the long run, not stronger. Resisting extremists’ efforts to rip open the values of our civilization is essential.

Current efforts underway to strengthen security measures, root out terrorist cells and coordinate efforts to halt ISIS are vital if we are to succeed. So too are the efforts to educate the young against the perils of violent extremism. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the stated ringleader of the terror attacks, was a student at Saint Pierre d'Uccle, a prestigious school in Brussels, but still he was turned. Why, we do not yet know. I do wonder, though, how much of an effort the school, his family and community made through the curriculum and outside of school to prepare him to be a caring and responsible citizen in the world? Put simply, the entire world may not be where it is today if values-based education was at the heart of what we teach out young.

Two weeks ago UNESCO launched a program in Paris called Preventing Violent Extremism through Education. The aim of the program is to use historic and current examples of violent ideology, including the thousands of testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides, to demonstrate to the generation living through this current period of pain that we need not be suffering, and that we all have a responsibility to prevent it.

That same message can be heard thousands of times in the testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust and other Genocides in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

Maybe education will prevent the next Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Maybe not, but it is worth a global effort. Education must be a part of the response, because with great teachers and a cohesive community, we can raise a generation to know Paris as a place of liberty and culture, not one of pain.


Stephen Smith
Stephen D Smith is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 53,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He also holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and is an Adjunct Professor of Religion. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict.