How to Respond When the Lights Go Out in Paris

A woman hung outside the third story window of Bataclan Theater, one of the targets of this weekend’s horror show in Paris.  At the exit door on the ground floor below her, people fled, stepping over debris and the injured.  People screamed and cried as they ran.  One man dragged an injured person up the dark street to safety.  The woman continued hanging outside the window.

It is hard not to watch video footage of the violence, see the heartbreak of people who lost a loved one, or hear people call out in terror and not feel afraid and angry oneself.  Just as the perpetrators would hope, people respond with high-intensity emotion.  “Now show a photo of a piece of a terrorist stuck to a wall,” comments one online news reader.  “As my aging grandmother once said to me, ‘If you can’t find peace, find revenge,” writes another.

In the U.S., some governors and presidential hopefuls favor shutting the borders to refugees from Syria. “I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the [U.S.] citizens of Alabama in harm’s way,” Governor Robert Bentley said Monday.

Refugees Want Nothing to Do with the Extremists

There must be multifaceted responses to acts of terrorism, including from political, intelligence, and military arms of global coalitions.  But to simply shut out entire populations of people or to wish violence on them seems both short-sighted and naive.  The vast majority of the people fleeing Syria–or Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar, or other countries in the area–are daily, not occasional, victims of the terrorists and fundamentalists.  They’re fleeing because they hate the situation too.

The families coming to our learning center in Jakarta left their Middle Eastern countries because they want nothing to do with the extreme fundamentalists who threaten their livelihoods and children and who have upended formerly peaceful cities throughout the region, turning citizens into homeless refugees even within their own country borders.

Taking the Long View: Winning the War

It seems clear that in addition to political and military responses, education has to be high on the list of systematic and coordinated responses to terrorism.  Creating an education system for asylum seekers is perhaps more difficult to implement and requires more patience than a military response, but it’s no less important–at least in winning the war and not just the battle.


Consider Mostafa, Ahmed, and Hussein, let’s call them.  They are teenagers who left their parents in Afghanistan a few years ago.  Their families spent all their collective savings and hope on these boys, desperate to get them out of harm’s way even without any real assurance they would land safely in another country, and now they’re waiting in Jakarta for UNHCR and the Western world to determine their fate.  These boys could become the next generation of terrorists with nothing to lose; or they could become the next generation of tailors, engineers, and teachers.  It’s partly up to us.

The woman hanging on the ledge, who was pregnant it turns out, was pulled to safety by another civilian who heard her crying.  This seems like a great metaphor for what we “regular people” can do even if we’re not in positions of power.  We can be that anonymous civilian who helps someone out when they need it.  We can teach a class, buy some groceries for a family of immigrants, or help a new refugee neighbor fill out paperwork for the gas company–we can give people a hand up.  We can educate them in language skills, academic knowledge, and our ideology that love trumps hate.

Unfortunately, we know these kinds of attacks will happen again.  Better to start taking the long view than to stick our heads in the sand.  Better to give children as many light bulb moments as we can than to shun them to lives of darkness so that they seek comfort in the wrong places.