As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Life, death, love, fear, and being right. (June 2017)

The man in black places two goblets on the table, raises an eyebrow at the Sicilian and says “All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right … and who is dead.”

Today’s assembly concerns the questions of life and death and love and fear and being right – these are serious issues but it seems right to start with a quote from the Princess Bride – not just because it is canonically the best movie of all time but also because it is light-hearted and funny: it is at the heart of being human that we find humour in dark places and strength by laughing through our fear. This morning, however, I have been surprising in myself a hunger to grow more serious – as the poet has it - but I’m aware that whenever I stray onto important issues there may be some of you who are touched personally by things of which I can only speak generally. And so, in my assemblies, I try to tread as lightly as Yeats would have me do and I, we, Harris Westminster, have developed a language, a collection of jargon whose meaning is deeper than the words themselves. I’m aware, however, that time passes quickly and the meaning with which words were invested two years ago is now lost in the mists of time and so this morning I must define as well as allude, I must go back to think explicitly about the language we use to talk about terrorism, fear and murder.

Before I become serious, however, I must tell you a joke about subtlety I heard on Twitter – it’s a bit old now but it was nuance.

Back to the Princess Bride and that Sicilian – Vizzini. Now, Vizzini is a jerk – he’s a kidnapper, warmonger, would-be murderer, a slimy, faithless, amoral bully whose only redeeming feature is as the butt of a running linguistic gag. To call him a jerk under such circumstances may seem underselling it a bit – surely he’s worse than that? I do so deliberately, however, and to understand why we need to go back to the first time I used the word in a Harris Westminster assembly. It was just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in 2015 when a hole had been blown in satire, when laughing through your fear suddenly seemed dangerous, when the whole world was, in a kind of retaliation saying “Je suis Charlie”. I was then, as I am now, trying to find a way to talk about the terrible without being terrified.

In June 1996 the largest bomb detonated in the UK since World War 2 went off in Manchester City Centre causing 1.2 billion pounds worth of damage and injuring 200 people. In February 2015 two gunmen broke into the Paris Headquarters of a satirical magazine and shot the cartoonists – killing 12 and injuring another 11. In May 2017 a young man set off a shrapnel-laden improvised explosive device at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester killing 23 and injuring another 116, just over a week later in June this year, in Manilla in the Philippines an armed robber set fire to a casino killing at least 36 and injuring another 50, and yesterday morning I awoke to the news that three men had driven a van at pedestrians on London Bridge and had then run through Borough Market with knives, killing 7 and injuring 48 more.

In each of these events some one has, through idealism, anger or desire for ill-gotten gain, attacked and injured or killed people they don’t know, people who have not directly, not, as far as we know, at all, harmed them. In the Manchester and Paris attacks the intended victim was not primarily those who died but wider society – terrorism is an attack on the way of life of those who survive and the victims are just – pah, just – just collateral damage in the same way as the Philippine gunman was really after the money and the people dying was just one of those things. On London Bridge the murderers shouted the name of Allah as they struck as if he were the leader of a gang of bullies and they were attracting his attention and approval by causing suffering. I don’t stand here as your expert on Allah but if that’s what those three thought then I know more than they did.

What word to use for these people? I’ll not call them anything that aggrandises their crimes – they’re cowards, not freedom fighters – murderers, not martyrs but nor do I want to attract their attention, to provoke them into further attacks, to feed their anger. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were doing that – poking fun at that which the gunmen thought sacred – they were doing it deliberately, they were doing it knowing that they might be drawing themselves a death sentence. When thousands online proclaimed Je Suis Charlie I wondered if they knew what they were doing, I wondered if they had thought it through and so I looked for something more nuanced than Coward Murderer, a phrase that led us to reflection rather than provocation. And so, constrained in the language it’s appropriate for me to use, rejecting a number of crude alternatives, I settled on jerk. The terrorists, the murderers, the suicide bombers, the robbers are jerks. And the first message that I came up with, the message that I’ve reminded of you several times since is that we live in a world in which there are jerks and no amount of wishing is going to change that.

Some people, some of the time, are just jerks – through idealism, greed, pride, lust, laziness or anger, they become blind to the fact that they are hurting others, they may even justify the hurt they do to others in terms of their own needs and desires or in terms of the warped religion they use to cover their inadequacy. Actually, if we’re honest, I think we can see ourselves in that description – we all have the capacity, some of the time, to be jerks. And we shouldn’t be. And they shouldn’t be. And they shouldn’t be, but my mother, prefiguring the Princess Bride, used to warn me about using zebra crossings in the rain. The cars shouldn’t be going too fast for the conditions but there’s no consolation in being right if you are also dead.

If we can’t even stop ourselves behaving badly occasionally what hope is there that everyone else will do better? We live in a world of jerks. And how do we live in this world? In fear? Hiding behind the table, afraid to go out, carefully concealing ourselves so as not to cause offence? Or in defiance? Standing on the table, walking deliberately into danger, shouting our values in the faces of those who would scare us? Well, each of you must find your own path. I cannot foresee the choices you will have to make or tell you how to face them when they come, but I would urge you to think hard about your choices, to think through the consequences and I would advise – with due circumspection, but I think I have a responsibility to give what advice I can – I would advise you to consider a middle way. It’s not cowardice to be careful and it’s not provocation to go about your business. As a school, we have always faced making pragmatic decisions in a dangerous world. Following the Ariana Grande attacks we cut down the trips and sport for two days whilst we thought about a sensible response. We continue to assess the risks and we will get on with as much as we can. As we do, we’ll be careful, we’ll listen for further advice, we’ll ask you to be alert, to be aware, to be careful about letting us know where you are and I urge you to be scrupulous about that: if you go off on your own and we can’t find you then we will get worried, very worried, very quickly and there’s a word for people who put others through that kind of thing.

There’s a Shania Twain song with the lyric “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees begging please” – she’s quoting, of course, a Mexican revolutionary called Emiliano Zapata – and in those words she considers a hard decision that I shudder to think of any of you facing: I certainly wouldn’t recommend that if it comes you make it on the basis of a Canadian country singer but for most of us – for all of us most of the time this is not a dichotomy. We can live standing, we can live, laugh, love, and go to concerts; and to do that we must be alert to the existence of jerks, we must take sensible precautions, we must do our bit to limit the number of jerks in the world (we could start by not being jerks ourselves) and we must look out for each other, look out for the society we share, be alert, aware but not afraid.

We have an election this week and we live in a country where no significant party advocates violence, or extremism, or the restrictions of rights to sections of the community, or the marginalisation of minorities. We live in a country in which the debate is over exactly how much of their money the wealthy and well-paid should give to provide healthcare, shelter and education to the poor. We live in a country where I can get passionate about the detail of sixth-form funding and where the kinds of school available can be the heart of heated debate. We live in a country where the police go out on a Friday night to find drunken, lairy, scantily clad revellers and with jokes and good humour urge them to go home, where as a last resort they load them into vans and put them somewhere safe and warm until they sober up. We are lucky to live in such a country – there are jerks that would wish things otherwise but they are few and we are many. They have anger, we have kindness. They are offering fear – we, I believe, are offering love: the love of parents waiting for their children outside the concert, the love of friends helping each other through the chaos, the love of passers-by who run towards the sound of trouble rather than away from it, the love of doctors, nurses, first-aiders who offer their skills to injured strangers, the love of policemen who risk their lives to keep us safe.

And so I’ll close with another quote from the Princess Bride (and if you haven’t already watched the movie then you should) – it’s the man in black again, but unmasked and talking to his beloved, and he says this: “Death cannot stop true love – all it can do is delay it for a while.”