Anger and Shame

We are teachers at Seine-Saint-Denis [a northern banlieue (suburb) of Paris, where the majority of children are of immigrant origin]. Intellectual, educated, adult, libertarian, we’re done with God and detest political power and its perverse pleasures. We have no master other than knowledge. The discourse of knowledge reassures us, because of its supposedly rational coherence, and our social status legitimates it. The people who worked at Charlie Hebdo made us laugh; we shared their values. From that point of view, the attack on them had us for targets. Even if none of us had the courage of that much insolence, we’re wounded. For this, we are Charlie.

But we make the effort to change our point of view, and strive to look at ourselves as our pupils see us. We are well dressed, with nice hair, wearing comfortable shoes, quite obviously secure enough from material contingencies to look without envy on the consumer goods of which our pupils dream: if we don’t possess them, it is partly because we have the means to own them. We go on vacation, we live in the midst of books, we hang out with courteous, refined people, elegant and cultivated. We take it as given that Liberty Guiding the People and Candide are part of the inheritance of humanity. Do you tell us that the universality of this culture is de jure and not de facto, and that many inhabitants of this planet do not know Voltaire? What a bunch of ignoramuses. It is time for them to enter into history: Sarkozy’s 2007 speech at Dakar already explained that! As for those who come from elsewhere to live among us, they should be quiet and compliant.

If the crimes committed by those assassins are hateful, what is terrible is that they speak French, with the accent of the kids from the banlieue. These two killers are like our students. There is trauma for us not just in the crime but also in hearing that voice, that accent, those words. This is what makes us feel responsible. Obviously, not us personally: that’s what our friends will say, friends who admire our daily dedication. But what no one around us should say is that, despite all we do, we are cleared of this responsibility. We—that is to say, the functionaries of a failing state, the teachers at a school that left those kids and so many others by the side of the road of “republican values,” French citizens who pass our time complaining about tax increases, taxpayers who profit from the loopholes when we can, people who have given precedence to the individual over the collectivity, people who don’t participate in politics or make fun of those who do—we are responsible for this situation.

The people who worked at Charlie Hebdo were our brothers: we weep for them as such. Their killers were orphans, in foster care: wards of the nation, children of France. Our children have thus killed our brothers. A tragedy. In every culture, such a tragedy provokes a sentiment of which no one has spoken in recent days: shame.

So we speak our shame. Shame and anger: here is a psychological situation much more uncomfortable than sorrow and anger. If you are sorrowful and angry you can accuse others. But what can you do when you are ashamed, angry with the killers, but also with yourself?

No one in the media speaks of this shame. No one seems to want to accept responsibility for it: the shame of a state that leaves imbeciles and psychotics to stagnate in prison and become playthings for manipulative perverts, that of a school deprived of means and support, that of an urban policy that parks slaves (without papers, without voting cards, without names, without teeth) in the filthy banlieue, that of a political class which has not learned that virtue is taught only by example.

Intellectuals, thinkers, professors, artists, journalists: we have seen our people killed. Those who killed them are children of France. Let us open our eyes to the situation, to understand how this happened, to act, to construct a secular and cultured society, more just, more free, more equal, more fraternal.

“We are Charlie” can be taken in reverse. But to affirm our solidarity with the victims does not exempt us from collective responsibility for these murders. We are also related to the three assassins.

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