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Terror in Europe

France's Shame: Our Sons Killed Our Brothers

After last week's deadly attacks in Paris, a passionate open letter from four high school teachers in a French neighborhood not unlike those where the killers grew up.

Statue in Paris' Jardin des Tuileries
Statue in Paris' Jardin des Tuileries
Damien Boussard, Valérie Louys, Isabelle Richer and Catherine Robert*

We are high school teachers in Seine-Saint-Denis. Intellectuals, adults, defenders of liberty, we have learned to live without God and to detest power. We have no other master than knowledge. This approach reassures us and legitimizes our social status. The people at Charlie Hebdo made us laugh; we shared their values. In that way, this attack targets us. Even if none of us ever had the courage to be as insolent as them, we are devastated. For that, we are Charlie.

We are making the effort to change our point of view and trying to look at ourselves as our students see us. We are well dressed and comfortably shod — or very clearly above the sort of material contingencies that might make our students drool in front of the latest consumer goods. If we don’t own them, it's also because we would have the means to own them.

We go on vacations, live surrounded by books, frequent polite and refined people. We consider La Liberté guidant le peuple and Voltaire's Candide to be part of human heritage. Some may object that the universal is de facto and not de jure, and that many people on this planet don’t know who Voltaire is. How dare they! It's high time these ignoramuses caught up with such clearly vital matter — and yet ...

If the crimes committed are revolting, it's because the assassins speak French, with the accent of young people from the banlieues. The two killers of Charlie Hebdo resemble our students. Part of the trauma, for us, is hearing that voice, that accent, those words. And so, we feel responsible.

We, who are today civil servants in a defective state; we, the teachers of a school that let these two — and so many others — stray from the path of Republican values; we, French citizens who spend our time complaining about the rise in taxes, we, taxpayers who try to benefit from tax write-offs whenever we can; we have let the individual win out over the collective; we who are not involved in politics or rail at those who are: We are the ones responsible for this situation.

The victims at Charlie Hebdo were our brothers, so were the Jews killed because of their religion at the kosher grocery in Porte de Vincennes: We mourn them. Their killers were orphans in foster care — wards of our state, children of France. Our children killed our brothers. This is the epitome of tragedy.

In any culture, such acts trigger a feeling that has been surprisingly absent from the debate: shame.

So we express our shame. Shame and anger: Now that’s a psychological condition much more uncomfortable than sadness and anger. If one feels sad and angry one can accuse others. But what do you do when you’re ashamed and angry, at the murderers but at yourself as well?

Nobody in the media has expressed this shame. Nobody seems to be willing to take responsibility. The responsibility for a state that lets imbeciles and psychotics rot in prison and become the plaything of manipulators; the responsibility for schools deprived of means and support; the responsibility of a city that parks its slaves (without residency papers or voting cards, nameless, toothless) in the cesspits of the suburbs. It's the shame of a political class that has not understood that virtue can only be taught by example.

Intellectuals, thinkers, university graduates, artists, journalists: The men who died were our kin. And those who killed them are the children of France. So let’s open our eyes to the situation, understand what led us to this, let's act and build a society devoid of racism and anti-Semitism, secular and cultivated, more just, freer, more equal, more fraternal.

“We are all Charlie, Jews, the police …” But proclaiming our solidarity with the victims won't absolve us of collective responsibility for the crime. For we too are the parents of three killers.

*The authors are teachers at the lycée Le Corbusier in Aubervilliers, in the Seine-Saint-Denis department northeast of Paris.

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