The Rector’s Address to the Boys at the College Assembly this Week
The western world is still reeling from the terrorist attack in Paris last Friday. There seems no end to the coverage in the media – the hours of television footage, the pages of newsprint. So much has been said. So many opinions, so much analysis. This morning I want to leave you with three thoughts. Simply three considerations. Three observations to reflect upon. A Jesuit formation always encourages you consider all the data, all the opinions and angles, all the values and virtues, and come to a considered, informed, personal assessment and judgement.
The death toll in Paris is now more than 130. That was an obscene massacre. Not military targets, but civilians. Randomly and cowardly done. Despising all the modern warfare conventions. Innocent loss of great enormity. Understandably, people are grieving, they are frightened, they are angry. So where do we go from here?
My first consideration is this. In recent times there have been other Isis outrages. Some 50 people were killed in Beirut only the day before the Paris bloodshed. But it received little media coverage. On the weekend, Facebook allowed you the one-click option to overlay your profile picture with the French flag, the tricolor. On Saturday I was at a wedding in the city and noted the Opera House was also bathed in the French Red, White and Blue. All very understandable. But many other hellish Isis atrocities have occurred in Syria, Iraq, Egypt or Libya, with significantly less response by the West than to Paris. Some Lebanese commentators remarked that no country lit up its landmarks in the Lebanese colours. One said “the Lebanese deaths were an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle”. The implication, they suggested, is that Arab lives matter less than Western lives. Whatever the reason for that disparity of reporting, we should never think in the way that was being suggested. Our Christian tradition holds that every human life is of inestimable worth. Our value doe not come from wealth, or status, or career, or creed, or country of origin. Our value comes from being individually loved by God. Each person whose life was taken – in Beirut or Paris or elsewhere – has value because he or she is loved by God. That confers human dignity. That is the stamp of our infinite worth. And, hard as it might be to accept, that also applies to the terrorist.
My second consideration is this. ISIS is intent upon causing division and destruction in the West. It will succeed if its atrocities have the effect of dividing people along religious or ethnic lines in countries like Australia. It has the potential to destroy our cultural cohesion, even without weapons. The evolution of right-wing nationalistic groups like Reclaim Australia, who clashed in Sydney street protests and elsewhere a few months ago, play right into Isis’ hands. They break up the nation. They have us distrust our neighbour. Figures like Pauline Hansen (who claimed recently in Rockhampton that she was against Islam in Australia but was not targeting Muslims!) might be thin on logic, but they can still play on primal fears and shape public opinion. Especially when that public feels the familiar ground shifting. Isis would be heartened by those in Australia or America or Europe who want to pitch all Westerners against all Islam. Because that would drag us into an internally destructive war within Australia. If there is any war to be had, it is the battle between the moderates of all religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – against the radicals of all religions. Radicals like Isis in the Middle East, of course, but also like the violent Hindu fundamentalists in India or the Buddhist extremists in Myanmar. We must not allow Isis to turn Australian against Australian. This is what Isis wants. We must resist becoming their pawns, duped into being their stooges. We must, all of us, work for social cohesion. And that begins with your reasoned reflections. And it moves into your conversations. Then your judgments and into your actions. Otherwise something very dear could be lost.
Finally, my third consideration. A fake Syrian passport was found beside the body of one of the suicide bombers in the Paris massacre. At this stage no one is sure whose it was, or why it should be there. But one suggestion is that it belonged to this terrorist who crossed from Syria to Greece, then to the West, ostensibly a refugee, but really as a terrorist. If this is the case – and it is yet to be established – then some people are understandably concerned that there may be Isis agents working their way into Europe in disguise. The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to cut off the stream of refugees and asylum-seekers. To turn them all away. But there is an old principle used in moral theology, in making ethical choices. It goes in Latin: abusus non tollit usum – ‘the misuse of something is not an argument against proper use’. So you do not ban cars because a lunatic driver goes on a rampage and runs down a number of pedestrians. Or you do not outlaw fires because some people have burnt their house down accidentally or otherwise. You have stringent processes to determine who are genuine refugees, of course. But you do not put aside all your core values of charity, compassion and justice just because a few will take advantage of your goodness. You stand firm.
These are times, perhaps as never before, to seek out tested principles and embrace them. Not a time to be pushed into simplistic but risky solutions. Not a time to be spooked. Or driven by emotion. Not a time to allow the bogeymen of racism or intolerance, ever lurking below the surface, to bob up again once more.
You fellows will soon enough be shaping the destiny of this nation. Now is the time to be stretching your minds and your hearts for the task.