“Beware of simple explanations”. Discussing the Manchester Arena attack with children.

‘But…why?’, my 11-year-old boy, Daniel, asked on Tuesday morning. His reaction to the Manchester Arena attack, like so many other people’s, is a mixture of shock, grief, worry and incomprehension.

There are is some good advice out there on how to talk about the attack to children. I particularly appreciated the suggestion to engage older children in a more nuanced debate, and this is what I did.

Of course, the ‘why’ did not go away; I didn’t expect it to.  It is a ‘why’ from the heart, in the face of the absurd. Why do these things happen? Why kill young children? Why is there such evil in the world? It is also a more intellectual ‘why’, as complex as the circumstances that lead a young man – and other young men, in Paris, in Brussels, in Istanbul, in Berlin – to target, slaughter and injure hundreds, to destroy their families, deliberately to take aim at what is pleasurable, joyful and free.

Oh how tempted I have felt to make this about Islam; to take the easy way out, drop the nuances, seize the opportunity to list all the evils of religion to my – still little – boy, who enjoys debates but who is still ready to agree with most of what his parents tell him (unless it involves video games and 15-rated films). This is what we atheist parents are here for, after all, isn’t it? To point out what religion can do to people, to what evils it may lead?

No, this isn’t what I want to do. It is disrespectful, to the victims first and foremost and to our children, too, to go for any easy explanation that fits an agenda, whether we put the blame on Islam, or religion more broadly, or on Western foreign policies. Smugly drawing such oversimplified conclusions is lazy. It’s not just lazy; it is dangerous.

Dangerous because, once you put the blame on Islam, you put the blame on anyone practising this religion, falling right into the trap that those behind the attacks have set for us: hatred for a whole religious group will breed more hatred, more conflict. Disrespectful because, if we want to teach our children how to think, the first thing we need to do is show them how basic logic works: the actions of a few people who identify themselves as Muslims do not make all Muslims terrorists. A child can understand this easily; but there are cognitive biases that make us jump into the wrong conclusions, too.

So here is what Daniel and I discussed:

  • The attack was an evil, cowardly, hateful act. Trying to think why it happened is not looking for excuses for the terrorists. Addressing the ‘why’  in all its complexity is one weapon we have for stopping these acts. Compassion and solidarity, as we witnessed in Manchester last week, is another.
  • At 11 years, you are not too young to have an opinion on the why; but you have to be prepared to think hard, because there is not one simple explanation.
  • In fact, beware of simple explanations. Simple, black-and-white reasons betray a lack of imagination. A lack of imagination leads to extreme views. It is not just the extreme views of the terrorists that we need to fight.

‘But’, Daniel says, ‘you still haven’t given me the answer. What makes a young guy go and kill himself, and take others, children, with him, and think he’s being a hero? All you said is that we don’t know for sure. Or are you saying that the reasons are too many, that it’s not just the religion, or his ideas, or his personality?’.

This is exactly what I am saying. And I believe that there is another strong weapon we must use to fight extremism. Education based on critical thinking,  education that fosters individuality and imagination, may not be the sole answer, but is certainly necessary.

Children and young people educated in inclusive, not segregated, schools; taught to question, not blindly to accept;  raised to be part of the world of ideas, in history, in science, in literature, in philosophy; it would be hard then to see how their imagination would instead be captured by any extremist  ideology. It’s not the sole answer, and it’s not a simple or immediate answer; but it is a start.


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