Yesterday, a young racist attacked a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, shooting thirteen people in a targeted attack on an African American community.
Ben Collins, a reporter covering domestic extremism and disinformation for NBC News, has published an assessment of the accused Buffalo terrorist’s manifesto. (As a matter of principle, I will not name the accused terrorist or directly address his manifesto here.) The attack is part of a string of white-power terror attacks around the world and in the United States since 2018. But it has a couple of specific elements worth noting. According to Collins, the attack appears to be related to high school education in at least two ways.
First, the accused terrorist, who is now eighteen years old, “claims that he was radicalized on 4chan”—a known breeding ground for Internet extremists, including the earliest participants in the QAnon hoax—“while he was ‘bored’ at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.” Presumably, that would be the period when his high school was closed for in-person instruction.
Second, the accused terrorist “claims ‘critical race theory,’ a recent right-wing talking point that has come to generally encompass teaching about race in school, is part of a Jewish plot, and a reason to justify mass killings of Jews.”
Assuming the manifesto is authentic, as it appears to be, this is how paranoia and political lies spill over.
Xenophobia, treated as a useful tool and amusing plaything by cynical politicians and media personalities, finds new targets, over and over again. That’s its job. But people who know better will continue finding excuses for it.
Yesterday, a middle-school (collège) history and geography teacher named Samuel Paty was brutally murdered near his school in suburban Paris. French authorities say the murder was an organized Islamist terrorist attack. The killer, apparently a Chechen immigrant about eighteen years old, is said to have no other connection with the school or the teacher. French police have arrested nine people so far, though it’s not clear how many of those people were actually involved.
According to media reports, Paty seems to have been targeted because of a controversy that began early this month. That’s when showed his quatrième (eighth-grade) students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad—perhaps from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, itself targeted in a major terrorist attack in 2015 and a smaller attack just last month—as part of lessons on freedom of expression.
This outraged at least one Muslim girl and her father, who claimed the teacher had ordered Muslim students to leave class before showing students a “photo” of a naked man, saying it was a picture of the prophet. It’s not clear that this was accurate. Another parent said Paty “simply said to the Muslim children: ‘Leave, I don’t want it to hurt your feelings.’ That’s what my son told me.”
What’s most striking to me, here in the United States, is how the French government has rallied around Samuel Paty as a martyr to freedom and the secular republic.
President Emmanuel Macron said Paty was murdered “because he taught. Because he taught his students about liberty of expression, the liberty to believe and not to believe.” The minister of national education called him a representative of the French republic itself, “a servant of the state” as well as of his students.
In a wider context, some politicians and activists in France (and elsewhere) will certainly use this attack to advance anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim policies. That script is depressingly familiar.*
But the immediate context is also important, and we can reject the false choices offered by all kinds of extremists and bigots.
I don’t know exactly what happened in his classroom. But we can assume Samuel Paty knew it could be dangerous to teach in the way he believed best. He certainly knew about the recent history of Islamist violence in his own country—and knew that it has been connected, probably, with the very images he showed his class. Indeed, he was almost certainly teaching in direct response to a similar knife attack targeting Charlie Hebdo just days earlier.
Samuel Paty was a man of courage who ultimately gave his life for his students’ education.
History teachers everywhere know that doing our jobs well—with moral and civic conviction, with intellectual honesty, and with openness to the complexity of the world—means taking risks. Most of us will never face anything close to the kind of danger Paty faced, but any of us, under the right circumstances, could. And only rarely will any of us receive the kind of full-throated official support that Samuel Paty has received after his assassination.
Samuel Paty’s murder is a reminder that the work of teaching is the work of freedom.
Update: Twitter user Arnaud Léonard, a fellow history educator, points out an exhibition of drawings Samuel Paty’s students produced last year, based on the motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Themes of racial and religious harmony are prominent.
* Update 2: Sadly, in the weeks since I wrote this, it has become clear that Emmanuel Macron and his political allies have chosen to exploit Samuel Paty’s death, in the context of French racism and Islamophobia, as a pretext for authoritarian policies and catering to the French racist right. This shift in Macron’s public posture was alreadyunderway when Paty was killed. But what is striking now is how naked the power grab is—how directly and overtly it contradicts Macron’s claim to be defending the liberty of expression, as the French contemplate criminalizing protests on university campuses, censoring the research of scholars, and preventing public scrutiny of the police. Not only does this make a mockery of the French government’s espoused republican principles; it also dishonors the memory of Samuel Paty.