Photo by Patrick Seeger/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

Can we be heroes?

Cowardice is inescapable in British public life

Artillery Row

It’s an image that will be burned into my mind forever. A woman wearing a head-covering sits before a makeshift tribunal, comprised of the very people who have spent much of the past week destroying her life. She is flanked by a local councillor, an imam, a police officer and the headteacher of her 14-year-old son’s school. Her son, as you will know by now, was suspended, as the councillor put it, for inadvertently and without malice scuffing his own copy of the Qur’an. He had, in the words of the police officer, committed that most odious thing, a “non-crime hate incident”. 

What a desperately sad indictment of modern Britain

Akef Akbar, an independent councillor for Wakefield East, is one of those people who tends to be described amorphously as a “community leader”. Having appointed himself mediator at the show-trial, he describes visiting the 14-year-old autistic boy in his home, chastening him and appraising his knowledge of Islam. He takes it upon himself to speak for the mother, who “off her own back” wishes to “apologise to the Muslim community for the actions of her child”. The whole spectacle takes for granted that her child was in the wrong, and that those who threatened him were understandably, even justifiably, inflamed by “passion”. It is therefore “to her credit”, Akbar continues, that “she does not want to press charges” against those children who — unlike her son, it bears repeating — broke the law by sending him death threats. Even more perversely, the police officer praises the “tolerance” of the local community — how magnanimous, that nobody so far has followed through on the death threats — and then blankly nods along as the imam roars, “we will never let this go!”

What a desperately sad indictment of modern Britain. All its worst elements are here, united in a single frame: the crank councillor, the dogmatic preacher, the jobsworth policeman. The character who interests me most, however — the one who most defies categorisation — is the headteacher of Kettlethorpe High School, Tudor Griffiths. 

“This is a sad day, Mr Griffiths keeps saying, “a day of reflection, a day of learning. He warns against the “danger” of young people “taking the law into their own hands” — which law, one wonders? He assures his audience that “this will not be brushed under the carpet” — “this” once again referring to the scuffing of the Qur’an, rather than the death threats. Like all appeasers, he waves the white flag in the “hope that things do not escalate”.

What do you do with Tudor Griffiths? What words can we even apply to him? Quite clearly, he is a coward. As a headteacher, he has important obligations to his pupils: obligations not to suspend or expel them without cause, obligations not to let bullying and death threats go unpunished. He has fundamentally failed to uphold those obligations. 

The French newsvendor is bravely defending the values of his country

It’s true, the story is more complex than that. He does have obligations to his friends and family, after all. My mother is a teacher, and if somehow — God forbid — she ended up embroiled in a situation like this, I’d hardly be telling her to stand her ground. No, no, I’d say to her, just cave to the mob; this isn’t worth compromising your (or our) safety over. My mind would leap to the case of the Religious Studies teacher in Batley, still in hiding with his family after two years because he offended the local Muslim community by showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his lessons. Such a grim fate may well have played out in Mr Griffiths’ mind, when he chose to discipline the boy and to brush the death threats under the carpet. He never asked for this.

Perhaps it is too much to expect from a headteacher, that he would put his life and livelihood at risk in service of acting as morally he should. His conduct, whilst surely cowardly, is not altogether blameworthy. The blame instead should rest principally with the state, embodied by the police officer, which has all but relieved itself of the duty to protect people like the 14-year-old boy or the teacher in Batley from religious intimidation. If Mr Griffiths cannot expect the state to protect him, how can we expect him to risk putting himself in danger? 

Yet, there remains something about Mr Griffiths that doesn’t sit right with me. I am living in Paris at the moment, and I find myself continually moved by the heroism of the newsvendor on my street who proudly displays Charlie Hebdo on his shelves. He does so at no small danger to himself. In his own small way, he is bravely defending the values of his country.

In Britain one seldom encounters heroism of this sort. This speaks to our good fortune: such heroism is necessary only in the bad times. The bad times, as cases like this make clear, are here. They demand from us far more than we are accustomed to deliver. They demand from Mr Griffiths greater courage, greater self-sacrifice, than he could ever have imagined when he became a teacher in 1993. 

The new reality might take some adjusting to. Perhaps it will require a changing of the guard, as those who are ill-disposed to bear the new burdens of the job are replaced wholesale by those who can. Wakefield makes clear what we’re up against and just how wretchedly feeble we are in the face of it. There can no longer be any doubt that the survival of British society’s most fundamental values will come increasingly to rely on heroism found on every street corner in Paris. Schools up and down the country, in towns like Wakefield in particular, will demand not only that their teachers do their job in a narrow, keep-your-head-down kind of way, but that they be heroes. 

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