It’s important first of all to make it clear to kids that the guy with the beard and the dark skin isn’t necessarily the guy that that did it. There are plenty of metrics that show that terrorism doesn’t have just one creed or colour. Historically there have been waves of terrorism that have been associated with liberation or anarchist movements. Terrorism is very promiscuous.
If you are talking to a child of, say, six the question is how far you get into issues of good and evil. You have to explain that the people who are indiscriminately killing innocent people are bad men, but they are not like Dr. Evil in Austin Powers who looks in the mirror and goes “I’m so evil! I love evil, I want to do more evil!” It’s important to stress that these bad people have ideals that have driven them to do these things.
"It would be good to use an analogy. Stress that terrorists see themselves as a little like janitors – people who do nasty jobs that most people don’t want to do but which are necessary."
It would be good to use an analogy. Stress that terrorists see themselves as a little like janitors – people who do nasty jobs that most people don’t want to do but which are necessary. Obviously, you then have to explain that killing innocent people indiscriminately is a terrible thing, even if the people who are doing it are, in a twisted way, utopians who think they are making the world a better place.
It’s obviously very difficult for any parent if their young child sees an awful terrorist act on TV, like 9/11 or the Bataclan, and asks why the terrorists have done it. I think the key is to stress that the terrorists genuinely think they are doing it for the greater good and that mental illness may be involved, because even a six-year-old will be able to plainly see that trying to do so while wallowing in bloodshed is misguided and wrong.
It’s very useful for children to understand why people are led to do such extreme things outside of mainstream thought, even if it is a hard conversation to have. There is a very strong case for discussing issues like terrorism as part of the school curriculum – except that, sadly, the tabloid press would have an absolute field day.
"Tell them that they are more likely to be killed in a car accident or by a lightning strike than a terrorist – in this country, the chance of being killed by a terrorist is about 1 in 50 million."
Explain to the kid that terrorism sometimes works, because why else would people do it? The Beirut truck bombing in 1983 led to America pulling out of Lebanon. Good Friday and devolution in Northern Ireland would not have happened if not for the Troubles. Talk also about stuff like environmental terrorism and how its perpetrators devoutly believe that they are trying to save the planet, and that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette. Religious terrorists have the same motivation.
The bottom line is probably to stress to the child that terrorists have ideas that allow them to hurt people and they feel that hurting people can actually bring about good things – but that they are wrong. Also, of course, tell them that they are more likely to be killed in a car accident or by a lightning strike than a terrorist – in this country, the chance of being killed by a terrorist is about 1 in 50 million. Terrorism is meant to be scary, just as ghosts are meant to be scary, but once the kid realises that ghosts don’t exist, they are not scared any more.
Tell them the truth, but don't tell them anything that will frighten them.
You could start by saying that there are lots of people in the world and so there are lots of different ideas about what is the right way to organise things and about the rules that we have.
Then say that when people disagree about things, most people discuss their ideas and try to persuade people about things they feel are right, and listen to others and sometimes change their minds when they learn something new.
But some people feel very strongly about things they believe. And if they are not able to persuade enough people to agree with them, or are not given a chance to share their ideas, it can make them feel angry or make them feel that they have to try another way of being heard. Occasionally, a person or a group of people will try to frighten people into changing their minds instead of persuading them. And that one way to frighten people is to be extremely violent, sometimes committing an act of violence against people who are not even involved in the discussion. And that when someone commits violence in order to try and get their own way, that is terrorism.
And you might want to stress that it's unlikely you will ever be the victim of terrorism, but it is something that happens from time to time.