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There are only very few things that make my blood boil.  The misuse of the phrase “to take responsibility”, when applied to terrorist organisations such as ISIS, is one of them.  After every murderous attack carried out by radicalised individuals, the media obediently report statements made by terrorists that they ‘take’ or 'claim’ responsibility for the attack. 

To most people, I would hope, responsibility is a noble concept, and taking responsibility is a noble act.  Fallible human beings we are, all of us, and fallible we will remain.  But every time we take responsibility for an action or a mistake, we grow a little.  Every time we accept responsibility, we make a promise (maybe to others, but most importantly to ourselves) that we will not repeat the same mistake again.

Sometimes this is easier said than done.  Children in particular often make opportunistic promises they can’t keep, especially when parents are dangling a carrot in front of them.  I remember my little nieces and nephew begging their mother to buy them some pet rabbits.  My sister said she would consider it, if they managed to stop quarrelling with each other for a week.  Five years on, they are still waiting for their rabbits.

Other people make promises with genuinely good intentions but don’t have the strength to keep them.  Drug addicts, for example, may promise their family never to take drugs again, but being in the grip of an addiction is not something that you can shake off easily. It takes willpower as well as support and therapy.

Others again may have character traits that affect other people.  Some people are argumentative by nature, or they fly into a rage easily.  They may have a genuine personality disorder, maybe suffering from depression, bipolar disorder or lack of empathy. Even if they notice how their mood swings or conditions affect other people, even if they feel guilty about it and want to take responsibility for it, they may find it hard or impossible to ‘snap out of it’.  Their ability to ‘take responsibility’ is therefore genuinely limited, and often the onus is on others to take a certain degree of responsibility for them and help them manage their complex lives.

And then there is responsibility in the workplace.  Every worker has individual responsibilities, and yet it is normal, occasionally, to fall short of expectations or make a mistake.  Owning up to such a mistake, learning from it and taking responsibility for your own growth is a noble and honest response.  That also applies to leaders who may have made a mistake or wrong decision and who, in acknowledging their responsibility, set the right tone and create an honest workplace that is governed by ethical principles, where mistakes can be made in a forgiving environment and people learn and grow together from them. 


In fact, the responsibility increases, the more you rise in an organisation.  If you are in a position of leadership, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to take responsibility for a mistake that was not even your own.  In some high profile cases of child abuse in the UK and other countries in recent years, Social Services committed catastrophic errors, leading to avoidable deaths of children who were already on the radar of authorities because of well-documented domestic abuse.  In one such case, the Head of Social Services refused to step down and clung on to her job, despite calls for her resignation.  She may not have been personally involved with the case, but as it happened on her watch, it would have been seen as the right gesture if she had taken responsibility for the failings in her department.

Conversely, the German Head of the Protestant church, Bishop Margot Käßmann, not too long after her appointment, was caught drink-driving by the police in 2010.  She had not caused an accident but she was significantly over the limit.  She immediately took responsibility for her actions and resigned from her post, as she felt that her tarnished reputation would affect her personal credibility and thus the reputation of the institution she represented.  It earned her a lot of respect at the time.

Sometimes you may also find yourself in a situation where you have not even made a serious mistake.  Maybe it was just a small oversight or a genuine error, and you could be forgiven for brushing it under the carpet, were it not for some other circumstances.  I remember reading the story of a paramedic in my local paper in Bedford who had been called to an emergency.  While he ran out of the ambulance to attend to a man who had suffered a cardiac arrest, in the end saving his life, he had left the van unlocked.  Opportunist thieves entered the van and stole his wallet. 

The paramedic became the hero of the local press.  The local community even rallied round and donated a significant amount of money to him to compensate him for his loss.  Journalists and letters to the editor praised this young man and all other nurses and paramedics who saved lives unselfishly, while vociferously condemning those callous individuals who took advantage of an unlocked ambulance van and stole from a good Samaritan. 

A week later the young man – clearly after some days of serious introspection – took responsibility for his error.  Nobody had stolen from him – his wallet had simply slid down in his shopping bag and he had made a hasty, and as it turned out wrong, assumption.  When he noticed it at home, the media hype had already started and he was too embarrassed to admit his error – but his conscience caught up with him a few days later.  The consequences of his genuine oversight were not catastrophic and no harm was caused.  Nonetheless, this young man took responsibility and, having examined his ethical values, apologised for his delayed admission, bravely coping with the embarrassment that ensued.  He probably felt that, on this occasion at least, the faith in humanity had been shattered undeservedly and needed to be restored.

Taking responsibility does not only have to do with our personal or professional actions or errors in the past.  It can also mean the concept of taking responsibility for our decisions and their potential consequences in the future.  The police, for example, or politicians have to make risky and potentially dangerous decisions all the time. If a decision needs to be made about how to deal with a siege and hostage situation, the person in charge is aware that they are making a life-or-death decision.  I have given an example in a previous blog on the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and his decision in 1977 to storm a plane full of hostages, potentially risking the lives of almost 100 innocent people.  The Sydney police were in a similar situation in December 2014 when they made the decision to storm the Lindt Café to free the hostages.  It takes strong leadership and courageous individuals to take responsibility for such high-risk decisions and their consequences.

In a school context, where we teach values to our pupils, the stakes are not usually that high, but the seeds for leading a courageous and responsible life are well and truly sown.  Many schools number courage, truth, humility, responsibility amongst the values they advocate.  If we want our young people to grow into adults who are strong enough to take responsibility - for themselves, for others, for their own actions and decisions - , we need to give them true role models and true concepts of responsibility.

‘Responsibility’, from its word origin, is the ability to respond: to challenges from within your own conscience, to challenges from others, or to challenging situations.  It involves the willingness to engage and to improve.  It is a noble concept.  Responsible people do not shy away from difficult conversations, admissions or decisions.  They are willing to engage in a process of honest reflection about their values, both with themselves and with others.  If others challenge them to justify their beliefs or their actions, they rise to it instead of hiding from them.

This noble ethical concept has very little to do with the mindless repetition of the phrase that terrorists have ‘taken responsibility’ for their attacks.  Terrorists do not engage.  They do not listen.  They do not want to learn and improve.  They have been radicalised and brainwashed.  Journalists need to start using language more thoughtfully and accurately.  Terrorists are murderers.  They kill innocent people and attack democratic values.  Every attack is another trophy for them.  Describing such gloating as ‘taking responsibility’ is a warped and misguided use of an expression and concept that implies moral autonomy.  Language matters, nuances matter:  there is no nobility in acts of terrorism.

Seagulls at Balmoral

Sometimes you need to take a stand, instead of following the crowd, and deliberately look the other way.

12 June 2017

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