The bystanders finally stood up, en masse, to the bullies: Tens of thousands of people in Karachi, men and women, came out to the public square Monday to denounce the Taliban and support Malala Yousafzai. In doing so, they set an example for bystanders all over the world.
They set an example for Canada, where 15-year-old Amanda Todd of Port Coquitlam, B.C., killed herself last week after being bullied and humiliated over the Internet for three years. And they set up an example for the Muslim world, by standing up to Islamic extremists.
Some may think it’s a stretch to discuss the two incidents in the same breath. But when bullies feel a sense of impunity, their cruelty knows no limit. It wasn’t enough that the Taliban targeted 14-year-old Malala for assassination over her public fight for the right of girls to go to school – they put out an official statement declaring that if she survives their attempt to kill her, they will come back to try again. Is that brazenness much different than the online character assassination of Amanda that continued after her suicide? Not really. In each sphere – Pakistan’s Swat valley, where Malala goes to school, and Amanda’s school community in Port Coquitlam – the bullies feel in control.
Government can’t protect every school bus and every schoolyard every day to ensure that girls in Pakistan can attend school safely. Canadian schools can’t be aware of what’s happening online at all times or in every corner of the school. Government and schools need to create an environment in which people feel secure in standing up to bullies, either directly or by reporting, anonymously if necessary, what they witnessed or overheard. But ultimately, bystanders have more power to help stop bullying than, say, a national strategy proposed Monday in Ottawa. An excellent example is the wear pink campaign started by a handful of high-school students in Nova Scotia after a peer was bullied for wearing a pink shirt.
The silence of bystanders gives power to the bullies. It feeds their sense of impunity. A society in which a 14-year-old girl is singled out for assassination is in the control of vicious bullies. A school in which a 15-year-old feels no way out but death when she’s bullied is not safe. In both cases, the enormous power of bystanders waits to be tapped, and the best anti-bullying programs will find ways to do so. Neither the Taliban nor school bullies in Canada can withstand near-total societal revulsion.