This evident and non-ironic headline is the first I manage to focus my eyes on while tapping at my phone the morning of November 13, 2015 in Dijon, France. Out the window, the quiet Burgundy capital and my wife’s city of birth that we’ve called home for the past ten years is sun-drenched in late autumn. So the day may already be looking up. The so-called research was right. Also, my wife won’t be taking the train into her office in Paris today. She can work from home. I jump out of bed and into the routine household slew of things to do with the usual zero time to ponder something as elusive as my luck.
After our daughters zip off to school, I give a private English tutoring session. My student this morning is one I’ve worked with for years, the middle daughter of a French/Lebanese family. Her English is so good at this point I have to get truly nitpicky to teach her anything more. In this session, she asks if I’ve seen the news from Beirut. I tell her that yes, I caught the headline this morning in a rush, but didn’t get a chance to read the full article yet. She calls the attacks revolting and I agree, while wondering to myself if it were not for the connection to her family, would I have given the event the thought and sympathy it actually deserved. Would I have delved into this singular tragedy? She describes the resilient spirit of Lebanon where her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins live. She says the people remain hopeful. Lebanon, a nation of roughly four million that in recent years has absorbed one million refugees and has endured terrorism and civil war for decades, refuses to despair.
I try not to write down my instant reaction to anything. It’s not a moral superiority to hot takes; I’m just an overthinker. But on January 9th of this year, I posted the line about no more merde after news that the perpetrators of Charlie Hebdo attacks and the gunman in the supermarket in Paris had all been killed. The emotion of the event managed to override my second-guessing and any ponderous concern for my tone. I just wanted to contribute, to be a part of the national French sigh of relief, like so many others.
Hours later on midnight of that Friday night, I would turn 40 years old. It was an uneasy start to a new year, but with the renewed commitment to purposeful ideals that winnowed through France following that tragedy, my own new decade could only rise from there. This one abominable thing was behind us.
Another headline jerks me out of drowsiness, this time just as the evening is winding down on the lucky Friday in November.
“Something’s going on in Paris,” I say to my wife.
Online and on television we see shots have been fired. Bombs detonated. There is bloodshed at cafés, restaurants, bars and one of my favorite music venues in Paris, the Bataclan, along with three suicide bombers outside the Stade de France.
Before I realize it, my wife is on the phone to her brother and sister-in-law. They were close to the concert hall but have left the city. They are safe. So are other friends and colleagues. No one has that much information but can fill in gaps easily. I get repeated pings from people back in the US asking about my well-being.
The President closes the borders. Security alerts can’t get any higher. There is more war to come. There is gasping and flourishing outrage on social networks and more reassurances from people we know.
We turn off devices at 2:30 AM, my wife and I having both reached the limit of the number of times we could see the same image of shattered glass, weeping concertgoers and commentators reiterating what we don’t yet know.
We turn off the lights. I lay in bed exhausted but unable to sleep. I vow not to touch the phone on my nightstand. But I can almost physically feel its pull.
I think about how I should say something. I should update my status to inform everyone that I’m fine. Or queasy. Or deflated.
I should say that this is awful but predictable. No. Just awful. I should comment ‘no words’. I should calmly urge peace. I should say we’ve got to nuke these shitbrained connards to kingdom come. I should express my very real desire to be an American hero clubbing an armed terrorist to a French train floor before any rounds can go off. I should support the coming troupes. I should say that the Charlie Hebdo attacks seem like ancient history. I should say the year went by in a flash and almost nothing changed. I should say I feel fifty years old. I should wonder aloud about the next mass shooter in America currently buying an AR-15 at an expo. But this is also old news. That and climate change because the approaching COP 21 summit in Paris will only be a distracting sideshow.
I should say I’ll be awake until 2016.
I should find a video of the time I saw The Roots play the Bataclan. The kaleidoscope mix of rock hip hop jazz and drums that lit the raucous diverse crowd that night so many years ago should be statement enough.
On this night in 2015 the slaughtered hostages at the Bataclan are still too many to count now.
I’ve successfully and fully agitated myself beside my softly snoring wife. I lurch for my phone.
My top notification is from Facebook itself. I’ve contacted friends and family through direct messages to tell them we’re fine. But what is this?
“It looks like you’re in the area affected by the Paris Terror Attacks. Let friends know that you’re safe.”
Is it Zuckerberg personally asking? It makes me sorry I swiped my screen on. But people I know in Paris have checked in. Even with those I’ve already contacted, I’m glad to see their names pop up.
I’m relieved. I’m lucky. Again. We will be OK, I think. The vast majority of kind hearts will come together. The vigils worldwide will be sincere even if I don’t know the degree of fealty I’ll have the right to pledge.
With the borders closed, I envision tunneling my way back home. Wherever home is. Wherever safety is. I close my eyes and look for a tunnel. I see an image of a preteen age boy who lives in a gray Parisian banlieue. He has an indeterminate accent with jargon my own French doesn’t pick up but he wears a crisp-looking LA Dodgers cap and listens to American hip hop, so I trust him. He walks the desolate streets looking for a tunnel out too.
He has an assault rifle strung over his shoulder. If he tunnels west under the length of the Atlantic Ocean he’ll need to protect himself at malls and college campuses. He could be a good guy with a gun. If he tunnels east he will encounter a stream of refugees that ends at an apocalyptic cause he could easily join. I can encourage him to make the right choice, but he can’t hear it from me. I can only follow as a concerned American expat running out of breath and smartphone battery life.
I’m supposed to wake up hopeful the following morning. The weather is gorgeous again. The bells of Dijon’s 14th century Cathédrale Saint-Bénigne are ringing.
But I’m still hearing the drums at the Bataclan. I post an online message about gratitude, safety and peace. I mention the time I was in the audience at this suddenly infamous venue. I manage to find a video snippet of Questlove that someone else posted years ago. I try to remember more of that joyous night.
Meanwhile, my feeds are bleeding tricolors. I roll my eyes at some of it. Then moments later I fall against a doorframe and choke up at the sight of old friends, acquaintances and fellow writers draping their faces in the French flag. This is support, defiance and hope and makes me proud to know these people.
It also makes me question whether persons in far proximity from violent tragedy have a clearer understanding of it. Have those within its blast radius deluded themselves in a necessary survival mechanism? Does the woman in Charleston, South Carolina know more of the ramifications of Paris terrorism? Does the man in the 18th arrondissement understand more of the ripple effect of the Oregon shooting spree? Again, the distance might count for something.
France is collectively shellshocked the day after the attacks. In Dijon, shops and restaurants tentatively open their doors. People on public transit are downcast but manage occasional warm glances at strangers that break the tension hanging in the air. The first exchanges with everyone that day begin with solemn head shaking and then the inquiring about loved ones possibly in Paris. We don’t know anyone immediately affected, just several friends of friends who witnessed the attacks. One of my wife’s colleagues finds out a full day later that his childhood pal was at one of the cafés and is now in the hospital in a coma.
Someone else close to us in Paris asks if we’ve donated blood yet. She adds, “I did today. Well, I stood in line anyway but was then turned away because they have too much. But I’m going to return next week to donate my platelets.”
Have we already let the terrorists win because we haven’t offered up our platelets?
The statement sounds familiar even as it’s wheeled out in a language George W. Bush once readily mocked. This particular one was made by Prime Minister Manuel Valls during a radio interview with France Inter. Likewise, on the reanimated far right of France, the calls are for a permanent halt to refugees entering the country and an expulsion of Muslim leaders preaching radical ideas.
I’ve written reflections on random acts of terror for almost fifteen years now and have remained naïve and bleeding heart throughout. I keep writing and reflecting and offering my one half-blind opinion for how we should take the long view.
Though lately, I find it harder to comment on the long view because the takes don’t ever seem to cool down. I don’t know if true clarity and perspective will ever be available to us. I’m sitting here with the creeping worry that I’m being added to a république watchlist because I just listened to ‘Isis’ by Bob Dylan on Spotify. I’m waiting for more invasions and new versions of the Patriot Act. More people chastising others for changing their profile pictures. More American police brutality videos. More phobias and more testing of the mettle of democracy, the ideals that French thinkers once articulated so well.
I hear this phrase often, not only in reference to a Paris – New York 9/11 parallel, but also to indicate the next round on a well-tread cycle, one that runs its course faster each time a fresh public atrocity like this arises. Here we go again because we aren’t surprised anymore. Allez ça commence. Encore.
Airstrikes in Syria intensify while false bomb scares occur daily among jittery European crowds. Politicians and celebrities make sure they’re seen wearing a version of a lapel flagpin. The French soccer team plays their next match in Wembley Stadium. The English fans sing “La Marseillaise.” Smaller miracles occur.
But, of course, Paris endures. This is a prediction I mark as safe. Its official Latin motto Fluctuat nec mergitur, tossed but not sunk, will hold.
The city will remain the place where, once you finally arrive, you find nothing of what the cosmopolitans in your mind envisioned. The Paris you heard of — the Toulouse-Lautrec posters, the thin Gauloise and the dance of the naked ladies — is always one step further down the avenue but, in any case, not where the guidebooks indicated they’d be. The Mona Lisa was tiny and blocked by selfie sticks. Plus the waiters weren’t existential and, for the duration of your stay, you were never once seduced.
Until you leave, and take the city with you, wanting only to return.
Paris will stay the movable feast, a monument, a cobblestone street stained with blood like wine and wine like blood. It will stand as the capital of a nation whose citizens will never chant that they are numero un nor that they exist as the only free place on Earth.
They will only remind you that this is like a dream we all once had.
So you walk down along the hip Canal St. Martin streets past the demonstrators at Place de la République, by the theaters of the bustling wide Grand Boulevards then under Art Nouveau covered galeries. From there you might end up at the Louvre stepping carefully in your Nikes around the Victoire de Samothrace, stone wings nearly fluttering. By twilight, you can see young kids along the quai of the Seine.
They may have come into town from the urban outskirts, not abandoning the city because they are, after all, at home here and as they watch the unhurried river flowing past the shimmering lights, they can still hear music playing.