We awoke in a London hotel room Saturday morning to a blizzard of texts and Facebook messages. Were we ok? Weren’t the events in Paris horrific? In a hotel with our six year old daughter , we’d been asleep and blissfully ignorant of the horror taking place. We immediately turned on the television and could not believe what we were seeing. Gun attacks, explosions, grenades. Cafes, a stadium and a music hall. Carnage. The sheer number of fatalities stunned us. It was immediately clear this was far beyond the horror of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Our planned family weekend break in London was consumed with anxiety and fear over what was happening in Paris. A need to stay tuned to the rolling news coverage. Thanks to Facebook, we knew all our friends were safe. But we felt outrage and fury, mostly directed at the terrorists but also frustrations (perhaps unfairly – it is too soon to know) with the French intelligence services.
The purpose of our weekend in London had been a theatre outing with our daughter. The colour and music of a West End show were a welcome escape for a couple of hours but we felt it was somehow frivolous to be there whilst so much suffering went on back home in Paris. Silly as it may sound, we felt we had abandoned our post and that we really ought to have been back in Paris, even though our presence there would not make a difference.
We told our daughter the minimum we felt she needed to know – that there had been an attack in Paris, similar to what happened in January and that the bad men who did it were all dead (not strictly true at that point on the weekend but it felt right to reassure her on that front). She took it in stride, so much so that it distressed me. Attacks on her home city feel on some level normal to her, this being the second in one year. She asked some questions. We had no answer for the first question (“Why did they do it?”) and we simply didn’t want to answer her second question of how many people had died. The number seemed too high for a six-year-old’s ears. Touchingly, she repeated what we had said to reassure her during the Charlie Hebdo attacks, that the French police and soldiers would protect her from any other bad men.
On Sunday night, I shocked myself with the satisfaction I felt on hearing French forces had bombed Islamic State training camps in Raqqa. I don’t normally feel vengeful or believe in violence at all. I think it is a testament to how much Paris really has become ‘my’ home city that I could feel such uncharacteristic pleasure that ‘we’had struck back at ‘them’.
I cried in St Pancras station as passengers gathered together to mark a minute of silence to hour those who had died, acutely aware of how what I valued most at that moment, the closeness of my little family, had been ripped away from well over a hundred Paris families. Our Eurostar rolled home to Paris and we were a little apprehensive of what we might find. Of course what we found were shops and cafes open, with just a heavy police and military presence and stoic faces to reveal what had occurred at the weekend.
Tomorrow we will join the rest of Paris who are already resuming normal life, as big cities do so well after tragedy. I am sure we will feel on edge, just as people in la place de la Republique did over a false alarm on Sunday night. But my thoughts dwell less on the likelihood of further bloodshed – I worry even more about longer term, deeper changes for Paris, France and even Europe. There are of course the obvious changes to our daily lives. I already know all of my daughter’s school trips are cancelled until further notice. I will not be allowed to enter the school courtyard to drop her off as usual as parents must now remain outside the gate. I know from an email the American Library will check my bags on entry when I visit this week. That there will be armed police and soldiers on every corner. All of these are infringements on our daily freedom and quality of life. I actually do not mind them a bit. If they can keep my child and everyone else’s safe, I can live with even more restrictions than that.
My real fear is what this attack will do to our interaction and relationships as a society. I love this beautiful city and the people in it. The distress of the weekend confirmed to me that it really has become my home. I have been welcomed here and so appreciate the friends, French and international, that I have been so fortunate to make. But after Charlie Hebdo, Muslim friends told me distressing anecdotes. One woman had men make threatening, menacing gun signs with their hands at her on the street. On a separate occasion a well-dressed, elderly woman came up to her and pulled at her headscarf and asked her why she wore it. She explained she was a Muslim. “Well, you look ridiculous. You live in France.” My heart ached for her and I fear what she might face in the weeks and months ahead.
When I heard that taxis turned their meters off of Friday night and people were opening up their homes to shelter strangers, I felt so proud of Paris. The city was being her very best self – generous and resilient, dignified and unified But I fear beneath the surface there are tensions in France that will rise when the country is put under this unbearable pressure. Right now there is solidarity. There is a strong sentiment that these are terrorists, not Muslims. For now, extracts from the Koran circulate reminding us that for real Muslims, to take a life is a sin and to save a life is divine. But I fear that such solidarity could evaporate. Anti-semitism lurks here in France too. I have been at a business lunch with a well-educated man who blithely informed me that: “Corsica is a bit like the Jews. They make up a tiny percentage of the population in France but they have to make the most noise”. I reeled and wondered what lies beneath if such a sentiment can be aired publicly at a business lunch. Some Anglophone friends tell me their French in-laws make Jewish jokes. Of course, all of these anecdotes are exceptions and not part of my daily experience. But they show that intolerance festers here beneath the surface and if France is put under the terrible pressure of continued attacks, the intolerance could rise to the surface.
When asked why the terrorists targeted the 11th arrondissement and its trendy restaurants and young concert-goers, one young woman told the Sunday Times: “We are educated, young and liberal. This is what they hate.” I think this is true. So-called Islamic State did want to target the young, innocent people enjoying a family dinner or catching up with friends. I also think they want to make Muslims unwelcome in Europe so that they’ll increasingly turn to extremism. Well, that is where we really can defeat Islamic State. They might be able to get our school trips cancelled and force us to live with armed police. But let’s not let them take away the wonderful spirit of friendship, tolerance and acceptance that Europe can achieve so well. We are as educated and liberal as they fear and as such we can treasure our friendships between religions and nationalities. Muslims and Jews do belong here and we do want them. That is our daily, personal way to defeat Islamic State.