I was thirteen when the first plane hit the Twin Towers. Thirty-five miles outside the city a disheveled teacher burst into my second period science class and announced the news. We thought it was an accident. He went to the computer and put on live radio and we listened as the second plane hit. From the highest point in town you could see the smoke rising above the city.
Yesterday, two men took twelve innocent lives in Paris. I was 400 km away in Nancy, and all I felt was a vague sorrow, a tightness in the chest and otherwise, nothing. Numbness.
Today when I woke up, it felt like 9/11. The skies weren’t the bright blue of New York in September. A single cloud rolls over northeastern France in October and doesn’t leave again until April, so in Nancy and Paris and also in Reims where the killers were thought to be hiding, the day was dressed for mourning.
As I ate my breakfast I came across, quite by accident, the video of the police officer Ahmed Merabet’s brutal execution on the streets of Paris. He lay on the ground, writhing in pain. A figure in black approached, dispatching him with nonchalance even as he raised his hands in a plea for pity. I couldn’t help but think of the footage of the world trade center. It had rolled for hours, days, weeks. The towers burning, crumbling, collapsing into themselves; the cloud of dust swallowing the streets; people running and crying, and the jumpers. The jumpers were the worst. Trapped at the top of the blazing towers, they threw themselves from the highest windows, perhaps to feel the wind in their hair for one last time. As I watched this police officer’s execution, my stomach clenched as if I’d taken a sudden drop. This pain was too familiar, and it was followed swiftly by a desperate, futile anger I remembered well. A hatred that churned my gut. I couldn’t finish breakfast.
I didn’t feel the fear until later on as I was walking through the park. I saw children laughing and playing and it occurred to me suddenly that a man with a gun could come right then and take every one of their young lives away, and there would be nothing I could do to stop him. As I watched the children frolicking and the joggers jogging and a stereotypical French couple going at it on a park bench, I thought of Sandy Hook and Isla Vista and the Boston marathon and I was afraid. A man could do that, and a man just might. Looking around at the place that has been my home for the past three years, I realized that though I may make faces when I swallow snails whole, I love this country like I love my own.
When I first arrived in France in 2012 the cultural difference seemed, at times, insurmountable. The French idea of politeness is propriety, and the American idea of politeness is warmth. In following the rules of our own culture, we tend to break the rules of the other and both parties may end up feeling righteously offended. My accent was strong and I made mistakes often and sometimes I took heat for political policies that I swear I had nothing to do with. But despite all our differences of opinion and comportment, one memory really stands out to me. I was working as an English teacher in a high school with students that were apathetic in the way only a French teenager can be. But when I taught a lesson about 9/11 they expressed not only a real interest, but also a deep and moving sympathy. Living so close to New York, I hadn’t ever imagined just how far the shock waves had travelled. I have seen this reflection of shared pain and genuine sympathy in every French person with whom I have ever discussed it.
This afternoon I called my mother back in New York and she asked how it was over here. I told her that it feels like 9/11. I told her about the fear I had felt in the park and she reminded me of what we had learned as a nation 14 years ago: fear is the tool of the terrorist. Yes, a man with a gun might come to the vigil in city center tonight, and no there would be nothing I could do, but I had to go to the vigil anyway. I had to be courageous. She shared my grief and the grief of the French and it was good to be reminded, but there was another reason I wanted to speak to her: I had a question. I had been wondering since this morning why I hadn’t cried when I found out, why I had felt only numb upon hearing the news. Truth be told, it was extremely unusual for me. I’ve cried watching Frozen. I’ve cried watching a beautiful sunset. I once literally cried over spilt milk, so why hadn’t I cried yesterday? I had two theories. The first was simple: I was a child then, I am an adult now. The world had always been cruel, I just hadn’t been aware of it before.
“Why did I feel nothing?” I asked my mother. “Is it because I’ve grown up and I know how awful the world can be?” But it wasn’t the question I wanted to ask. I had a second theory and it was far grimmer. “Did I feel apathetic because I’m an adult now, or did I feel that way because it seems like every other week another journalist gets his throat slit on a YouTube video?” I asked finally, “Was it always this way?”
Her answer was complicated. “Bad things have always happened, but we didn’t always hear about them” she said. “Bad things always happened, but they didn’t always happen here.” Then, “I guess it would be fair to say it has escalated.”
It is a complex issue and so the answer cannot be simple, but to make it so, the answer is no, it was not always this way. The attack on the world trade center was the largest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor and the largest attack ever on the continental US. The shooting in Paris yesterday was the worst in two decades. This is a new kind of warfare and we are living in an age of terror; an age when a foreign nation can reach its long arm halfway around the world to knock the pen out of an American artist’s hand and when innocent people are being killed for exercising their rights in a democratic nation. Freedom of expression is under attack on a global scale and yesterday twelve people were robbed of a far more fundamental right, their right to life.
Over Christmas I learned the French national anthem and I have to say I love it like I love my own. Both are hauntingly beautiful and both give me frissons, chills, but La Marseillaise is considerably more violent than The Star Spangled Banner. To be fair, French history is considerably more violent. From the revolution to the résistance they have truly paid the price for freedom with the blood of their people.
It is a battle cry as much as it is poetry and yet I feel the same hope in these words that I do when I imagine Francis Scott Key watching dawn break over our tattered flag. I feel the pride and the power in knowing what we are willing to do to defend the freedom of our countries.
I watched Casablanca just to hear the Marseillaise triumph over Die Wacht am Rhein. The ”beautiful friendship” between Captain Renault and Rick got me thinking about the alliance that America and France have shared since the birth of both democratic nations. Despite our bickering, each country has always come to the other’s aid and throughout history we have put aside our differences to come together in the defense of freedom and democracy. And even though Americans don’t appreciate rosé and the French are bizarrely both enamored and resentful of McDonalds, we have a great many things in common, not the least of which is a willing-to-die love of liberty.
Casablanca Warner Bros. 1942
I saw a quote on a paint-splattered banner at the vigil in Nancy tonight. “Ils voulaient mettre à genoux la France, ils l'ont mise debout.” My poor translation: “They thought to bring France to its knees, they brought us to our feet” As I read these words a memory came to me through the cold mist of the Parisian winter and the pluming dust of a shattered skyscraper. It was the image of the roads of my hometown under the blue sky of late September, every house hung with the American Flag. Today felt like 9/11 for its sorrow and anger and fear, but I felt also, again, a sense of shared pain and purpose, of unity.
My mother was right; fear is be the tool of the terrorist, but this time there is something far more insidious in their cause. France, unlike America, is home to around five million Muslim citizens. The most malignant intent of these two men was to create discord; they knew that hate begets hate and hoped to drive a wedge between Muslims of this country and the rest of the population. The tools of the terrorist are fear and discord, and we must respond in kind with courage and unity.
This evening French men and women put away their fear and gathered to light candles in the wind at vigils across the country. New Yorkers hoisted signs on the streets and cried for freedom of expression. Muslim people across the world condemned the actions of the killers in Paris. I watched as friends from America and Canada, Scotland and Peru, Morocco, Algeria and France changed their profile pictures to three simple words. “Je suis Charlie”. In this age of global terror, we who value the right to life and liberty are every one of us Charlie. And I swear I heard the national anthem playing, although I can’t be sure which one, as it dawned on me that our only hope of living to see days of peace lies in international unity, and from what I’ve seen, that hope is very much alive.