Then, too, there were the reports throughout the night of Parisians spontaneously opening their doors to take strangers off the suddenly dangerous streets. Again, there was a powerful echo of similar acts of individual generosity and compassion that many Europeans have shown to refugees along their escape route from the terrible violence they face back home.
This tension between self and other, between hospitality and retrenchment, was evident in the French government’s response, as well: on the one hand, a state of emergency allowing security forces expanded powers of search and seizure, that is to enter people’s homes and lives uninvited and by force; on the other, the extraordinary measure of closing the country’s borders, to prevent last night’s attackers, who at the time had not yet been killed or apprehended, from leaving French territory and to prevent any more from entering.
It was not the first time I had been surprised to see an image of the massive flow of refugees from the Middle East’s upheaval emerge unexpectedly in Paris. This past summer, at what then seemed like the height of the crisis but was only its beginning, the news was filled each day with images of desperate refugees crossing the Mediterranean—or sometimes dying in it—in dilapidated boats. One day, as I walked across a footbridge over the Seine, I was startled by a similar sight: a mass of people, crowded together and standing in the open air on a passing boat, waving their arms as if in need of rescue. I quickly realized that my mind had substituted an after-image of a boatload of refugees for what was actually a “bateau-mouche” full of waving tourists—“others,” like the refugees, but more fortunate in the welcome they are accorded.
This question of the “others” we welcome and those we reject also invites pathos, but has no easy answer. Last month, in reading a book on the works of Jacques Derrida, I was struck by how prescient he was to identify hospitality as a central problem for an era of globalization, one that he also related to the European project; and to pose hospitality, or openness to the other, as an alternative to immunity, or the negative definition of freedom as the absence of harm from the other, as a more promising path forward for liberal democracy as it evolves.
The tension between these two ethics—one of welcoming the other, one of protecting ourselves from him—is now playing out before our eyes here in Europe and the Middle East. But both depend on a conception of self and other, of host and refugee, that no longer really applies. When thousands of Parisians become refugees in Paris, as was the case last night, there’s no longer really a “here” and a “there,” no longer a host and a refugee. And when thousands of French and European citizens travel to Syria to join the brutal bloodletting there, there is no longer a dangerous “other” to exclude. The fields have merged, yet we’re still living in a world where Paris and Syria are two different places. Last night’s attacks, and the refugee crisis that lingers like a ghost-image behind them, showed that “Paris” and “Syria” are now two names for the same place. The other that we had sought to exclude is already among us, and if this time is anything like the last, he likely comes not from over there, but from here.