Murdered for Being Parisian

A reflection on the attacks from France

People warm up under protective blankets following the Paris attacks. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters)

PARIS—The shock is no less visceral for being familiar—like the foreboding of recognizing the frightening dream we have stumbled into for the recurring nightmare it is. Once again, the phone call from out of the blue, the alert that latent danger has retaken physical form. Again, the stream of text messages and emails, slow at first then building, to make sure we have slipped through its clutches. Again, the narratives that take shape, more by nature than by habit, although it’s no longer so easy to tell the difference: where we were, who we were with, what we were doing, when we found out. The gestures by now form a ritual, one that those of us here in Paris as well as others in the many cities from which the messages of concern come in, have become good at.

Then there are the new elements that make this time different; that force us to compare and contrast this attack with the last. The pang of alarm this time is not due to the suddenness, nor the surprise—which, paradoxically, was expected—but to the democratization of the carnage. Last time it was one horrific massacre followed days later by another. This time it was a coordinated and roving burst of bloodbaths across the city. Last time the victims were targeted for who they were or what they’d done. This time the bullets were not aimed, but fired at random. Last time the values of a nation and its people came under assault. This time it is the nation and its people themselves in the crosshairs.

And yet, despite the familiar ritual of fear and anger, or because of it, it’s difficult to discern the hidden themes that inhabit our narratives, the characters that populate these brutal dramas like ghosts.

As if to illustrate this last night, there was the macabre spectacle of a stadium full of soccer fans watching a match play out in its entirety, oblivious because of the saturated cell phone coverage to the three largely unsuccessful suicide attacks that were taking place at its doors. The live broadcast continued uninterrupted, with no mention of the night’s horrors from the announcers who, like us watching at home, were aware of them. That the match was between France and Germany only underscores how past blood rituals, now faded into desuetude, give way to new ones.

If I have couched all this in the comforting plural of “we,” it is an effort to avoid offering my own narrative of an evening whose horror I experienced via the television news broadcasts, in the safety of my apartment in a comfortable neighborhood far from the bloodshed. But it would include the anger that quickly followed the shock and initial fear; the sense of defiance I felt on leaving the apartment to pick up my son around the corner at a friend’s, and the satisfaction of knowing my presence can still reassure this half-grown man who now meets his father’s eyes with an almost level gaze; the defiance, again, that made me suggest walking to the late-night grocer halfway down the block to buy our favorite chocolate-caramel cake; and my satisfaction, again, hearing that my son had understood the message I meant to convey with my almost comic bravado: We should be prudent and aware that the danger is real, he said back at the apartment when I asked him for “his take,” but there’s no need to panic and fall prey to irrational fear.

If I hoped to avoid offering my personal version of the night’s bloodletting, it is because of my discomfort with the method we now turn to in doing so, the pathos we use to seduce each other into dissolving the boundary that separates us all into self and other, selves and others, to create a common identity in these moments of ritualized trauma.

Yet this question of self and other is fundamental to the blood drama playing out around us, even if it often only emerges in the confused juxtaposition of the seemingly unrelated images we are flooded with each day in our hyper-mediated lives. Last night, it was the image of the visibly shocked soccer fans who, with many of the stadium’s exits closed, had gathered on the field after the match had ended and their restored cell-phone reception had informed them of the night’s terrible events. I had seen this scene before, I realized, and simultaneous with the word taking shape in my mind, the news anchor noted how they had taken refuge, using the French verb, “se réfugier.” The image visually echoed all the many others we have seen in recent months in Europe of refugees from the wars in Syria and the Middle East gathered in stadiums, in outdoor camps, in enclosed spaces.

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.