For Parisians, Shock is Solidarity
Below is my column for CNN.com in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris (for link click here).
One week after the terrorist attacks, the world is crying for Paris. The City of Light, which evokes romance and inspires dreams, has been darkened by a terrifying nightmare. The night after the attacks, the lights on the Eiffel Tower went black in mourning.
Yet Parisians, refusing to succumb to despair, are showing the strength of their resilience. Yes, nervous tourists are canceling travel plans to the French capital. And those who are already here are staying clear of monuments like Notre Dame, fearing they might be terrorist targets. But Parisians themselves are defiantly flooding back into their local bistrots and onto café terraces, savoring the movable feast that is Paris. Precisely what the jihadists loathe and fear.
As a longtime resident of Paris, this aspect of the Parisian character has always impressed me. Parisians, often considered by foreigners as unsmiling and inhospitable, are astoundingly courageous in the face of adversity. Emboldened by their legendary pride, Parisians refuse to be rattled.
In many respects, it shouldn’t be so surprising. The Parisian saga has been tumultuous for centuries. Tragic violence is part of the city’s collective narrative. Parisians are blessed with the most beautiful city in the world, but they are also battered by history’s cruelest ordeals.
It is often forgotten that Paris was brought to its knees during the four-month Prussian siege of 1870-71. The Prussian army surrounded the French capital and shelled the city mercilessly. As the siege dragged on, Parisians were so starved that they desperately slaughtered thousands of horses and killed dogs, cats, and even rats for food. Even the animals in the Paris zoo were killed for food.
The pounding Prussian shells, and the destruction that followed during the rebellious Commune, disfigured destroyed much of the city. Some 47,000 civilians were killed, 12,000 from diseases. The Tuileries Palace, burnt to the ground, was reduced to a pile of rubble.
The German occupation of Paris in 1940 marked the darkest period in the city’s history. Thousands of Jews were rounded up and deported to Nazi concentration camps. After the war, many Parisians turned on Nazi collaborators in a bloodbath of purges. That episode was so traumatic that its worst horrors were swept under the collective carpet for a generation.
Forty years later, I was a young student in Paris in the 1980s when terrorist bombs shattered the city. The series of blast in 1986 were much like the most recent attacks in this city, though three decades ago the perpetrators were remote-controlled by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The entire city was on edge throughout 1986 as blast after blast — plastic Semtex bombs placed in public trash cans — ripped through the capital. In September, a bomb explosion in front of a discount clothing store in Montparnasse killed seven people and left 55 injured. Bodies were splayed on the pavement like broken puppets with limbs missing.
In the weeks that followed, it was impossible to enter a Monoprix to go shopping for groceries without passing through airport-level security. Since that tragedy, public trash poubelles in Paris are made of transparent green plastic so bombs placed in them are visible.
In the mid-1990s when I was completing my doctorate in Paris, another series of attacks rocked Paris. This time the terrorists were Algerian Islamists. Eight attacks occurred that year — including one in the Paris Métro near Notre Dame — killing eight and wounding more than 200. At the time, it felt like the terrorist violence would never end in Paris.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre in January this year was like a horrifying nightmare returning after two decades. The terrorists are still Islamic fanatics taking orders from Daesh leaders in Syria. The sponsors were different, the target was the same — Paris.
And now, less than a year later, the city has been struck again. The terrorist attacks a week ago were the worst to hit Paris. Paris has not suffered this kind of collective trauma since the Second World War. Again, the perpetrators are Islamic fanatics striking at the city that is the symbol of Western culture and secular values.
This time, the violence is so horrifying that the French government has declared war on the terrorists. The French army is bombing terrorist strongholds in Syria where these atrocities originate. It won’t be a quick war and an easy victory. Parisians know the city will continue to be a target as French bombs fall on Syrian soil.
Perhaps that explains why Parisians have thrown themselves with a vengeance back into the fleeting joys of their daily lives.
In Paris, we have seen this before. And, as in the past, Parisians will triumph by the force of their stubborn zest for life. Shock is now solidarity.