Paris: the day after (90 days on)

Three months ago seems so far away. This was written the day after the attacks, for the Fleming Foundation.

The greatest generation was able to say, “This isn’t my first battle, sonny.” Is it odd that at under-40 I can say, “This isn’t my first terrorist attack”?

On September 11, 2001, I was heading to Kansas City after a short trip to Texas. Sometime that morning two planes flew into buildings in NYC. Our plane, like every other plane in the air, was forced to land at the closest possible airport. I spent the next 3 days with strangers, and our first hours together were spent in front of a television, watching the towers come down over and over again, calling loved ones, and just generally remaining in a state of shock. One of our companions, a news anchor from South Carolina, filed a report from our hotel room. The hours and days after the attacks I was overcome by the ordinary kindness of strangers and the general hospitality I received.

Earlier this year, on January 7th, 2015, a few hours after I had returned from a trip to the United States, some gunmen, about 3 km from my apartment, went into the offices of a particularly horrible magazine and gunned down numerous employees. Paris was in shock, and the Je suis Charlie bandwagon started up (I was, for various reasons, decidedly not Charlie).

And last night, when out with an out-of-town friend, I started getting a torrent of text messages, whatsapp notifications, and Facebook messages. “Are you okay?” “Are you safe?” I stopped short in my tracks and went to google to ask what the matter was. “A bomb at Stade de France…explosions in the 10th arrondissement” was what the news headlines told me in an instant. I turned to my friend, “Looks like some shootings.” We continued on to find a quiet place to drink and catch up. At the wine bar the news was on in the background but people ordered dinner and continued on in conversation, despite occasionally glancing up at the screens.

I went home nearly an hour later, as I expected to have an early morning for unrelated reasons, and came home to even more messages and streaming news from Sky and the BBC. As much as I didn’t want to watch it, I had many messages of solicitude and love to respond to and did so as quickly as they came in while keeping an eye to “what we know now.” After I had responded to all those messages I lay down to get some sleep.

This morning I took a walk around. While there were a few places closed, it looked very much like Paris on a Saturday — just a bit quieter. I live in the heart of the city, in the 2nd arrondissement. There was traffic and tourists and open shops and restaurants. As I walked I pondered my response to last night, both at the time and at that moment.

No surprise

I couldn’t say I was shocked. The West has lived with Islamic terrorism for centuries. In the past it was in the form of formal and full-scale military invasions. Now it takes the form of bombings in Madrid, London, New York, and now here in Paris. Seculars express shock and horror (and anger) in part because they have no context or vocabulary to understand what religion means to those who actually believe it, and because rather than investigate Islam for themselves, they prefer to read summaries on Vox or listen to commentary on CNN.

I busied myself with checking on my employees, my guests, and my friends. I was as numb to the news of a “terrorist attack” as I was to the news of “school shootings” or “race riots” happening in America.

Terrorism is part of our lives now

The 24-hour news cycle makes sure we know about horrific attacks as they unfold, and so my generation, unlike any other generation before it, lives all of these events kaleidoscopically, getting our news in a bath of media powered by millions of smartphones active on social media. It’s hard to pretend that these are isolated events that only happen occasionally rather than regular events that happen fairly frequently.

Count on politicians to say this has nothing to do with religion

All the leaders have called each other to make sure they are singing from the same sheet. This has nothing to do with Middle Eastern foreign policy. This has nothing to do with religion. This has nothing to do with cultures clashing and a complex immigration question in Europe. This is just the isolated actions of a few crazy people who don’t know the “real” Islam (because ostensibly, Hollande and Cameron will teach us the true tenets of the “religion of peace”). The problem with that narrative is this is the umpteenth time that “a few crazy people” have managed to so drastically affect the lives of so many.

Tourism will be affected in the short term

One of the businesses I run here in Paris is a walking tour business, and we got our first cancellation of a future reservation this morning. Is it really reasonable to believe that this is the first of an ongoing wave of attacks? That Paris is now Beirut? No. But the media loves playing up that angle. As the hype dies down and the next news story hits the cycle people will continue to come and see Paris and France.