What do you do when a city you love is cruelly attacked? Paris is not the only city that has been cruelly attacked this millennium, this decade, this year, this month. Think of Beirut, Baghdad, Lahore, Nairobi, New York…. These are cities whose attackers claimed to be true Muslims, and yet they are a miniscule fraction of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, most of whom do not participate in or support these attacks. Apart from these “Islamist” attacks, there are hundreds of places all over the world where people are subject to cruel attacks by non-Muslim people, mostly in the pursuit of money and power. So cruel attacks, whether by “Islamists” or not, are commonplace (how do I write a sentence like that so calmly?!). Why, then, am I stricken by today’s tragedy in Paris and what do I do about it?
For people who live in Paris, this tragedy means that people they know are hurt – some are dead – and places they know are splattered with blood. Their hearts are broken in an immediate way. That cannot be the case for me. I’m in San Diego, and I haven’t been to Paris in years.
But I’m stricken all the way in San Diego because I know Paris. It is the most beautiful city I know, which may seem irrelevant in the face of humans being mass-murdered but I cannot think of Paris without seeing its beauty; I cannot imagine anyone there who is not shaped by the beauty of Paris (even if negatively because they feel excluded from it). And the beauty of Paris is not a static, plastic beauty nor an archaic, lifeless beauty.
The beauty of Paris comes alive because it is a vibrant world city, in which you hear languages, see art, listen to music from all the populated continents. It’s a city in which I can easily imagine myself, my family, and any of you, including refugees from warfare,“Islamist terrorism,” drought, and extreme poverty. Its beauty comes alive because so much living – walking, eating, painting, arguing, loving, laughing, playing, kissing, self-adorning, thinking, critiquing, mocking – happens in public, in a way that I have enjoyed and I love. Parisians are often offhand, grouchy, and snotty; they can be racist and bigoted; but they can also be charming, enlightening, loving, and very, very kind. The wonderful thing about Paris, and France in general, is that to a very significant degree one can hold them to liberté, egalité, fraternité. That ethos has inspired great heroism, and that ethos made me brave when I walked into uncaring offices or unfriendly cafés.
So when Paris is attacked, it feels personal, not gut-wrenchingly immediate as it feels to people in Paris, but personal because I’ve lived some of what Paris is, I’ve absorbed some of its spirit. I’ve laughed with and loved some of its people, I’ve been inspired by its heroines and heroes, I’ve been intellectually challenged by strangers, I’ve argued with its officials, gosh some part of me is in Paris and some part of Paris is in me.
And the attacks in Paris don’t make me forget the attacks in other cities, other places. Somehow they bring those other attacks into sharper focus. There was life – living, loving, laughing, arguing, excluding, including, self-aggrandizing, self-adorning, with beauty, grouchiness, bigotry, kindness, grieving – in those places too.
So what now? I’m mourning, angry. For the first time in years, perhaps ever, I think, “war, this is an act of war.” Perhaps because of what Paris stood for in World War II? Less fancifully, perhaps because this attack follows a string of possibly linked attacks in different countries on different peoples? But if this is war, who exactly are we (Americans, the French, the “Allies”) fighting and how? If it’s ISIS, it operates like a cult, how do you fight a cult? In the long-run with social-psychological resistance and safeguards. In the short run? Must we acquiesce to the curtailing of civil liberties, the blanket “other-ing” of whole groups of people? Must we narrow and regulate our kindness? If it’s Al Qaeda, who is Al Qaeda today? And how does fighting Al Qaeda feed ISIS? The option that is perhaps most logical is also the hardest to activate – supporting true (not puppet) alternatives that, inspiringly and powerfully, will draw acolytes’ attention away from the lures of Al Qaeda and ISIS. It’s the most difficult option and also long-term, so in the short-term, what? There has to be something. This won’t go away easily, not on its own.
A post-script, a reminder to myself: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Parenthetically, the picture on my blog page is of graffiti in Paris, as is the picture on my “about” page.)