The Paris attacks leave my head and heart full of jumbled thoughts and feelings.
Philippe and Marie-Paule were parked at the curb when I exited the Oberkampf Metro station into the cool November evening. They had agreed to meet me for dinner at a small place I’d been wanting to try on the edge of Paris’ 10th and 11th arrondissements.
We spent half an hour window shopping in the Place de la République (Marie-Paule was after shoes, and Philippe could always use another of his trademark garish ties). Then we strolled up the Rue des 3 Bornes to the tiny triangle-shaped Place de la Fontaine Timbaud, with its modest green fountain--one of nearly 80 “Wallace Fountains” sprinkled across the city, named after the English philanthropist Richard Wallace, who financed their construction. They feature 4 sculpted female figures symbolizing “Kindness, Simplicity, Charity and Sobriety.”
|La Place de la Fontaine Timbaud (fountain at left)|
We took a window table facing the fountain and spent the next two hours relaxing into the rituals of French dining: three leisurely courses, with intervals long enough to enjoy the company, the venue, the conversation--and the wine. It was a Friday evening, so we were in no rush.
The service was good, the food was decent, we loved the dessert (a very intense molten chocolate cake), and we were particularly pleased by the wine policy: after we left our second bottle of wine half-finished, our waiter took it back to the kitchen, measured the remainder--and billed us only for what we had drunk!
It was a perfect way to start the weekend, and we gave no thought to our own safety. It was November 2008.
But when news of last week’s Paris attacks broke, I checked the map and found what I suspected: that cool November Friday evening we were sitting 1000 feet north of the Bataclan Theater. And the next street up from our table was the Rue de La Fontaine au Roi, where 5 diners were killed at the Cosa Nostra pizzeria.
Just 2 ½ blocks further west, two more restaurants (le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon) were attacked, killing 15 more diners. In other words, we sat that quiet night almost exactly half way along a line that this week connected four of the six attack sites. All are within ½ mile of each other, and none is more than ¼ mile from our seats.
I guess I feel like the homeowner who returns home to discover the house has been ransacked by burglars: I was not there at the time of the attacks (even though I had expected to make a November visit), so I am glad to be safe--but I nonetheless feel invaded and even violated. And I would feel this way even if no one had been killed, which of course is the principle tragedy of this event.
In this I am like many people (including non-Parisians), who are sad for the city itself as well as for the victims. Many of us share this emotional attachment, as if Paris were a second home, and as if we, so far away and safe, nonetheless feel invaded, even violated. We feel the urge to rush "home" and embrace the wounded city and those we love there.
I am especially fond of this neighborhood, just outside the Place de la République, a traditionally working class neighborhood, where my best Paris friend Philippe grew up. But it is only one block from the Canal Saint-Martin, which in recent years it has become gentrified, especially for younger Parisians attracted to its many nightspots. It also borders Belleville, which has a large Arab population.
On the hill just above those four attack sites is the Parc de Belleville. On a warm weekend day the park is full of young people smoking hookahs.
Strolling down the stairs through the park’s lower end, one sees clusters of Arab women in long robes and head-veils, gathered together on park benches. Five minutes further down the slope are the men, standing near the Couronnes subway stop, wearing head caps and speaking Arabic.
|Parc de Belleville|
Signs of Arab culture are everywhere. Couscous bistros and Middle-East groceries. Travel agents offering packages to Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. Kids sporting soccer jerseys for North African and Mediterranean teams. A woman crossing the street in full-length black veil, even her face covered, holding hands with a man in white head-cap, full white robe, and basketball shoes. An Algerian pastry shop with 60 varieties of tiny pastries displayed under a glass counter. A teen-age girl wearing a full-length lavender robe over jeans, a white baseball cap, and cellular earphone. Muslim bookstores featuring religious education materials for all age groups. Tea parlors with chairs lined up with men sipping tea and smoking tall water-filled hookahs. A shop selling “Ready-to-Wear” robes and veils.
One day I noticed saw a butcher standing in his shop doorway, next to a poster advertising the “21st annual meeting of French Muslims,” sponsored by the National Union of Islamic Organizations. I noticed the conference title was written in both French and Arabic: “What is the Place for Freedom of Religion in Today’s Society?” I also noticed the conference dates had already passed.
So I introduced myself and, pleading a journalist’s interest, asked the butcher if I might have the poster. He immediately pulled it down for me, chatted amiably about the issue for a few minutes, then apologized when a voice called from within the shop.”Excuse me he said, “I must get back to my meat.”
Many "mainstream" Parisians do not even know this area, and tourists seldom see it. Once I used a Belleville anecdote during a Parisian parish workshop. Listeners reacted with surprise: Belleville was a place they would never go.
Thus this part of Paris is a kind of symbolic venue for Euro-Arab relations. The attacks straddled the fault line between two Paris populations, and offered a tempting, simple-minded model for the myth about terrorism that is embraced by both the terrorists themselves and many westerners on the far right. Both agree: this is a “clash of civilizations” which requires “boots on the ground.”
This view of terror—“Islam vs. the West”—depends, of course, on ignoring the facts.
It ignores all the Muslim victims killed last Friday. It ignores last week’s attacks in Kenya and Beirut. It ignores how much of terror does not target the west.
It depends on focusing on Paris, while ignoring Muslim on Muslim terror in Iraq, Syria, and Africa.
One example of such ignoring: The same week when 17 Parisians were killed at Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram murdered up to 2,000 civilians in Baga, Nigeria, and a few a days later used a 10-year old girl as a suicide bomber to kill at least 16 people. Those tragedies commanded much less attention—as if western lives matter more. Are we surprised if the southern hemisphere concludes that we care less about their lives? Do we really believe that sending that message helps us fight such violence?
Such a simplistic view (“Islam vs. the West”) also ignores the fact that modern terrorism is not recent at all. It dates at least from my student days in Paris, when “the troubles” erupted in Northern Ireland from 1969 to the Good Friday accords. It ignores the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof and Munich Olympic attackers in the 1970s, the death squads in El Salvador and the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the bombers of New York (1993), and Paris (1995 and 1996), the sarin gas attacks in Japan, the Madrid bombings of 2004, U.S. drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, bombings in Bali and Mumbai, Boko Haram abductions and massacres, etc. In fact, terrorism as we know it probably dates from WWII, and has been a global problem without a solution for nearly 80 years.
Such ignorance brings bliss—specifically, in the appealing and powerful idea that we can wage and win a “war on terror.” But if we wage war, can it lead to peace?
My long-time view is that the very idea of a “war on terror” leading to peace is a fraud. In 2003, Pope John-Paul II and virtually all the world's bishops (among others) predicted that the US invasion of Iraq would destabilize the entire region and worse. Indeed, the invasion killed 200,000, mostly civilians, created 2+ million refugees, and spawned a fanatical counter-attack—ISIS, led by Saddam's former subordinates—that is worse than Al Qaeda . Why are we shocked?
The brutal fact is that human history reveals an unending supply of people willing to employ evil tactics--even to kill the innocent--to gain their goals. One cannot end terrorism by killing all the terrorists, because one cannot uproot from human nature its potential for evil. The “last terrorist” does not exist.
For me, the key notion is that terrorism IS a “counter-attack"--so we should start with the question: "WHY is there a counter-attack against us?" After all, solutions will eludes us as long as we insist on missing the point of that question (which is why all solutions attempted since 9/11 have only made things worse).
Nearly all terror attacks of the last century reflect the attackers’ resentment for perceived injustice. That resentment has nearly always been fueled by poverty. Arguably, terrorism and poverty go hand in hand: the more poverty, the more terrorism--and the less poverty, the less terror.
This premise cries out for urgent consideration. For it implies that the trillions we spend on military invasions are futile--and worse, they preclude our chance to spend such resources on reducing poverty. If the links between terror attacks and poverty are compelling--and I believe they are (just look at profiles of suicide bombers)--then attacking poverty becomes our number one weapon, our number one hope, against terrorism.
Pope Francis has gone even further, connecting the dots that link terrorism to all aspects of our current global crisis. He links climate change to excessive carbon emissions to a consumption-obsessed society that generates massive global inequality, which in turn breeds massive resentment that is fertile soil for recruiting terrorists. In this view, the current global system is neither physically nor politically sustainable. Physically, the earth has insufficient resources for the whole world to duplicate the wealthy nations’ lifestyle. Politically, global inequality is a recipe for permanent conflict—the ongoing piecemeal violence that Francis has called “World War III.”
I think he is right. I think terrorism reflects a global dysfunction we must face, or peace will never be possible.
And as I pray for the victims of the Paris attacks, I pray too for our leaders to stop ignoring the facts, to face reality as it is, and to lead us on a path where “Kindness, Simplicity, Charity and Sobriety” can prevail.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015