To be or not to be Paris

“We are Paris” is the headline these days. (Sometimes even in French to show just how serious we are about our solidarity.) But I imagine a lot of us are expressing thanks this holiday, at least under our breath, that we are not Paris—that we are an ocean away and well buffered from all that emigration and terrorism mess.

There is a certain bizarre comfort in knowing that if we are going to be shot or bombed in a restaurant or theater it is likely to be by a mentally deranged person with no clear political agenda.

Of course, the Atlantic is not the protective moat it was before 9/11. New York City could be Paris.

We recently spent a wonderful 10 days in Paris. But that vacation has been hemmed in by European reality. Shortly before leaving, we read a “New Yorker” article about the plight of the French of north African origin living in the slums just outside Paris. Paris is characterized as a “theme park” out of touch with a reality that produced Charlie Hebdo attacks; in retrospect the article was a prophecy of 11/13.

Friends email: “Aren’t you lucky you got your trip in when you did.” And we are grateful of course. But it’s shallow consolation.

“Wipe out the sonsabitches” is one common and, under the circumstances, understandable response to the Paris attacks.

“War is not the answer” comes back the retort, also reasonable since war hasn’t seemed to working all that well for us in recent times. But the implication of that slogan, that peace is the answer, sounds like the go-to cliché for beauty pageant contestants.

Both the vengeful and the pacifist attitudes seem more of the same, part of a comforting innocence which keeps us at a safe remove from the meaning of the violence–and any possibility of a solution.

A friend laments the selective grieving for the City of Light. “Why are we only Paris?” he asks. Why not Beirut where 40 were killed in terrorist bombings the day before 11/13? Why not anywhere in the world where there is the violence of poverty and hunger that surely spawn terrorism? Why indeed? But to pursue that line of thought is to risk being accused of blaming the victims of the Paris attacks, since the countries, including both the French and the U.S., whose governments and corporations run the world that the way it is, must be seen as a big part of the problem.

The irony has been convincingly argued that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 spawned Al-Qaeda and ISIS and hence contributed to the Paris attacks. (We hate when we do that!)

In such a view, inequality only masquerades as jihad. Religion is the booby prize, but the only prize available to the wretched of the earth. Their choice of weapons, terrorism, the heartless–uncivilized– slaughter of innocents is the only recourse for those without a state or resources to fight the other way.

Any other way of seeing it would seem to be racist, as in the depiction of the terrorists as large rats in a cartoon that ran in this paper today. A real solution would require a radical change on the part of those who run the world, a change it’s hard to imagine as forthcoming.

We love Paris. Paris is a charming place, a pinnacle of a certain version of human life. And having enjoyed its pleasures so recently it’s especially painful to see it attacked. But “We are Paris,” the very quality of our grief, including the innocence of our cluelessness about the causes (“how can they do such terrible things?”) all seem part of distancing ourselves, even farther than from across an ocean, from the meaning of the violence and our relationship to it.

So this Thanksgiving there’s not much solace in either being or not being Paris. And not much as we turn to the seasonal wishful thinking of “Peace on Earth Good Will to Men (and women).”

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