Sunday, November 15, 2015

The danger's over, so let the danger begin

© Simon Poulter 2015
It is been the kind of Sunday morning that people who live in Paris feel better for, and visitors come to experience. The sky above the city has been cloudless and smogless, allowing the sun to shine from a panorama so consistently blue it could have been painted according to a Pantone colour reference.

If you hadn't been aware of Friday's news, you'd be looking out on this city with a self-satisfied "Yes!" in blindingly obvious recognition that you were in one of the most beautiful, vibrant and exciting cities in the world, one which intoxicates with its very brickwork.

But that's if you hadn't been aware of what happened on Friday. Yesterday, after being cooped up at home since getting in from work on Friday evening, and then being glued to the TV until mid-afternoon, I went out to get some perspective.

I took the Métro to Boulevard Voltaire and worked my way back towards Republique, past Le Bataclan, and then on up Boulevard Jules Ferry in the direction of the restaurants Le Carillon and Le Cambodge. At every grim waypoint in Friday night's slaughter, there were packs of television crews, their anchors reporting live to the world, over-rotating on every new scrap of information, pulling in locals and witnesses to fill in the blanks on what happened.

Outside Le Bataclan - and within the enormous perimeter established by the police - the Eagles Of Death Metal's tour bus was still parked there. It is still there this morning. A strange, solemn reminder of what happened on a Friday night at a rock concert.

In the streets around the venue, the paraphernalia of tragedy are still visible: disgarded surgical gloves, tubing from plasma drips and, inevitably, the smeared traces of blood left behind by the walking wounded and those dragged from what has been likened to a battlefield, suvivors stepping over the dead and dying to get away from the massacre.

A 15-minute walk away, on the corner of Rue du Faubourg du Temple and Rue de la Fontaine au Roi, flowers lay in front of the Café Bonne Bière. A piece of A4 paper has been placed under flickering candles, displaying - simply - the word "INNOCENT".

As you look up from the floor, you then see - with stark visibility - bullet holes in the restaurant's windows. They are at waist height, consistent with shots fired from a car window. Just up the street, La Casa Nostra, a pizza restaurant that had been packed when the killers drove further, firing their Kalishnikovs from a black Seat which has since been found abandoned in Montreuil...with even more Kalishnikovs stashed inside.

Paris, yesterday, was a city transformed. For what should have been a normal Saturday afternoon, shops, restaurants and bars all over the city were closed. At-risk places where tourists and expatriates regularly gather were shut. For a city normally so belligerent towards authority, where red traffic lights and no-parking instructions are considered mere suggestions, the call to stay barricaded indoors was being heeded.

But, now, the mood is already shifting to how France should itself stay barricaded indoors. Discourse is turning to how the attacks could have been prevented, and how they must be stopped from ever happing again. As details emerge of the attackers' identities - two are now known to have come from Syria via Greece, while another was a petty criminal from the Paris suburbs where resentment and radicalism run hand in hand - a predictable kneejerk reaction is building.

The intelligence services are being asked how they were caught unaware of attacks of this scale being planned. How could three groups of terrorists carry out coordinated attacks of near-military organisation without generating digital chatter? Was the date, Friday the 13th, the intention? Was the fact that the Eagles Of Death Metal, playing at Le Bataclan on Friday, are American no coincidence, either?

At first, people wondered whether the attacks were a jhadist reaction to the drone strike confirmed earlier on Friday and believed to have taken out Mohammed Emwazi, the so-called British-born 'Jihadi John'. But the fact that one of the suicide bombers at the Stade De France had a ticket for the France-Germany friendly inside the stadium is enough to suggest an attack long in the making.

Now, though, the debate will also expand to the topic of borders. François Hollande immediately and quite rightly closed France on Friday night, but surely the notion of a borderless Europe and the 'Schengen Area' must be now under threat.

A car with Belgian number plates is reported to have been involved in the attrocities, and yesterday police made arrests in Molenbeek, a western suburb of Brussels just a three-hour drive from Paris. A terror cell in Belgium was linked to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January; the attempted attack in August on the Thalys train between Amsterdam and Paris occured after Ayoub El-Khazzani boarded at Brussels with an AK47 and magazines containing 270 rounds, plus a bottle of petrol; more people from Belgium have travelled to Syria to take part in the jihadist conflict than from any other European country.

I could, right now, leave my Paris apartment and drive anywhere within an area of  4,312,099 square kilometres - and a population of 400 million people - and not have my passport checked once. The right-wing agenda on immigration will, sadly, be fuelled further by Friday's events, as evidence appears that two of the attackers may have arrived in Europe via Greece in the waves of immigrants escaping Syria.

And here is where the danger truly begins, before the blood has even been sponged from the streets of the 10th and 11th arrondissements and the bullet hole-ridden bar windows repaired. Europe has been pushed closer to a paranoid, siege mentality. We shouldn't forget that the overwhelming majority of refugees are escaping the very brand of carnage that came to Paris on Friday night. The hundreds of thousands of now stateless individuals are more interested in finding shelter, food and clothing than wreaking bloodshed.

Those now struggling in refugee camps can only dream of the normality of a Friday evening out in a restaurant, a cafe, a concert or a football match. Wherever they now find themselves huddled, they're a world away from the boulevards of Paris. But they share the same expeirence as those caught up in Friday's senseless bloodshed, victims of a barbaric ideology.

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