Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The need to see for myself

A colleague of mine, who has been following my posts over the last three days, asked me yesterday why, on Saturday afternoon, I felt the need to break the unofficial curfew in Paris and visit the sites of the terror attacks the night before.

My honest answer was that I just didn't know. I just knew that I had to get out of the house and face up to whatever fear - real or perceived - the attackers had forced on this city. I had to defy their attempt to impose their murderous, backward doctrine on MY freedom. But that, I recognised afterwards, only partially answered her question: why did I need to visit some of the sites along that corridor of killing on the borders of the 10th and 11th arrondissements?

This triggered my memory of visiting New York in October 2001. October 10th, to be precise - almost a month to the day that terrorists murdered 2,606 people at the World Trade Center. Flying from San Francisco to New York on what was, effectively, the reverse route of United's Flight 93, the plane was so empty you couldn't just choose your seat, but the entire row for the five-hour duration.

From the taxi as I approached Manhattan, I became aware of what was missing on the city skyline: the Twin Towers. Obscurely, it reminded me of an old man minus his two front teeth. New York was understandably edgy, but one thing stood out: waiting to cross 6th Avenue, a fire engine raced by. New Yorkers - that most self-enclosed creature when out in public - stopped and rigorously applauded the passing fire crew. It was the first time I'd been genuinely close to tears throughout the entire awful saga.

By that time, Ground Zero had already become a shrine to the fallen. Some foreign colleagues visiting a trade show suggested going down to Church Street to pay our respects. I declined. It felt too much like rubbernecking, gawping at what felt like a mass grave. But a month later - returning to New York for Thanksgiving in a somewhat guileless attempt, admittedly, to 'give' something back to the greatest city in the world, I felt compelled to go down there.

I was still trying to process the attrocity, to empathise with the victims, even trying to get into the heads of those whose purest of evil had driven them to commit such an unimagineable act. I had to see for myself, partially to satisfy a morbid interest, where so much tragedy had been concentrated in the space of one, sunny Tuesday morning, 12 weeks previously.

Then, New York's Ground Zero encompassed a space of about 14 acres. On Friday night, the jihadists inside Paris itself murdered their way along a ribbon of just 2.2km long, more or less the stops of Oberkampf, Saint-Ambroise, Voltaire and Charonne on Line 9 of the Métro, a compressed itinerary that only occurred to me this morning when I looked up at the line map on my train to work.

On Saturday I had to trace these steps. I didn't need - or want - to see bullet holes and sawdust masking drying blood. I just needed some inside-out understanding of where it happened as much as what. Why it happened is another line of thinking altogether.

Of course, I wasn't alone. The pavements covered in flowers and candles in front of Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon, Café Bonne Bierre and Casa Nostra, and outside Le Bataclan and the Belle Equipe in Rue de Charonne, drew those wishing to pay their respects, to mourn and, perhaps, seek further comfort, that they, too, could have been in and outside these places in this fun, trendy and yet refreshingly unpretentious district of Paris.

It is easy to see this as rubbernecking, I know, but I'm certain that the vast majority were there to furnish affinity with their fellow Parisians, who died doing what Parisians - indeed residents of any city - do on a Friday night.

"It's my family who have been touched by this, musicians," violinist Anne Gouverneur told The Guardian outside Le Bataclan"It’s a small group of people. Everyone has friends who were among the injured and the dead. I feel very close to the victims." And she spoke for us all. Her family were musicians, my 'family' are music fans, restaurant patrons and bar regulars.

Four days on, Paris is starting to shift, delicately, from shock and mourning. Normality - which was, after all, what was happening on Friday night - recovers quicker than we might think in these situations, no matter how horrific.

A social media campaign is encouraging Parisians to return to how things were (before they became things that will never be the same again), by going to their restaurants, bistros and cafes, to not cower in fear. Unsurprisingly, it's a campaign that doesn't need much encouragement to flourish.

Paris is many things, but its culture and lifestyle are two things which define it the most. Paris IS its cafes and concert halls. "Culture is our biggest shield," the minister for culture, Fleur Pellerin, said yesterday. Getting back behind that shield will be easy, I'm sure. But it surely helped to see, up close, what it was that caused the shield to be raised to begin with.

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