Why you should care
Because we’re not scared. But we are.
The writer is an OZY reporter who is based in Paris and was caught in the city during the terrorist attacks on Friday. Below, her dispatch from a city in grief.
The weather is crisp and warm, too warm for November, and the sun glints off the TV cameras at the Place de la République. That’s the first clue that everything is wrong today: While the square is half full of mourners, it’s the rest of the way full with television crews wandering around with microphones, pouncing on anyone they hear speaking English, convincing people to write down their thoughts with markers. This is a different Paris from my home neighborhood, where life has continued as normal. There are no memorials back there, nobody singing “Imagine” in English in front of crowds, no cameras. But in République, which sits amid the sites where terrorists attacked on Friday night and killed at least 129, it’s a different story.
The sun glints, too, off the guns. There are a lot of guns in this square, held by police who comport themselves a bit more tightly than usual. It makes you not want to nod with a smile, as you normally might at a cop, in case he’s feeling jumpy. They patrol in groups of three or four, massive rifles at the ready, as Parisians and tourists alike swarm the massive statue of Marianne that’s the centerpiece of the square. In January, the statue of Marianne was draped in memorials to the Charlie Hebdo journalists. Throughout the Place de la République, flowers and candles surrounded signs declaring the importance of free speech and of not killing anyone, declaring that the French spirit would not be dampened, even in the face of such horror. Today, the square smells of incense, and everywhere around me is the click, click, click of cameras capturing the hand-drawn signs with slogans. “Même pas peur,” one of them reads. It translates roughly as “Ain’t scared.” But we are.
As we stand near the memorial discussing the trend toward French flag–emblazoned Facebook pictures — something the French people I’m with think is tacky and appropriative, though they understand that the impulse is likely good-hearted — an older woman in a purple coat approaches us. She asks for a tissue but bursts into tears. I can’t understand everything she’s saying, but one phrase is clear: “I’m crying for everyone, everyone who died,” she tells us, as my friend Laura folds her into a hug. “I’m crying for the whole world.” We find her a packet of napkins, and she wipes her eyes, wishes us luck and walks away. “Is she all right?” I ask, since I missed some of her explanation. “No,” says Laura, “No, she’s not.”
“The Place de la République is a symbol of democracy and liberty,” a man named Thierry explains to me, as we watch people climb up to touch the stone friezes that encircle the statue. “It helps us remember the fights that came before so we can defeat people who want to tear our principles apart.” Thierry is not taking photos. And while it’s easy to dismiss those snapping picture after picture as tragedy tourists, each photograph is its own memorial, its own way of remembering the people who’ve died and of sharing in a grief that both belongs to Paris and is shared by the whole world. Endless social media posts from people who spent a weekend or a semester in Paris or who simply always felt a connection to the city can be irksome to those living with the kind of fear that caused hundreds of people to flee République tonight when they thought they heard gunshots. But the status updates and memorial selfies are also acts of love, an attempt to connect, an attempt to communicate solidarity in our collective sadness, horror and fear at what’s happened.
Every terrorist attack is personal and impersonal, but this one struck at the heart of youthful Paris. The victims were just people going to restaurants, going to bars, going to concerts, doing all the things we do every weekend. They weren’t freedom fighters, though in the hours since the attack, going to a café or a bar seems an act of defiance. Fluctuat nec mergitur, reads the motto of Paris, now emblazoned in stark black and white letters on a giant sign in République. “Tossed but not sunk.” Children bicycle and rollerblade in front of it. Tossed but not sunk. We can’t be afraid of cafés, of Métro trains, of rollerblading in the Place de la République. On the night of the attacks, my husband and I walked home across Paris at 2 a.m., despite rumors on Twitter of army tanks in the streets and crazed shooters on motorcycles. Our only encounters were with people looking for directions. One old man couldn’t navigate now that it was past 1 a.m. and the lights of the Eiffel Tower had gone out. We showed him how to get home. Turns out, he didn’t need the Eiffel Tower, he only needed a friendly stranger and to follow the lights of the boats on the Seine. Tossed but not sunk.
From the Place de la République, we continue up the street, toward Café Bonne Bière and La Casa Nostra, where there were drive-by shootings Friday. Today, both establishments are covered in bouquets. The supermarket across the street has placed its flower displays outside, and it’s a shock that there are any left, considering the piles of flowers surrounding the deserted, bullet-ridden cafés. Finally, we walk past the Bataclan, the concert hall where scores were killed. One can see it only at a distance, from the other side of the Boulevard Voltaire. The crowd files down the street like mourners past a casket, enormous TV cameras shoved into faces every few feet in attempts to capture the extent of Paris’s grief. And then we all go to a bar, because that, as one of our number says, is the most important thing we can do this evening. At the Café Fusain, we are all quiet, each sip of beer a tiny revolution.