Darkness in the City of Light
I was in Paris for Airbnb’s annual host conference and happened to be only blocks away from the attacks that terrorized the city on November 13, 2015.
I previously traveled to places like Afghanistan and Somalia without any incident. Surprisingly, Paris was the closest I came to real danger. It took me some time to process the experience, but here is my first attempt.
Chapter 1: Light Turns to Darkness
The atmosphere is jovial, almost electric. We are in a cozy bar nestled along the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin in the heart of the 10th arrondissement; it can hardly contain the hundred-plus Airbnb hosts gathered from across the globe. Brie, baguettes, and beer flow freely – what was not to love?
Neither of us comprehend the messages. We assume someone stole her phone and is playing a terrible joke.
While we message back and await a reply, I Google “Paris shootings”. Nothing. Next, Twitter. Nothing.
Twitter suddenly lights up. Gunmen attacking a restaurant. Explosions at a stadium. People shot on the streets. Our colleague who messaged is literally next door to the attacks; bullets strike the front door of her restaurant.
We catch people who are leaving the bar and headed out on the streets and gently suggest they stay a bit longer.
Others also receive messages. The atmosphere transitions from cheerful to concerned. Gaining credible information proves impossible. Was there an attack at the Louvre? A hostage situation at a theater? A bombing at a Metro station?
Sirens blare outside.
Should we stay? Our bar sits on a canal, not directly on a street, so it feels somehow safer. Yet, we have over a hundred foreigners crowded n a bar with gigantic glass windows.
Everyone remains remarkably calm. At this point, we know the attacks are happening in the same arrondissement, but remain blissfully ignorant that only five blocks away gunmen are on a rampage, storming restaurants, bars, and sidewalk cafes. None of us grasp the terrifying proximity of the mayhem.
As the night drags on, people attempt to remain optimistic. A woman plays the flute. Another shares a battery charger. Friends and family are contacted. We make periodic updates, but remain largely in the dark. Another colleague stays in constant contact with our security team, but they too struggle to make sense of an ever-evolving situation. The fog of war descends on Paris.
We stay at the bar until 3am. We must make a decision. No new incidents are reported in the last hour, but the police have yet to issue an “all clear”. Many people are staying either in close vicinity of the attacks or so far away that they cannot walk home. Taxis and Ubers are non-existent and the Metro is shutdown.
We decide to walk in small groups back to event venue, which is deemed secure. We count off into clusters of five and leave a minimum of five hundred feet between groups. Close enough to be within eyesight, but far enough away not to make targets. The streets echo with an eerie silence, only occasionally being pierced by the sudden sound of a siren screeching past.
A few hours ago, my biggest concern was making sure we did not run out of drinks. It is now sufficiently spreading out human beings to avoid mass casualties from an AK47 attack.
Despite traveling to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia last year with nary a hitch, It is the middle of Paris that puts me only blocks away from a fully fledged terrorist rampage.
Chapter 2: The morning after
We ultimately return to the venue safely. People start to trickle home around 5am once the “all clear” is sounded. I make it to bed at 8am, long after the sun had risen.
I wake a few hours later, still groggy and wondering if the entire incidence was a terrible nightmare. After stumbling downstairs to find sustenance, I double-take.
Was it a dream?
Cars congest the streets. Pedestrians stroll leisurely. Patrons crowd café patios on the unseasonably warm November day. I walk into the neighborhood market. Parisians pick out their produce and wait patiently at the register with their Saturday groceries.
No police are present, even though I’m next to Gare d’Est, one of the city’s main train stations.
I check Facebook. My Newsfeed is full of faces covered with the colors of the French flag.
Yes, it was real. Parisians simply chose to go on living their lives instead of cowering in fear. I think: If only this beautiful moment could sustain itself, if only this terrible atrocity would bring humans together instead of pull them apart, the victims, not the perpetrators will win.
Chapter 3 – where do we go?
That afternoon, President Hollande addresses the world. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” he vows.
His words feel satisfying. Barbarians murdered over one hundred innocent victims in cold blood. They run an empire of mayhem, bloodshed, and violence. An eye for an eye. Or as Donald Trump would say, “let’s bomb them back to….”
The following Monday in Dublin, I await the moment of silence being held across Europe. A projector live-streams satellite news from France. Immediately before the solemn moment is set to commence, images of fighter jets and bombs exploding across Syria fill the screen.
It hits me. The “barbarians” were sufficiently calculated and cunning to plan an intricately coordinated terrorist attack in the heart of Western Europe. They demonstrated foresight and patience. They knew how the world would react: by combating violence with ever more violence.
We weren’t punishing them. We were playing into their hands.
I feel nauseous.
I try to distract myself by mindlessly scanning Facebook. An article about allowing Syrian refugees into the United States appears. I scan the comments in morbid curiosity.
The knot in my stomach tightens. While bombs abroad create collateral damage and rally the Middle East around extremists, hatred and xenophobia in the West further ostracize the 50 million Muslims living peacefully across Europe and the Americas.
In 1939, two out of three Americans said they would not take in 10,000 Jewish refugee children after the first Nazi atrocities came to light. In 2015, Chris Christie insists he would not allow even a “3 year old orphan” from Syria into New Jersey. Half of American governors agree, refusing to accept refugees. How can one blame those attempting to escape atrocities for the atrocities they seek to escape?
I suddenly see the entire script of the tragic movie. We are still in the early stages, but I feel powerless to halt it from continuing to its terrifying yet seemingly inevitable conclusion.
In exchange for them murdering our innocents, we are fulfilling their wishes.
Chapter 4 – where do we go?
So if we are not to go to war, if we do not isolate and divide ourselves, what are we do to?
There is no easy answer. Yet, we can either opt for progress or exacerbate an already dire situation.
We must stop playing geopolitics with Syria – and the rest of the Middle East. (Watch this five-minute video for an illuminating, overview of how a multitude of powers are all complicit with the chaos currently enveloping Syria and its neighbors.)
Instead of bombs, we must pressure our “allies” to stop funding terror and exporting extremism.
Instead of making Muslims in Europe and the Americas feel like second-class citizens, we should welcome them with open hearts. We don’t ostracize every teenager when a single 16 year-old goes on a killing rampage at an American school; we should certainly not do the same for an equally diverse population — particularly since they are less likely to commit a violence crime than any other segment of the population. Of the 745,000 refugees resettled in America since September 11th, two have been arrested on terrorism charges. None have committed an act of terrorism.
I supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It thus feels uncomfortable to say this, but the answer to this problem is openness, not isolation. Peace, not war. And love, not hate. A bankrupt ideology will eventually collapse upon itself unless given additional fuel. We did not beat the Soviets with guns, but with ideas. Conversely, our guns did little to bring peace or prosperity to Iraq, today’s brewing ground for ISIS.
As a former French ISIS hostage remarks, “Bombing they expect. What they fear is unity.”
Let us not give those who seek to destroy the values of liberté, egalitie, fraternité exactly what they want: conflict, division, and separation. Instead, let us terrify them with our unwillingness to live in fear or stoop to their level of violence and bloodshed.