So Far, Yet So Close
I have been struggling all week with my thoughts on the terrorist attacks in Paris just over a week ago (on November 13, 2015), and more recently, the attack in Mali, wanting to write something, yet feeling anything I could say would be inadequate.
First of all, the attacks reminded me vividly of my experience as a visitor to Paris during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. I was attending an international conference there, and I particularly remember how sensitive the French were to the events unfolding thousands of miles away in the United States.
The newspaper headlines shouted, "We are all American." The French organizers of the conference I was attending cancelled a planned social event that evening. I know that such events require significant down payments, so that must have cost the conference budget dearly, but there was no hint of that in their discussions of their action. It was the right thing to do, they said. I will always remember that.
A couple of days later, I went to dinner at a fancy restaurant, and the owner signed my menu with a message saying, "In these difficult times, we French are with you Americans." I have framed and hung that menu.
So I was very glad to see that the American response to the Paris attacks was no less sympathetic. I don't know if any social events at conferences were cancelled in the US, but I do know that the news coverage and the commentary reflected the fact that this was not just an attack on Paris, but rather, an attack on all humanity, and that America stood with France.
And indeed, the numbers bear out the fact that this was an attack on the world. Paris is a magnet for the world, and among the casualties were individuals from a dozen or so countries.
Furthermore, in this increasingly interconnected world, it is hard not to feel that these events strike pretty close to home. Since I lived in Paris for several years, friends and family immediately called to ask how close to home this event had hit.
Were any of the sites of the attacks places I had frequented? No, I assured them. These places were nowhere near where I lived or worked.
Was anyone I knew caught up in these events? The answer to that is also no. And yet--there is only one degree of separation between some of the victims and me. I know people who knew a young nuclear engineer, Juan Alberto González Garrido, who was killed in the attack. A French friend in turn has a friend who lost a family member in the attack. Someone else has a daughter who attended a concert in the same concert hall only the night before. And then, in the Mali event a week later, the one American who was killed lived only a few miles from me.
These events and others hit all of us in other ways, too. The implementation of greater security at public gatherings. The threats to Washington, DC, where I live, and to New York City. The speculation about what other kinds of actions terrorists may have in mind--airports, the electrical power grid, the computer systems that contain all our private information, nuclear power plants, the use of dirty bombs or chemical weapons. The list goes on.
Whether a terrorist event takes place on our own soil or far away, whether it is in a place we know well or a place we've never been, whether we know any of the names of the victims or not--every attack affects all of us. Our sense of security. The overlay of restrictions and checkpoints and delays that has become the new normal. The slight paranoia that becomes ingrained in us.
So, more than a week after the Paris attacks, I still have on my computer screen a picture of Juan Alberto, as I have been wondering what I could say about the senseless acts that led to his death. In the end, my condolences to his family and friends seems such a small gesture.
But if there is any silver lining, it is the fact that we have come to realize that these are not isolated event in places far away, but rather, events that attack all of us. If there is a silver lining, it is that we have a sense of solidarity with the victims of this attack. And finally, if there is a silver lining, it is in the determination of the Parisians not to let fear rule them, and not to let their way of life be changed. Perhaps that is the only hopeful message I can draw from these difficult times.