Oh, the carnality of love… I used to race home through the 11th… teetering on whatever vintage heels I could manage, so madly in love. You are my favorite film in all the world, I would tell him. Such a sap, was I. Every night, I couldn’t wait to fall through the door of our 6th-floor walk-up, a Chambre de Bonne in Belleville, the cramped, grimy stairs smelling of clementines, yeasty baguette dough and a hint of piss. And the rooftops. Oh the rooftops. Such light. I was married there. I look back on the 20 years since then, and I can still feel myself leap, such velvety, fresh trust, into his mutual arms and into Paris’s… many of you have may have ready seen Adam Gopnik’s letter to Paris, but I can’t help rereading it and believing in it well after the news cycle ends… damn time… damn piddling attention spans…
My dear P:
I was so glad to get your rich and textured letter, which confirmed many of my intuitions about what life must be like in Paris right now, a week after the attacks there—confirmed them simply because they are so familiar from the New York experience, fourteen years ago, during the weeks after the terrorist attack here. You write, “A bitter taste has suddenly invaded our souls. We try to keep on living…we live the same life, but it is difficult. People attend to their usual chores, but le cœur n’y est pas.” But you then number among the better news that “the usually astute young Parisians have invented the logo, ‘Tous au bistro,’ meaning, we’ll still go there, still smoke, still chat, still live la vie à la française.” This made me smile a little, too: even in the grip of terror, the New York taboo on cigarette smoking remained firmly in place. That you couldn’t do, even to aggravate a fanatic.
What you say, with its mixture of grief and defiant hedonism, is echoed by the words of so many other Parisian friends, like the brilliant woman who wrote to say, “I needed to know where my children were before I could breathe again. Now, I know that nothing happened to them and close friends—but we all know someone, a friend of a friend, who was killed. I was in a rage. I’m still in a rage. I drink champagne every night and I’m falling in love every day as I could die now with no regrets and fuck them.” Drink champagne, fall in love, and fuck them—it’s a fine French formula for defiance, and life.
I’m also intrigued—though, again, not entirely surprised—to hear that President François Hollande is seen as a political beneficiary of the attacks. “Hollande is doing well, playing his real role, tragedy seems to make him a credible President, which wasn’t the case before,” you write. “An event of this magnitude turns everything over—if the election were held tomorrow, I think he would win it.” It is odd, is it not, that people turn toward authority at such moments, left or right, rather than away from it, even if the authority has, in some sense, failed in its task? Though you then add that, “Time is the master of this bloody ceremony. And God knows what time has in store for all of us—politicians included. And actually, we do not care that much. Our thoughts and our conversations are more about the youth, la jeunesse, who were decimated by another kind of youth. For the killers had the same age as the victims.”
All of this is familiar—the turn toward authority, the impatience with normal politics, and the disbelief that what happened happened. And yet I can’t help but reflect on how readily collective memory seems to be erased by selective amnesia—as though the long, painful history of terrorist attacks on open societies, and the experiences learned from them, simply get put aside each time a new one happens. You write as well that, “having lived through the war in Algeria and other horrors,” you are less shaken by the events than your children are. I wonder if that unshakeable wisdom doesn’t need to be re-applied to the moment.
Here, as you’ll recall, after 9/11 we had an instant argument between those who saw a war on terrorism demanding a military solution—states, or ersatz states, had sponsored the murderers, and until the states were defeated and their regimes dismantled, mass terrorism would not end—and those, very few, who said, more or less unheard, that a policy of containment and police work might be more effective. Indeed, to call it an argument is to misrepresent it; the war party had all the force, and the police-work party (wrongly called a peace party) had none. Well, the war party won, hands down—with, especially when it turned toward Iraq, the catastrophic consequences we know. Not merely the endless folly of the Iraq War for America and Iraq, but all the other catastrophic consequences it brought, including midwifing the birth of ISIS—that permanent answer to the question, What could possibly be worse than Saddam Hussein?
Many of the men and women we both trust and admire in France are vociferous members of the new war party. It is, at least and in part, still also the refugee party, trying to maintain an honorable tradition of French asylum. You, and they, are, of course, rightly impatient with the attempts to historicize or argue away the horror, impatient with what you call “angelisme,” the unreal readiness to seek out any explanation for evil save the obvious. Anyone watching the videos of the killers hunting down helpless people in a café can have little tolerance for the tumid explanations of their grievances. I understand why you feel that you are done with hearing out such apologies and apologists, and why you, and many of our friends, insist that the fanatic religious origins of the ideology must not be ignored or blindly wished away. You’re right. All murderers have motives, all executioners have excuses, however exhausted or unpersuasive they may be. Almost every nation and faith and ethnicity has a terrible enwrapping tale to tell about its persecution. The wiser leaders lead them beyond it; the evil ones abandon them within it.
Yet does it not run against all reason and experience to think that military action can ever end a terrorist threat? These were not attacks from without, as you point out; they were attacks from within, and the “within” remains in place. Indeed, there’s been no shortage of Americans to give you sapient lectures about how the conditions of French banlieues or the isolation of French Muslims produces terror—although of course the radicalization of the children of immigrants occurred in prosperous Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the American-raised Tsarnaev brothers, who brought fewer dead but just as much panic to Boston not so very long ago. Those of us who were present in London on the morning of July 7, 2005, can recall how certain it was that those terrorists were also part of a self-replicating network. Those bombers, from the poorer quarters of English towns, shared with your killers, in fact, the scary quality of being “homegrown.” No subsequent attacks occurred—perhaps because of good police work, perhaps because of the reality that very few people, given the choice, really want to choose death over life.
That we want to defeat ISIS is excellent on its own strategic terms. But surely the essential insight to keep in mind is that terrorist nihilism is an inevitable and recurring product of modernity. Europe has passed, in a single lifetime like yours, from France’s Organisation de l’armée secrète to the Algerians to the Baader-Meinhof gang to the Red Brigades and now to ISIS. A defeated ISIS may well produce a rump of still more bitter kinds. Terrorism was terrifying in Europe in the nineteen-seventies and eighties—yet who now talks about the I.R.A. bombings in London, which targeted department stores, with no Islamic radicals to do it? Yes, the I.R.A. campaign in London produced fewer casualties—but that was partly because of luck and partly lack of means, and certainly, when they wanted to kill, as in the Brighton bombing, they tried hard and did it. Terrorism is a leitmotif of modernity, just as easy to find and with rationales just as fatuous in the year 1900 as it is now.
Indeed, our amnesia about terrorism may be a kind of intelligent, subversive demonstration of its final impotence: we forget, because, in truth, fear is not something we do live with every day, even if we “ought” to. The amnesia happens because the amnesia is, in its own strange way, the truth. The tolerance and pluralism of liberal societies can often be exploited or assaulted; this does not make tolerance wrong, nor does it show that pluralism is doomed. The reason that Paris and London and New York become sites of terror is because they represent, infuriatingly, the power of pluralism. (In Paris’s case, as the ISIS communiqué demonstrated, the power of pleasure, too.) The jihadist seeks the explosion to get us to pay attention, because otherwise no one would.
The essential truth of terrorism is that it remains permanent and frightening—and yet, fortunately, rare. Who would have believed here in New York, at the height of the post-terror weeks (and in the midst of the anthrax scare), that, in the following fifteen years, lower Manhattan, and especially the area around Ground Zero, would only flourish, as it never had before? There has not been a single serious, successful mass attack on this city since then; this could change in an hour, or tomorrow, of course—there is no guarantee of “security,” and those who demand it are, too often, actually demanding a re-regimentation of society that suits them for other reasons, as you note with Marine Le Pen—or Donald Trump. We choose to imagine that if we “defeat” terrorists abroad, we can end terrorism. But is not the historical truth otherwise? Terrorism will not end. But terrorism cannot triumph. Is this not the actual, more difficult double truth we have to live with?
I can’t say how much I hope to see you soon, at one of the usual places. Tous au bistro, indeed, with friends from all sides of the argument.
I am behind in my posts… having been given an incredible gift this last month, but will make it up soon and tell you all about it.
Yes, it involves raccoons.
XOXO – gg