On Friday 13 November, my husband and I were on holiday in Cape Town, South Africa. At 11:30pm, just as I was setting the alarm for the next morning, an update from the Guardian popped onto phone screen. “Oh my god” I said slowly, then “ohmygodohmygodohmygod”. “What, what’s the matter?” asked my husband anxiously, surprised that my previously sleepy, relaxed mood had changed so drastically. “There’s been another terrorist attack in Paris”.
Glued to our screens, we trawled the newspapers for information – thirsty for details, trying to understand what was going on in the city that we have called home for over four years. We saw that there had been shootings in the 10th arrondissement – where we live – and in the 11th, right next door. Photos started to appear. “Oh my god, that looks like Le Petit Cambodge” I whispered – a restaurant a 10 minute walk from our apartment, where we dine often. The death toll stood at 26 – which we found shockingly high – when we finally tried to get some sleep.
We woke the next morning to find the death toll at over 120 and our Facebook, email and WhatsApp flooded with messages, some from people I hadn’t spoken to in years. Facebook asked me whether I wanted to check in to say whether I was safe. I clicked yes, stunned – until now, I generally associated this feature with events happening far away from me, like the earthquakes in Nepal or Chile – and my status update was immediately greeted with a torrent of “likes”. We replied to messages, and checked that our friends were ok. Many had been out at the time of the attacks – normal for a Friday night – and, with the city in lockdown, had not been able to return home even 12 hours later. Instead they were in the apartments of friends or strangers close to wherever they had found themselves at 10pm that night. But they were alive and safe, which cannot be said for the horrifyingly large amount of people who lost their lives or who have been critically injured – the biggest loss of life that France has experienced since World War II.
This was the third, and deadliest, terror attack connected with Paris this year. France was rocked by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper headquarters and the kosher supermarket in January, and made deeply uneasy by the gunman on the Paris-Amsterdam high speed train which, thanks to rapid and heroic action from a number of passengers, and aided by the fact that the gunman barely knew how to use his weapon, did not end in blood. I found the January attacks shocking, but in a detached sort of way – I was also out of the country when they happened, and they targeted specific groups of people to which I don’t belong.
The attacks of Friday 13, in contrast, have hit close to home and stirred a genuine fear that I have never felt before. Those victims could easily been me – I drink, dine, walk and cycle through those neighbourhoods and past the Bataclan concert hall often – and although my immediate friends did not lose their lives, friends-of-friends did. For the first time in my life, I do not feel safe in the city I live in. I used to associate potential danger with travelling to countries in Africa and the Middle East which, tragically, have until now been the primary locations of terrorist attacks; now, catching the metro, taking a flight (particularly with Air France), even having a drink with friends feels a bit like Russian roulette. Mixed with the undercurrent of fear is a feeling of uneasy guilt and self-criticism – I am alive and well, I didn’t lose anyone, so why do I feel so bad? Bloodier attacks than this have been and are happening in other parts of the world frequently – should I have cared more then? Am I overreacting now?
What has been equally horrifying to me has been the reaction of the French government. The state of emergency has been extended to three months, and the Constitution was altered just days after the attacks, while citizens were still reeling from the shock and therefore not responding as they usually would to this erosion of civil liberties. François Hollande is positioning himself as a “chef de guerre”, declaring that “France is at war” with the faceless, stateless Daesh and intensifying air strikes on Syria and Iraq, despite the fact that the majority of the terrorists of the 13 November attacks were French or Belgian nationals – and there are thousands more like them, in France and across Europe, upon whom intelligence services have files – and these are just those who are known. I can’t help but think that to choose to shoot scores of innocent people in cold blood before exploding themselves, the perpetrators of the attacks and those willing to carry out more – because yes, more have been threatened, and Brussels is in lockdown as I write – must be angry. Angry, and feel that they don’t have anything to live for, that they have no better option.
There is an understandable reason for this anger and hopelessness – not only has Western intervention across the Middle East done at least as much harm than good, but here in France, the social integration of those of North African and Middle Eastern descent leaves a lot to be desired. The mutual mistrust and misgiving is palpable and the discrimination and lack of opportunities is very real. If Muslim youth are being radicalized, one of the push factors is surely not feeling welcome in the country they live in, resenting others with opportunities of which they feel deprived. Although I admit to not having followed Hollande’s discourse word-for-word, I have not yet heard a mention of improving social integration and reducing inequalities at home.
The response of the French government echoes eerily with the familiarity of the US response after the September 11 attacks – which, to put it mildly, did not work out so well given where we find ourselves today. Public figures in France and around the world, from Thomas Picketty to Waleed Aly, are making a plea for increasing social unity and decreasing inequalities to combat the terrorist threat – the very opposite of declaring war, and of the spike in anti-Muslim sentiment and violence in the wake of the attacks. I’m with them. Whether the politicians will agree, or whether they will continue to make the same mistakes of the past, remains to be seen.