Paris Attacks: “The biggest threat we face is division”

UN Dispatch editor Mark Goldberg asked me to write about the Paris attacks. He asked the same after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, and I did. Words flowed freely, and while I was of course horrified and disgusted by the events, I was also able to gather my thoughts and come up with something to say to put these dreadful events into perspective. Last Friday’s events were different. I’m still struggling to find the words, and to articulate what I think and how I feel. I spent most of the weekend connecting with family and friends, making sure that everyone I know was accounted for and safe, reading article after article on the attacks, watching video after video of experts debating. Throughout this time, my heart has felt very heavy. A weight that I am not honestly not very familiar with – again, this is different.

Many have said it better than I have, but these attacks specifically targeted not only French culture and “joie de vivre”, but more precisely its progressive youth, its diverse and rambunctious neighborhoods. Imagine a terrorist attack in Brooklyn, NY, or in Los Feliz in Los Angeles. This was not targeting economic or political symbols of power. This was targeting regular people, enjoying life, doing simple, every day things, in their local hang outs. How “lucky” we are that the terrorists didn’t succeed at the Stade de France, where fully 80,000 people – including the French president – were enjoying a soccer game.

And I’m the first one to admit that my own personal reaction is not particularly relevant, but I’m having a hard time not thinking about how I used to live and work a few hundred feet away from where these attacks took place, that I have been to these restaurants and bars, to this concert hall. When I was 14, in 1998, I saw Sugar Ray at the Bataclan. Mark McGrath threw his t-shirt in the crowd, which my friend and I caught. We used a crystal pendant one of us was wearing to cut it apart so we could each have a piece of it.  I literally cried out when I first heard the news that the people held in the “hostage” situation at the Bataclan were actually being executed one by one. Such horror. An indescribable feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The chatter since Friday has been incessant, and I find it difficult to express myself. I feel resentful of people who claim that putting a French flag over your Facebook picture implies that you don’t care, or care enough, about other tragedies. When tragedy hits you at home, what’s wrong with showing support and being a part of a community of grievers? We’re only human. And it’s especially irritating when this message comes from people who can’t even place Syria or Mali on a map. I am grateful for the heartfelt sympathies of strangers on social media, for the support of my friends from near and far. And, yes, we should be outraged, shocked and saddened by all the atrocities perpetrated against innocent civilians, daily, in all parts of the world. But, as many have said more eloquently than I will here, it is both judgmental and self-righteous to point this out – unless you have been sincerely mourning the lives lost in terrorism and war every day of your life (since there are tragedies on a daily basis), you have no standing to criticize the emotional reactions of others.

But beyond this, there is the bigger picture that is slowly coming into focus. After Paris feels like a new reality. It’s perhaps too soon to say whether these attacks will be a game changer in the same way September 11th was. However, for many in France, with President Hollande telling us that our country is at war, the first state of emergency since World War Two (extended for a full three months), and the re-establishment of border controls in the Schengen zone, it sure feels like a new day.

France, nevertheless, and Paris in particular, is no stranger to terrorist acts – they have been taking place every few years for decades.  Suffice it to say that we learned to live with the possibility of terror striking at any moment. Back in the 1990s, Paris City Hall decided to remove all City garbage bins, or to close them permanently. Parisians have gotten used to the sight of green see-through plastic bags attached to flimsy metal structures – at first, a reminder about the possibility of bombs in trash cans, but soon, a new normal. Just as foreign friends are always surprised to see soldiers with machine guns in Paris airports, Parisians have gotten used to it. But this, as I said above, is different.

Now, it seems to me that the biggest threat we face is division. Media is completely saturated with both information and disinformation, legitimate analysis and inflammatory speech. Syrian refugees are particularly targeted by “anti” sentiments, a terrible, unfair consequence which plays right into the hands of Daesh.

Some have – rightly, in my opinion – drawn a parallel with Jews in World War II, who also faced unjust discrimination, a dark chapter in history from which we should have learned a thing or two, but clearly have not. The notion that all Muslims are complicit, unless they vocally express their lack of support for such actions, is incredibly divisive. When Christian right-wing extremist Anders Breivik murdered scores in Norway in 2011, I don’t remember the global Muslim community blaming all right-wing Christians, or demanding they apologize for his actions. Ordinary Muslims, are the first to be targeted by Daesh in their regional stronghold in the Middle East, and have been bearing the brunt of their madness, both directly and indirectly. It is profoundly unfair – and exactly what Daesh wants – that Muslims and Middle Eastern communities are being made to pay for these unspeakable crimes. In the face of such disdain for humanity, our only hope is to remain united, and to not fall in the trap of fear and hatred. Do we really want to live behind walls, afraid and divided?

As France pounds the Daesh stronghold of Raqqa, reports are trickling in that hundreds of civilians may have been killed in these strikes. It is deeply unfortunate that our only response today is to unleash even more violence on the world. While I am not in a position to question the strategic value of these strikes, what I do know is that much more needs to be done at the individual and at the community level. As former French antiterrorist judge Marc Trevidic said in a compelling interview this weekend, we also have to help youth vulnerable to radicalization to find another path. Provide support in prisons, in schools, in communities to encourage young people. Provide economic and social opportunities for realization, to lessen the appeal of radical extremism. It may seem simplistic to some in a state of war, but we must fight darkness with light. Evil with love. This is not a “traditional” war, there are no trenches, no uniformed soldiers, no front lines. So we must look at new ways to fight these new wars, harnessing the power of liberal (in the broad sense of the term) ideas and values.

Yesterday, I attended a memorial in San Juan, Puerto Rico, organized by the French consulate here. I really needed to be physically connected to my community – even though I know exactly no French people here in San Juan. It was a very simple event – the consul gave a short speech, thanking the Puerto Rican community for their support, and we observed a minute of silence at noon. I couldn’t help it, tears rolled down my cheeks during that minute, as I reflected on the absurd and heartbreaking loss of life in Paris…. in Beirut, in the Sinai… in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Burundi and Kenya… in Yemen, Syria and Iraq…. My tears were also shed for the sad and dangerous confusion that we all feel, which forces us to take positions on issues we barely understand. Let’s not fool ourselves. We’re not waiting for “World War three” anymore – we are already there, and it’s as frightening as it’s heartbreaking.