On September 11, 2001 it was the French newspaper Le Monde that ran the headline “We Are All Americans.” Friday’s attacks in Paris inspire a similar spirit. Right now, in more ways than one, we are all French.
With a death toll of over 120 people as well as nearly 100 others critically injured at the time of this being written, this most recent string of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris make it the worst tragedy of its kind on European soil since the 2004 Madrid bombings. Additionally, unlike the January killings suffered at Charlie Hebdo, which were an attack on a targeted group of cartoonists, these most recent acts of terror targeted people at random. They were not just an attack on free speech, but on the fundamental rights of people to live free lives without fear.
Terrorists don’t win wars by conquering territory on the ground, but within the mind. In the chaos of the reportedly ISIS-planned bombings and shootings on Friday, one might forget that Friday was also the day that the Iraqi city of Sinjar was reclaimed by the Kurds from Islamic State forces. Terrorist attacks on cities like Paris are designed somewhat desperately not only to distract us from such information, but serve as a means of validating terrorist groups by giving them more enemies, and in turn more new recruits.
The way in which fragments of these events play out over TVs, tablets, and laptops across the world is already reinvigorating the debate about whether this should be an hour of hawkishness or a time for tolerance in the West. Many are also rightfully confused and upset by the fact that similar death tolls from terrorist attacks in places like Turkey, Pakistan, Kenya, and more recently Lebanon, did not get near the amount of media coverage that currently focuses on France.
It has been argued that Paris is the capital of a predominantly white country, a rich country, or more bluntly still, the kind of place where this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen. They say we expect tragedy in the developing world, but when it happens in the developed world, we are shocked. Though shock certainly plays a large role in how these attacks affect us, shock alone cannot explain a global outpour of grief. I want to say that there is something more about Paris and the country of France, something far beyond its power, its wealth, or its people’s level of pigmentation that has touched so many.
While no amount of human suffering or loss can truly be quantified, regardless of where it happens or how many die, part of our sadness admittedly comes from what Paris means not only to those in France, but to those around the world. Paris is a beloved world city. For centuries, it has been a beacon of intellectualism, democracy, philosophy, art, culture, and cuisine. It is currently the planned location for the world’s 2015 Climate Summit, as well as one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth (Among those who died were not only French nationals, but students and vacationers from many different countries). People from all corners of the globe visit Paris, make it their home, or even just dream of going there one day. One such writer who lived in Paris was Charles Caleb Colton, who famously wrote, ” Liberty will not descend to a people; a people must raise themselves to liberty; It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.”
The French people have more than earned their liberty.
From the days of the French Revolution in 1789 all the way up to the populist barricades of the 1800s and more recently the 1960s, the French, through their actions, have elevated self-advocacy as ardently as they have inspired all of us in our own way to celebrate the wonders of life. Examples of this stretch across the works of more writers, artists, scientists, and leaders than someone can even begin to list in one article alone. It is this commitment of a people to the virtues of living, not killing, that form the bedrock of French social democracy, and maybe even human happiness as we know it. Without a passionately deep appreciation for ourselves and the complicated nature of our lives, there is no democracy. There is no push to improve our ever-imperfect societies. There is no world of free people that yearns to stand up and be counted.
The French capital is a very special place on earth that through countless hoops and hurdles has successfully cultivated a culture of free thinking and openness. It is also this very culture that extremists want to extinguish. Whatever political bouts come next, whatever investigation results turn up, or whatever larger public choices we make in response to such attacks, let us remember that France’s finest achievements as a nation have come from combatting death with life. We must rise up against extremism, but we must do it in more ways than any military move, political election, or security measure could ever embody. We must fight meaningless death with meaningful life.
Today, like many, I grieve for Paris. I grieve for France. For the people, for the place, and for the victims of an attack on everything that this beautiful city and country have come to represent in the modern world.
Je Suis Paris. Vive La France. We are all French today.