The Sunday Magazine

Paris has had its 9/11 - Michael's essay

Michael reflects on Paris in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
A French policeman stands guard outside a commercial centre in Nice, France. Security has been stepped up after Friday night's attacks in Paris. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

The first time I wandered the streets of Paris was in 1965. I had read Malcolm Cowley's Exiles Return, about the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, about Sylvia Beach and her bookstore Shakespeare and Co. I had read That Summer in Paris, by Morley Callaghan and cursed the fact I was born too late to be there, in their midst. The first trip was magic, a journey through dreamland. I stayed in a grubby hotel on the Ile St. Louis. At night I walked the Boulevard St. Michel and Saint-Germain-des-Prés and ate in small cafés where the prices were reasonable. I went looking for inspiration, that ineffable spark of something which would trigger the beginnings of a great literary career. The city tried hard, but it didn't work.

Paris has always been a city where memories are made. You can't turn a corner, buy a baguette, go into a shop, sit on the Metro, talk to a taxi driver or a florist or a bartender, without coming away with shards of memory, of reflection, tiny bursts of energy and recognition that linger in the mind. As Rick said to Ilsa in Casablanca, "We'll always have Paris." 

The last time I walked around Paris was two weeks ago. I stayed with a friend on the Rue Censier, just off the cobble stoned 2000-year-old Roman road that is the Rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter. Paris had changed, of course, over the decades. There were condo towers and new hotels. But the ageless, narrow, crowded streets, the great parks and monuments and museums were still there.

The Parisians, in their refined Gallic complexity were still there, changeless. However, what struck me, what I couldn't fail to notice, was a more commanding presence of police and soldiers than I had remembered. At the airport, of course, but also in the centre of Paris, outside museums and other public buildings. No doubt since the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in January. At one point, I stopped to photograph the entrance to the ornate National Assembly building. A burly young man in civilian clothes told me to move along. "Pas photos."

Paris is a city of villages. And at night, especially on a Friday night, the villagers come out into the streets. If it is in someone's mind to kill Parisians, there is no better time nor place than on a Friday night in the cafés, in a concert hall filled with young people, in a soccer stadium. Paris now has had its 9/11.

As Islamist terrorists had no other purpose but to kill the innocents in the Twin Towers, so the ISIS killers had nothing more in mind than the slaughter of innocents in the cafés and the concert halls of Paris. 

In the program this morning we will ask - once again - the painful questions that we try to keep from our children. Are we at war, a war without end? Does hate again and forever drive the international agenda? How frightened should we be in this country? Where do we turn in a world seemingly gone mad?

It would never do to underestimate the resiliency of  Parisians. They have lived through revolutions and riots and wars, bombings and brutality. They, not the murderers, not the brutes, have prevailed. Albert Camus, a great citizen of Paris, wrote: "In the depths of winter, I found that there was within me, an invincible spring."


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