Paris—Parents owe their children certain basics: food, clothing and love. We are not supposed to inflict our pasts on them.
Standing by the window with my baby in my arms as the sound of shooting and bomb blasts came echoing over the rooftops from the Bataclan, I had the dread feeling I was adding another notch to my list of failures as a father.
She had been woken by the sirens outside and maybe our panic, too as we decided which one of us was going to rush towards the gunfire.
Her mother and I are both reporters. As the man, I obviously stayed with the children.
“I can’t do this anymore,” one or maybe both of us said, as we always do. We have been here many times before, with and without the children. Atocha, Copenhagen, Tunisia, and back in Belfast too many times to mention. Almost always it is she who goes, even though it was me who grew up in the “badlands” along the Northern Irish border to the rhythm of a war that seemed as endless as the Ulster rain.
A good part of my life since has been spent among people who have gone to bed wondering if their neighbors might kill them in their sleep. This is not a feeling I moved to Paris for.
We walk the floor, the baby and I, singing lullabies and listening to France Info radio in between Twitter, and more bloody Twitter.
“Putain merde! Putain merde!” (Holy shit! Holy shit!) a hipster with one shoe howls as he limps down the street from the direction of what is now a siege. Another passes later with blood on his shirt with a girl crying hysterically into her phone, “They are everywhere, everywhere!”
This was not supposed to happen in Paris, everyone said, although who were we kidding? This happens everywhere now, and we also happen to live in the Marais, the historic heart of Paris’ Jewish community, which had been targeted before.
Still it shook me. And it drove me mad when in the following days leaflets appeared in our building offering help to move to Israel.
The baby is finally sleeping on my shoulder, and I am about to attempt the delicate maneuver of lowering her onto the bed without her wake-up detonator going off.
As I lie beside her I wonder—what if one of them gets into the building? Is there anything at hand that I could kill him with that wouldn’t wake her?
A journalist has been hit. No confirmation of course. Thanks for that Twitter. Still nothing from her outdoors. Bloody iPhone battery life.
France wakes on Saturday to find it is “at war” and to the talk of “us” and “them”— the familiar formulas I grew up with that cut the blood to the brain and harden the heart. Hateful things are already being said on the radio, a politician is making a pitch to be president again, ripping at the edges of frayed nerves.
There are no tanks. No sandbags. No barbed wire. People are not being burned out of their homes. This not Syria, nor Northern Ireland nor Cyprus in the old days, when my partner’s aunt’s windows were pulled out one night by the neighbors, angry she hadn’t taken the hint and was still waiting for her husband and teenage son to come home a year after they disappeared with the rest of the men left in the village after Turkish troops invaded.
No, this is not war. That’s what they want. Yet 129 people are dead.
Under a bright sunshine that was in perfect contrast to the mood of the city, I met Helene, who had brought her four-year-old Jeanette to Place de la Republique—which also became of symbol of shared grief and solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo attacks —to explain to her why everyone was so sad. She had earlier sat her two older boys around the table to talk to them about Islam and France’s difficult history with Algeria and where this murderous anger might come from.
She was exactly the sort of clear-eyed public-spirited person who gives France its backbone. But even she feared the worst, warning that if Muslims did not demonstrate massively their repugnance at what had happened, there would be consequences. “I am afraid of what will happen… It will burn,” she said, clearly shocked at herself.
As we said our goodbyes I noticed a man crying and realized he had heard some of what was said. Mehdi, a Muslim waste collector, said he and his wife had hardly slept since Friday with shock and fear. “We are French, too… I was born here and so were my children.”
Paris is numb now, and we are easy prey to anger and tears. My heart like everyone else’s is bursting. The loss is terrible. Fourteen people died on the terraces of the Petit Cambodge and the Carillon cafe that face each other across a corner of the 10th arrondissement that is the epitome of trendy multicultural Paris. I used them both and was probably the best customer of the gluten-free patisserie next door.
How can we defeat the Islamic State, someone on the radio despairs, how do you defeat madness? By being sane of course.
The cue for how we should proceed was set for me by someone whose strength I can only marvel at. Journalist Antoine Leiris lost his wife Helene Muyal at the Bataclan. In an open letter to the gunmen he wrote while his baby son was having his nap, he told them, “You will not have my hate… We two, my son and I, are stronger than all the armies in the world. I cannot waste any more time on you as he has just woken from his sleep. He is only just 17 months old, he is going to eat his snack just like every other day, then we are going to play like every other day, and all his life this little boy will defy you by being happy and free. Because you will never have his hatred either.”