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Geopolitics

Paris 2015: Memory, Vanity And History's New Continuum

Shocked as we are by each new terror attack, we are no longer surprised. From Worldcrunch HQ in Paris, our editor weighs this troubling year with others before it.

Not quite back to normal.
Not quite back to normal.

PARIS — When first-time visitors to our spartan little newsroom say we look much bigger online, it gives us a twang of pride. Working with just a small team of translators and editors, and journalism from all corners (and languages) of the planet, we make it look like the whole world is coming by our humble doorstep in eastern Paris.

In 2015, the world showed up in a very different way. We've written (here, here and here) about the terrorist attacks that happened twice in 10 months, far too close for comfort: in January, at the Charlie Hebdo offices 200 meters to the south; and in November, 200 meters to the northeast at the Bataclan concert hall. Our proximity was pure coincidence, with no near-misses to share, and we are left feeling no more vulnerable than anyone else who might be reading these words. That's the point, it seems, in a world that feels both smaller and more broken than ever.

Such thoughts as we close out 2015 here in Paris bring me back to a talk given eight years ago in Italy by American writer David Rieff. Responding to questions about the messy state of the world, he offered up this reflection: Every generation is vain, believing its own epoch is somehow more meaningful and momentous than others that came before (or, presumably, those yet to come). No matter where we each might stand on the events of our time, we collectively overestimate this moment's place in history. At least this kind of vanity is universal, and can't be blamed on Instagram or the Kardashians.

Having spent much time overseas, Rieff's was a notably un-American concept that seemed to please the Italian audience. For me too, living abroad helps to identify some of these differences in the way we view history and the human will on either side of the Atlantic. Americans are taught that we are masters of our own destiny, and maybe yours too. Europeans are instead masters of perspective, believers that destiny is shaped by systems, interests and an endless supply of relativity that comes along that continuum of history that Rieff was talking about.

Still, despite absorbing some European attitudes, I can't help but fall victim to the vanity of our times. Maybe it's my American roots, or perhaps the effect of working in the news business, which needs a new front page every day. Or it might simply be a question for Yogi Berra: If we are not vain about ourselves, who will be?

The turning point

On that sunny Tuesday in September, I was in Rome when my sister-in-law called from across town to tell me to turn on the television. She knew her New Yorker brother-in-law should know right away that airplanes had struck the World Trade Center. Those first 20 minutes are seared in my memory. I'd been relaxing at home on a hot afternoon after a non-stop, two-week reporting assignment (sports, not war), and can still remember the coolness of the marble floor on my bare feet as I put down the phone to try to understand the smoke coming out of the towers. I knew immediately this wasn't just a New York story, and by the time the towers collapsed, we all understood this was History with a capital H.

Still, after the initial shock, and particularly once it became clear that there would be a major U.S. military response in Afghanistan, some of my European friends and colleagues began putting 9/11 into that familiar historical perspective. There had been plenty of terrorism here in the 1970s, they explained, and just a few decades before that, there had also been two world wars that killed millions, and occupied continents. Welcome to the world, America. Still, it was a message that was shared not just with tenderness, but also a palpable doubt that maybe the giant crater smoldering in lower Manhattan was the start of something new and frightening that they couldn't quite fit in their old continuum.

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NYC firefighter in the rubble of the World Trade Center — Photo: Preston Keres, U.S. Navy

Another ground zero

Fifteen years later, the ground zero of the moment is the Bataclan, where world leaders and locals alike have been making pilgrimages to mourn another flock of innocent, and in this case almost exclusively young, lives cut short that Friday evening in Paris last month. Eighty-nine of the 130 victims of the coordinated attacks died in the suicide assault on the historic concert hall.

Much has been made of the locations targeted, and there was a sudden rash of articles written about our extended neighborhood of the 10th and 11th arrondissements in eastern Paris. All but one of the other 41 victims were killed in five bars and restaurants not far from the Bataclan. The French media have been grouping these crime scenes as "les terrasses de Paris," a designation that returns us each time to that mid-autumn evening — still warm enough to sit outside, locals and visitors enjoying a drink or meal with friends, the flow of city life being soaked up as only Paris knows how ... until hooded men with Kalashnikovs and a death wish entered the scene.

The random killings were the flipside to the singled-out assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo staff and Jewish shoppers at the kosher supermarket in January. These two Parisian events bookending 2015 joined the other targets of the past decade-and-a-half: public transportation in Madrid and London, a mall in Nairobi, a school in Beslan, Russia, and the Boston marathon. There was also the shooting and stabbing death of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, and the beheading of U.S. photojournalist James Foley in a Syrian desert.

Still, as chilling as the images of each of these acts were, as close as each new manifestation of religious-inspired suicidal terror may feel, as shocked as we are — we are no longer surprised. This is the new continuum.

Yet there was another image this year that somehow did manage to surprise. It was the photograph of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan, found dead on the beach in western Turkey. Desperate immigrants have been dying by the thousands for years now, in essentially similar circumstances. But the brutal sadness of that lifeless toddler instantly connected us to the singularity of suffering no matter where or why it occurs in our world.

But beyond the sadness, that photograph also made us feel as if all of the many ills of our world somehow contributed to Aylan's death, and were now washing up together on the same shore: stupid wars and inconvenient allies, the false start of the Arab Spring and blind faith in technology, poverty and indifference and the ugly games of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen ... and, yes, the reality that something has short-circuited inside a dark corner of one of the world's great religions to set off a series of bad actions and bad reactions that don't appear to be letting up any time soon.

It took a couple of weeks, but the restaurants and bars of Paris have filled back up, even on some of the terraces, warmed by heat lamps and the company of friends and strangers. For those of us not directly touched, life has returned much as it was before Nov. 13. And rightfully so, just as it has these past 12 months in outdoor markets in Baghdad, bakeries in Beirut and office parties in San Bernardino. It is the human survival instinct playing out collectively, from family to city to the other side of the world. As chance would have it, in the weeks after the attack in our neighborhood, Paris hosted the COP21 climate change conference that ended with grand declarations that could make you believe that this is how 2015 will be remembered for posterity.

From battlefields to dinner tables, human history stumbles forward. Those of us in the business of writing its would-be "first draft" tend to describe it all in a tunnel of both time and space that add to the generational vanity that David Rieff spoke about. The alternative is to search for solace in history itself — something an American like me learned from living in Rome.

Paris, the city I now call home, has seen its fair share of history in 2015. Before trying to find its place in the continuum, it's best to close the year by remembering the innocent lives cut short. In our neighborhood, and our world. Doing so helps remind us that the stakes have never been higher. As always.

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