Paris, as any storied city, bears many wounds. Some of these wounds are on display for all to see, like the flame to the Unknown Solider that burns under the Arc de Triomphe—a giant arch at the upper end of the world famous Champs-Elysées. The Arc itself is a monument to the Napoleonic Wars, the “glory” of military victories of the Grand Army. The flame underneath it reminds visitors of the human cost of these wars. Every November 11, and indeed 3 days ago, the French Président lays a wreath of flowers by the flame. The nation honors its Veterans, some hundreds of feet away from the luxury boutiques of fashion designers.
Some of Paris’ wounds are hidden; others are quite literally buried. There is no ceremony of acknowledgement of the Organization of the Secret Army’s attack against a car transporting then president Charles de Gaulle at the height of the Algerian independence conflict in 1962. There are no “commemorations” of the terrorist attacks in the Paris metro area commuter trains in the mid 1990s. Then, like yesterday, violence surged by surprise on dozens of innocents. Violence is not new in Paris. Friday night’s events showed us the bloody gash of violence and opened up a new and seemingly more terrible wound.
As an American Jesuit currently living in Seattle, I know the distance that separates me from the reality of the ground in Paris. As a French-born who grew up 200 miles north of Paris (a one-hour trip on a bullet train similar to the one attacked this summer), studied in Paris before entering the Jesuits who goes to visit almost annually, I know the pain of texting loved ones to ask them if they are OK and the impossibility of sleep when no answer is heard back. I also know Paris and French culture.
Friday evenings’ attacks are of the scariest kind. The symbolism of the target locations cannot be overstated. Among them, a concert hall and a large stadium. The concert hall attacked is not the prestigious Olympia where big stars put on their shows. The Bataclan is home to indie and alternative rock concerts, a hip place where youth gather to have fun and listen to up and coming artists. On a Friday night, a sold out crowd is almost guaranteed.
The soccer stadium, the Stade de France, is the largest stadium in the country with 80,000 seats, home to France’s national past time and the 1998 World Cup victory by a team whose tricolors were sometimes described as “blanc black beurre” (“white, black and North African”). The players reflected the ethnic diversity of the French population—an often sore subject that seemed, at least for the summer of 1998 to head toward some healing. The Stade de France is in Saint Denis, a very ethnically diverse and rather poor suburb just North of Paris. To think of what the Stade France means in American terms, think of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
The very soccer match that was set to be played at the Stade de France was a “friendly”exhibition match (“match amical” as they are called) between France and Germany. These two nations have overcome centuries of war and hatred to form a union now spanning almost a continent. The match was a reminder of old wounds banded and deep scars made up in less than two generations, a sign of the power of healing and peace-making in spite of a history of conflict and war-seeking.
The fact that President Hollande was at the soccer match is of course important. Hollande is sometime mocked as a “softy” (his detractors nickname him “flamby” for a flan desert that wobbles around the plate as one tries to eat it), but he has been rather strong and firm in this fight against terrorism around the world. Hollande’s government has also been actively involved in conflict resolution regarding the Central African Republic civil war. But Hollande was not alone at the stadium, far from it. And that is where the terror sets deep under the skin: when people gather, to have some fun, to enjoy the arts, to watch their favorite sport; ISIS wants them to think that they are not safe. These psychological wounds are the ones that can keep us up at night.
By the same token, as America was painfully reminded in 2001, these threats are the ones that demand that we resist and not mistake vigilance for fear or anger for hatred. In French, a phrase describes the task of not forgetting the wounds of the past—the Dreyfus Affaire, the Vichy Collaboration and the Unknown Soldiers fallen in centuries of wars: French honor “le devoir de mémoire.” No doubt that November 13 2015 will enter this duty of remembrance. As Christians, this also reminds us a duty to take Paul VI’s words to the United Nations to heart again: “Plus jamais la guerre—Never again war.”
“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land…. Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” (MT 5: 4,5, 9)
Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the Paris attacks and their loved ones.
Quentin Dupontis an American Jesuit born and raised in France.