In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, France, talking heads keep asking, “Why Paris?” They ask if the reason is this or that or the other thing, everyone looking for a simple answer. But the world is complicated, not simple.
France, like the United States, has long been a nation of both native peoples and immigrants. Both countries also have legacies of imperialism, France with official colonies, the United States with de facto cheap labor satellites in service to American capitalism. In both countries, the past haunts the present, and the present in one place on earth touches the present in other places.
France and the United States are very different when it comes to geographic area and neighbors. The U.S. shares borders only with Canada and Mexico, and the contiguous states between those two borders is immense, while France forms part of a much smaller continent, divided into numerous smaller nation-states, with much more porous borders since European Union.
Terrorism attacks, it should be remembered, have not been confined to France and the United States. They have taken place this month in Lebanon and Jordan; the bombing of a U.S. embassy in Kenya in 1998 killed 247 Kenyans (20 for every American who died); nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls between the ages of 16 and 18 were abducted in 2014.
Historically, “war” has meant the clash of armies. Sending troops to war meant they would go into battle against other armed troops. American troops in the Revolutionary War and Vietnamese troops in the last century adopted techniques of guerrilla warfare, rather than charging at each other across open fields, but they were still armed troops engaging other armed troops in what could be recognized and called battle – a deadly game, to be sure, with civilian casualties, but still with a few recognized rules.
No more. No rules. When and how (no doubt gradually) the changes came about can be argued, but the fact is indisputable.
Do we in the West care more, care disproportionately, about “our own” and ignore terrorism elsewhere? One Facebook post decried the lack of posts on Beiruit, at the same time Paris postings were everywhere. One reason for that, I think, is that we share the news we hear, and what we hear on American radio and read in our newspapers is by and large the news that touches Americans most directly. When I want news about Ethiopia, I have to seek it out; what’s happening in Paris is on the radio 24 hours a day. But I agree that it is important to look beyond the headlines to the rest of the world.
To the original question, “Why Paris?,” however, there is no simple answer. But after September 11, 2001, did anyone ask, “Why New York?” It seemed obvious, didn’t it?
Paris is obvious for the same reason.
Paris, like New York, has long been a dream city for people all over the world. It is a center of art and culture, of business and finance, of fashion and of government. It is, if you will, New York and Washington, D.C., combined. And it is beautiful. Many who live elsewhere hold it in their hearts as a second home, and many who have yet to see it for the first time hold it in their dreams.
It is important that we not forget victims and grief and fear in other parts of the world. Did you know that Beirut was once called “the Paris of the Middle East”? Even had it never been called that, the people of Beirut are as deserving of compassion as the people of Paris. At the same time, it’s only natural that our hearts are drawn to what is familiar, to the country President Obama rightly called “our oldest ally,” the city that welcomed American GIs and artists and writers and students, following World War II.
Paris, c’est une phare. Que la lumière sois jamais èteinte.