Pensive after Paris
hirty years ago I was supposed to go to France, on an exchange trip with my high school French class. Three weeks, including a home stay and all the requisite Paris to-dos: the Louvre, the Left Bank, the Eiffel Tower, bien sur.
I got my first real job to help pay for the trip, waitressing at a pizza place, and spent hours imagining myself speaking the language I’d studied since seventh grade. My birthday happens to be Bastille Day, and I fantasized the coincidence foreshadowed a sense of belonging I didn’t feel in my suburban Detroit high school, where I played sports, but wasn’t a jock; had friends but wasn’t popular, especially with boys. France would be a do-over, transforming me into a cosmopolitan, confident femme du monde.
Then came the airline hijackings. This was terrorism, mid-‘80s style, planes stranded on runways, scruffy, unshaven crew members brandished as hostages for cameras. The school held meetings. Couldn’t take the risk, they decided. My trip was cancelled. Zut alors. I quit the pizza place. In the three decades since, I’ve never set foot in France.
At 16, foreign languages had seemed as likely a career path as journalism. I had a knack for languages, and was studying both French and Spanish by then, my junior year. As I considered colleges, high on my list was Kalamazoo College, which required a study abroad year.
But without the reinforcement of an actual experience abroad, languages faded on my horizon. I didn’t go to K College and studied stateside all four years. When I finally made it to Europe years later, ironically on a sabbatical from my reporter job, I spent most of my time in Spain, not France.
I’ve never regretted choosing journalism. Still, now and then I wonder, as I did last Friday night when the news broke about terrorist attacks that killed more than 130 in Paris, how my life might have turned out but for a decision driven by fear.
Terrorism 2015 looks different than 30 years ago, stateless perpetrators in suicide vests committing carnage in a concert hall, a soccer stadium, a subway, on YouTube. Yet the aftermath is unchanged. Border closures, reconsidered refugee policies, it’s all fear, instinctive and contagious, again reverberating as far away as here in Michigan as politicians promise and pontificate about the security they can never deliver.
I can’t grasp the loss and rage those directly affected by the Paris attacks feel. But I think I have a small sense of the helplessness, and the corresponding desire to Do Something in response, to fil the void with action. That’s human.
Still, I wonder how different our world could be if our leaders resisted the reflexive, defensive grip of fear – which, after all, is the whole point of terrorism – and instead yielded. Yielded to the truth that nothing on our small blue marble happens in a vacuum, that there are always causes and effects. That depending on your perspective, some people’s causes are others’ effects, and vice versa. That while the visible effects are horrifying and tragic, the collective magnitude of invisible effects like fear-driven choices imposes its own kind of ominous toll.