It is difficult to know where to begin; so many thousands of words have already been written about the horror of Friday night, when so many people died or were injured in a cluster of separate terrorist attacks in the centre of Paris.
Politicians have spoken and continue to do so. Social media has had a frenzied response, much of it in touching and spontaneous solidarity with the French, and the people of Paris in particular. The red, white and blue of the French flag had been appropriated as profile picture for many on Facebook, and hashtags expressing solidarity have multiplied on Twitter. I thought that the #porteouverte tweeted inside Paris was a moving example of unwillingness to be beaten into submission as Parisians offered their homes as places of refuge to those who were stuck or scared in the city.
I have been affected at a visceral level, almost as though the bombs had gone off locally. I love Paris, have visited many times, and know it probably considerably better than London. It symbolises many things for me – I went there with my husband before we got married and again for our honeymoon. I went, memorably, for a long weekend just after I had been formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, high on a heady cocktail of reducing hypomania and antipsychotics. Sitting at a cafe on the Left Bank, sipping the small glass of wine that I should not have been having, watching the world (and my poor husband) through a distorted haze, Paris was a safe place, a place of refuge, a place of acceptance. We have been many times since, walked the city from east to west, from La Defense to the Bois de Vincennes, from Montparnasse to Montmartre. We have stayed in apartments in different arrondissments surrounded by people of different ethnic origins. We have been in the winter and seen the Christmas lights on the Champs Elysee, and been in the summer and enjoyed Paris Plages. We have always walked nearly everywhere, and we have always felt completely safe. Paris has a reputation for being snooty and unfriendly towards the English, but we have never found it to be so. My love of France has extended to multiple visits to other parts of the country, many summer gite holidays when our children were young, and memorably one of our daughters got married near Chinon last summer.
I am saddened by the predictable upsurge of anti-Muslim sentiment being expressed across all types of media, and by the fact that this is, again predictably, spreading to an increased anti-refugee feeling. More unpleasant in some ways is the proliferation of a ‘hierarchy of death’ expression. Typical posts run along the lines of ‘I’m not adding the French colours to my profile picture because there is nothing more special about the French deaths than those in Beirut the previous day’ or ‘media has gone into overdrive about deaths in Paris but hardly mentioned those in Beirut/ Palestine/ Syria in previous days’ (I haven’t quoted actual posts because to single out one or two would be invidious.)
I have been thinking about this. I have long argued on social media that the British media seriously under-report (at best) or give one-sided reporting (often in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) of atrocities elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Likewise I have lobbied hard against the UK’s increasing business deals with extraordinarily undemocratic and unpleasant states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China and Pakistan. However, when it comes to terrorist attacks in France versus terrorist attacks in Beirut, of course they are equally abhorrent. Of course the death of a Lebanese person is every bit as bad as the death of a Parisian.
However there is clearly a difference in impact. I happen to have a friend who is a Lebanese Palestinian refugee – that is, he was born in Lebanon to professional parents who were settled there, but who have official Lebanese Palestinian refugee passports – and thus so does he, despite having no other possible nationality. I grew up as a child playing with two little boys who were (ironically) half French (their mother) and half Lebanese. So I do feel that I have some personal connections to events in Beirut, and I was very aware of the bombings on Thursday. However, I have never been there. I speak not a word of the language. My contact is through my friend, and I am concerned for him and his family, but in a much removed way. My contacts with France and with Paris have been forged over a lifetime – I started to learn French from the mother of these two little boys when I was 10, and made my first visit to France then (on a month long exchange visit in the summer holidays, on my own – it was make or break for my feelings towards France!) I speak the language poorly but well enough to get by. Paris has been the backdrop to significant life events. I have a French friend with whom I try to speak French every couple of weeks.
In short, the attacks in Paris have affected me much more than the attacks in Beirut. This isn’t wrong, it isn’t devaluing the lives lost in the Middle East, it is equivalent to the difference between your friend dying compared with a distant relative of your friend dying. The loss affects me at a personal level rather than a moral level.
The immediate issue of morality today concerns military strikes in Syria. Unsurprisingly France has responded with ferocious strikes on Raqqa where intelligence suggests there is a centre of Daesh activity. These attacks will certainly cause civilian deaths. They may recruit more people to Daesh. There will be renewed clamour from many in the UK for us to join the French, Americans, Iranians and Russians in military action. David Cameron thankfully reiterated this morning that he would not commit the UK without the approval of Parliament. A number of Tory MPs, mindful of the Iraq war, are unwilling to support the government. Jeremy Corbyn is opposed to war on moral grounds, a stance that I support. Hillary Benn yesterday issued a statement saying that the Labour party would not support military action. It therefore looks as though, for the time being, we will not be carrying out air strikes in Syria, although of course we do so in the region.
All the western European leaders seems to think that there will be more attempts at terrorist attacks in our major cities. I read this morning that the Pope had warned that this might be the beginning of world war III. Certainly we live in dangerous and uncertain times.