Notre Dame – photo taken Friday Nov. 13, 2015
If you’ve visited Paris, even virtually, you’ve seen the cathedrals. They buzz with tourists who aren’t aware that people still pray. Cathedrals remind me of War of The Worlds where both the priest and the church are destroyed by aliens who possess greater technology and less sentimentality. The message I got was, why pray? Who are you praying to?
France shook the spirits out of the church in 1789. So these cathedrals are now more like monuments. Filled with such monuments, the city of Paris has become one of the great cathedrals of Western culture. People from all parts visit to experience the heart of art, fashion, food, wine and architecture. Even more arrive in Paris seeking work, shelter or medical assistance, as they do in all the great capitals of the world. It is not a simple city. It has its gargoyles. Just look at any school building. Note the plaque commemorating the number of Jewish children deported from this location.
In Murder in the Cathedral, the play about Saint Thomas Beckett, soldiers kill the brazen Beckett in a sacred space in order to bring down the church, only to have him made into a Saint. As in War of the Worlds, nothing is sacred, nothing ever was. Murder is a reminder of that. But we continue to be woken up to the sacred even through terror. With the recent terrorism in Paris this has become even more clear to me.
I was in Paris on the day of the murders. I don’t have much of a story to tell as I was safe inside. The only terror I experienced happened the day after, at Charles De Gaulle airport. I was foolish. They said my flight was operating so I showed up and was amazed at how ill equipped we all were. Staff was minimal, army and police were busy elsewhere. Yet all the idiots like myself reported to their planes. Not to beat myself up, it’s human nature to need time to adjust to tragedy. It was my first experience in a mob which swept me off my feet. Someone made the error of forming several lines of over a thousand people who converged at one door. The man at the door was under pressure to admit very few people as there were a thousand more people waiting to be screened upstairs. There was shoving, people cutting in line, yelling, threatening the attendant. I’m glad you didn’t see this on the internet. It was embarrassing. It did calm down as the day wore on.
I did not react well. I didn’t scream or hurt anyone. I did use my upper class privilege to find a way out of the chaos. I would not listen to my sister who encouraged me to go home with her to Belleville and try again another day. I could not bear being defeated nor imagine coming back to this living hell. I had missed my flight because of the mess, so I got on my phone and booked another one for a few hours later. I flew out through Istanbul, which my family thought outrageous, but if there’s any place that’s prepared for terror it’s the Middle East. You don’t enter the airport without a screening, nor do you enter a hotel. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from.
I abandoned Paris and my sister with it. I’m ashamed, but I understand that I am imperfect being who is unlikely to be the last person left in the path of a hurricane or a pogram. Parisians and the rest of us will be making similar choices. One of the important questions is how much terror can you take? We often don’t figure out until we are tested. What if my reaction had been instead to remain and purchase flowers to give to each person in line or those I met along the street?
I apologize and I have reorganized my psyche. Most everyone who was not intimately involved with the killings will do so and even those who have lost the most may change in ways that we may not anticipate. Murder closes a door and opens several others. Which open door will we choose? Or will we sit by our grief for a bit longer and contemplate?
One can subdue a culture but I don’t think Paris will be subdued for long. They are a self-confident even brazen city, like New York but with a longer history of both beauty and terror. They will find a way. But will the rest of us? I worry about the young people, and the migrants, some of whom have been deprived of sanctuary and others of their lives. It isn’t healthy to have no where to turn. Nowhere is safe where people feel unsafe. I make stupid choices when I am impatient and lack perspective. This fuels further persecution of the Syrian refugees. Both the guillotine and The Nazi Occupation must inform our decisions. Terror manages to convince us to trade our neighbors in to save our own skin. Terror also engenders martyrdom. As Dickens said, “It is a far, far better thing I do….” Is it really?
I notice that fanatical groups, who encourage martyrdom for their own glory, create martyrs for “our side” as well. Is this a primitive form of communication? Be like us. Feel our loss. Fight like we do. You are us. Resistance is futile because resistance is what we want? Even more terrible, they want our children. The Hitler Youth like conscription of naive teenagers and the criminally inclined to a powerful cause is an old ploy. New fighters are seduced by marketing, by the feeding of delusions of power and fame which professional creators of chaos target. I think of our own army recruiters and wonder about the nature of coercion.
Rats are collapsing their bones to enter our homes. We become them and crank out even more soldiers, learn more dangerous ways to extract information. This should not surprise me as my country, the United States, is the world’s vender of security on an increasing anxious planet .
We have a new plague but we can no longer believe it is caused by witches. It is caused by that human infirmity we share with our enemy, the idea that we are, without question, right, correct and favored by the Gods. It is up to us to understand our own insanity. Question everything. Do not create false Gods nor false foes. Do not consider yourself safe in the cathedral. I laugh at those who engage in extreme sports. Life is an extreme sport for people like me.
I am insane. I engage in acts of emotional terror towards myself and others. I do not murder people but, under the influence of depression and anxiety, I murder hope. I must be vigilant but not so vigilant that I build a suicide vest. I have learned to ask for help to slow down my deluded thinking. In my worst moods, I notice selfishness and a lack of empathy to the problems of others. Even terrorism can hardly get a rise out of me. Don’t let this happen to you.
Thomas a Beckett sought martyrdom in his hubris. He stood defiant in his perfectionism. I pray never to be perfect. I pray not to be a martyr. I pray that even though the cathedral might fall perhaps this is necessary in order that the culture emerge from the dark of our confident naivete and grow. We are hardly out of the dark ages. We still believe life is fair and it is not. Let us not ignore our own insanity in our quest to smite the insanity of others. Let us dance, as they still do in Paris, whether it is a city of light or in the dark.