The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular; “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. It is in this way that I am threatened…
—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
I. THE ENDS OF HISTORIES
The Bataclan is one of the oldest music venues in Paris. Situated on the Boulevard Voltaire and named after an 1855 operetta by Jacques Offenbach, it has operated as an entertainment venue more or less continuously since its opening in 1865 under the Second Empire. After a period of decline in the Sixties and Seventies it was reopened in 1983 with a particular emphasis on providing a platform for post-punk and rock on the Parisian scene. Perhaps befitting its name, onomatopoetic for a sonorous cacophony, it has long maintained a reputation for eclecticism.
Offenbach’s 1855 Ba-ta-clan is an orientalist comic operetta about a Chinese emperor whose subjects are ostensibly in a conspiracy to revolt and overthrow him. It turns out, however, that the emperor and the conspirators are all French aristocrats who share a desperate homesickness for the gay life of Paris that they enjoyed in their youth. It’s a light satire spoofing Napoleon III and the hapless members of the courtier class around him. But it also suggests a pervasive French fantasy: that cultural differences are really more like costumes, and that underneath those exotic garbs, which are amusing but insubstantial, all people want to be French — or at least to live the life of pleasure as the French conceive it. When things are set aright, as they must be at the end of any comic play, all will sing together as one. All will be dissolved in the irresistible cheer of a French republican chorus.
Though it hasn’t been much commented on, the former owners of the Bataclan, who are Jewish, had received threats in 2008 and 2009 over fundraisers they held for pro-Israeli causes at the height of tensions around Israel’s incursions in the Gaza strip. Yet in May of 2015, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks which took place just a few blocks south of the concert hall, the Bataclan hosted a show called “Who is Malcolm X?” honoring Malcolm on his birthday and featuring performances by Muslim rappers as well as a conference, coordinated by the Association of African Students at the Sorbonne, calling for a re-issuing of The Autobiography in France, where it has long been out of print. With this uneasy combination of identity politics, sometimes heightened and sometimes secularized religious affiliations, and hedonistic popular music and youth culture, the Bataclan embodies many of the tensions of contemporary French life.
In the turbulent aftermath of terrorist attacks news outlets want the quantitative goods: how many, what nationality, how old, how young? They seek the official statements and reactions. Invariably we are told that our values have been attacked, but that we won’t change our way of life. If such statements always feel trite and perfunctory, it is because much of what hurts us is peripheral to the site of wounding — isn’t contained in the death toll figures, however grim. These intangible abrasions, which cannot be compressed for expediency, are experienced as a collective loss, a bruising that spreads out from the point of impact as bonds of basic trust are frayed, social perceptions distorted, crucial memories and critical nuances submerged in the onslaught of sound and fury.
One reason for this is that in the wake of such events the categories of belonging collapse: we put out flags that only yesterday we might have considered vulgar and corny. Last November it became a trend on Facebook to drape one’s user profile in the French tricolor, a veil of solidarity placed over the converted face, apparently without irony. In the absence of enforceable vengeance, we settle for what the state has left to offer us, what we usually mock or ignore or take for granted: our firm desire in moments of doubt and danger to be retold the fable of our origins, our identity, our destiny.
I returned to Paris last December, about a month after the attacks, to see my family and friends. I grew up in Paris; my parents are journalists and, following their work, moved our family to France when I was eight years old. Ever since I’ve lived a life tethered on two ends of the Atlantic. When people ask me where I feel most at home, I like to quote Josephine Baker who sang of two loves: J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris. On the evening of November 13th I was in Princeton, New Jersey, at the university where I work. I was about to take a train into New York with my girlfriend who lives in Paris but happened to be visiting me, when I received a text message from my father with a warning in all caps that simulated the cable news crawl he was probably watching: MAJOR TERROR. STADE DE FRANCE. HOLLANDE EVACUATED. ATTACKS IN 10TH & 11TH. Those numbers hit me hard and fast: they designate an area on the eastern side of the city where many of my friends live and where we often go out. I ran calculations in my head. It was Friday; a six-hour time difference would make it around ten in the evening there. I’m going to lose people, I thought.
Then, like everyone else, I opened tabs on my computer for French television, American news outlets and French radio, which is often the most reliable and up-to-date in these kinds of incidents. Facebook, email, Skype. Every minute without a response was unbearable. The messages that came back were a relief but also upsetting. People hiding in basements, lying face down between cars. I thought of other people around me who would be going through the same thing. My friend in the French department. It turned out she knew people inside the Bataclan — she had even encouraged her fiancé to attend, but he had decided not to go at the last minute. He was in his apartment. He wanted to help his friends, but leaving the house was no longer an option. The army was in the streets.
My girlfriend started getting messages too. The little colored speech bubbles multiplied. One of her friends had been out having drinks on a terrace. She had been shot in the back, presumably as she turned away from the firing. She was going into surgery. The girl she was having drinks with, who had come down to visit for the weekend, was dead.
Within a few hours I could account for everyone — I was lucky. But it had been close. My friend Charlotte was standing just up the street when a hail of bullets smashed into the Petit Cambodge, a cheap noodle restaurant we used to go to.
II. THE DISASTERS OF WAR
Amnesty International estimated that from January 2014 through March of 2015, over three thousand people in the ancient city of Aleppo were killed in indiscriminate barrel bombings by Bashar Al-Assad’s Air Force. Barrel bombs are crude oil drums packed with explosives and metal shrapnel, often shoved by hand out of helicopters. The victims are overwhelmingly civilians, women and children, as well as emergency responders and doctors, who are frequently murdered as they arrive on the scene to rescue survivors by so-called “double tap” bombings on the same target.
The Al-Shaitat are a Sunni tribe who live in a string of towns along the Euphrates to the south of the city of Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria. In the summer of 2014 ISIS was metastasizing; having taken Mosul, they spread south and eastward towards the Iraqi border. When they arrived in Deir ez-Zur, the Al-Shaitat initially agreed to an open city rule: no resistance in exchange for peace. But when skirmishes broke out they finally rebelled. The repression was swift and brutal: firing lines, beheadings, crucifixions, mass graves. The raw footage that surfaced on YouTube is so horrific the State Department recuperated it as anti-ISIS propaganda. At one point the executioners place a severed head on the ground in front of a prisoner, to taunt him, just before his own is cut off.
Obtaining figures for civilian deaths that result from American and European bombing sorties in Syria is not easily done. The Pentagon acknowledges civilian casualties from time to time, always careful to assert that they are minimal. Russian bombings, the same sources will assert, have killed hundreds; naturally the Russians deny it.
At the Bataclan, on November 13, 2015 the Eagles of Death Metal were in the middle of their set when three men got out of a black Volkswagen Polo, entered the theater and started killing. They covered each other commando style, aiming to maximize the efficiency and certainty of murder. All three were European citizens in their twenties. All three had traveled to Syria via Turkey in or around 2013 and had re-entered France without being detected by the authorities. The youngest, Foued Mohamed-Aggad, was a 23-year-old native of Wissembourg, an Alsatian town on the Franco-German border. After graduating from high school he had tried and failed to pass the exam to become a police officer, and had similarly been rejected when he tried to join the Army. He left to join ISIS in Syria with a group of young men, including his older brother Karim, apparently under the influence of a jihadist pied piper by the name of Mourad Fares, who boasted about the success of his YouTube jihad recruitment videos in an interview with Vice in 2014. The majority of the others, including Foued’s brother, gave up, returned and were arrested on charges of terrorist conspiracy. Aggad stayed on, married a French woman who came to join him in the cause, and kept up an active profile on social media. He was also in touch with his mother, who was desperately trying to convince him to return. These exchanges were intercepted, including one in which Aggad declared that if he came back to France, “it wouldn’t be to go to prison, but to blow things up.”
The two older men, Samy Amimour and Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, both in their late twenties, grew up in the suburbs of Paris and, like Aggad, embraced religion not in their homes but online, and then only seriously around 2012. Mostefaï and his family moved to Chartres in 2005, a move that seems to have left him adrift. Shortly after arriving he started getting into run-ins with the police for minor delinquencies. Between 2008 and 2010 he was working in an industrial bakery, and his radicalization is thought to have occurred around the end of his time there. Amimour had tried studying law and after failing got a job working as a bus driver in 2012. He also started dressing in ultra-conservative Salafist garb, behavior that earned him an interview with French intelligence officers, who marked him in the now infamous “Fiche S” database as at risk for radicalization. Despite this, both men left for Turkey in 2013, where they were followed and observed together by Turkish intelligence, who in turn claim they contacted their French counterparts without ever getting a response.
The three men went about executing concertgoers with remarkable composure. Reports suggest that they had studied the layout of the building before the attacks and had positioned themselves to trap those fleeing; hostages were placed strategically to serve as human shields. One of them set up an encrypted laptop, presumably to establish communication with other ISIS affiliates, in the middle of the mayhem. With so many people crammed and panicking, much of the killing must have taken place at near point-blank range.
Conservative Muslims, and even many radical Salafists, denounce ISIS. One trope that often comes up is that the black-flag jihadists are “too easy with the blood.” They have an obscene taste for death. For them bloodlust, not faith, marks the final shape and meaning of their lives. In January the Islamic State released pre-recorded video profiling each of the men declaring their intention to carry out the attacks and demonstrating their allegiance by beheading prisoners. The youngest, Bilal Hadfi, who had been a college student in Brussels just the year before, was only twenty years old, and is said to have cried profusely when saying goodbye to his mother. He blew himself up outside the Stade de France, killing only himself.
What is terrorism? Without answering the question directly, one thing we can say is that it stands in for communication. It is the way an organized group communicates a desperate will to power, especially when the verbal expression of that will is felt to be impossible, or incommensurate with the desired end. It is always a sign that the thirst for power has outstripped the capacity of language to comprehend or satisfy it. This is why I think it is important to try and write, not only for or about Paris, or France, or Syria; but against the gangrene that threatens every day to spread further and deeper among all of us as we are tempted to give up on words, give up on thinking — are seduced by cheap simulacra, the lure of imagined community, the fever of Manichean folly, the pornography of violence.
We know that the disasters of war overwhelmingly unfold elsewhere, that our lives are safer and more sheltered than they’ve ever been, and yet a crowded subway entrance, an airport terminal check-in desk, anywhere the density of human traffic accrues is liable to provoke an invisible wrinkle of dread. And when some terrible event does happen, we now consume it with a sense of helpless foreknowledge. The newsreels arrive not as a shock of surprise, but of recognition, like the sudden recall of a nightmare at midday. We live in a state of passive suspense, like Goya’s figure of Reason who sleeps seemingly at ease as the monsters of Superstition and Folly crouch over him and close in from above.
The genius of terror is that it feeds on reason’s weakest link, its perverse need to proliferate explanations — to account for all possibilities, its obsession with minimizing uncertainties. Will ISIS attack the discount shopping center where I buy my groceries? That would be madness; or is that precisely why they might blow it up? Will they attack the movie theater I’m in? They are showing the latest Bond film, and England is in the crosshairs — should I have picked the art house instead? A new sign with a red triangle in the entryway to the municipal library asks all patrons to return books to the desk and not deposit them in the drop box. Even librarians must do their part to combat terror. High schools are evacuated because of a bomb threat. Parents come racing across town in a panic. Children stand behind armed soldiers waiting for them to arrive. The mentally ill discover they too are members of ISIS and commit spastic and hopeless attacks. Men with beards provoke waves of fear and shame in people just by passing them in the street or stepping onto a subway car. Mosque-goers find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun in the middle of the night, are detained without recourse and released without explanation. The normal laws are suspended because of the state of emergency, which the parliament votes overwhelmingly to extend.
Arendt coined the “banality of evil” to characterize the kind of bureaucratic, routinized and orderly murder that Eichmann directed, emphasizing the impersonality of its application. What is striking about the new terrorism is its chaotic and intensely personal character. Not in the sense that it is carefully directed at particular victims, of course, but that the human vehicle for it is a passionate, zealous hatred. The leader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is alleged to have returned to the scene of the shootings, mingling unnoticed with the crowds of wounded, first responders, police and reporters, to check up on his work. A widely circulated video from Syria in 2014 shows him beaming and laughing as he drives a pickup through the desert dragging several bodies tied to the fender. For him one is tempted to speak of the “gaiety of evil.”
What can and can’t be said. What is and isn’t “our” history. In the press after November 13th we are repeatedly told that this is the worst attack on French soil since the Second World War. This is not true. It is the worst attack since the 18th of June 1961. On that day members of the “Organization of the Secret Army” (OAS), a neo-fascist splinter group with connections at the highest levels of the French military, furious at Charles de Gaulle for refusing to crush the Algerian resistance and reclaim the colony they considered a natural part of France, bombed a train traveling between Paris and Strasbourg, killing 28 people. This forgotten terrorist attack resulted in less loss of life than the anti-Algerian police riots in Paris of that same year, 1961, “events” still virtually unmentionable in France and for which there are no official death tolls, though it is generally accepted that hundreds of protestors were killed, many of their bodies thrown in the Seine. “Ici on noie les Algériens” was the message tagged on the Pont Saint-Michel. “Here we drown Algerians.”
In 1983, in the face of rising anti-immigrant violence and Islamophobia — as well as the first electoral breakthrough of the Front National — Christian Delorme, a French priest from Lyon, decided to rally a movement against racism. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights marches, he organized the “March for Equality and against Racism.” It was the first anti-racist protest of its kind in France. Starting with only a few dozen people in Marseille, Delorme crossed the country on foot with people gathering to support him along the way. By the time they arrived in Paris fifty days later nearly 100,000 people marched in solidarity. President François Mitterrand personally received them and promised minimal reforms, few of which he delivered on. In the years that followed, the French right ignored the problem. The French left paid lip service to the spirit of the movement, but did nothing substantial to nourish and encourage change on the ground, and by some accounts misused and misdirected anti-racism activists for corrupt ends.
Meanwhile the situation in the streets worsened. In 2005, after yet another lethal interaction between police and youths, the ghettoes exploded and several weeks of rioting forced the last major declaration of a state of emergency. Nicolas Sarkozy, at the time a young and ambitious Minister of the Interior, called the rioters “scum,” praised the police, and vowed to “hose out” the banlieue. Two years later, Sarkozy mobilized the fear and anger stoked by those riots to appeal to voters on the extreme right to back him as a law-and-order candidate for the 2007 elections. It was a successful strategy, which allowed him to consolidate a rightwing coalition and win the presidency. Once in office, however, he returned to the passive and indifferent attitude of neglect that has characterized his predecessors. Thus several decades of profound social crisis, with no shortage of handwringing in the media, has resulted in little more than cynical electioneering. The civil rights movement that France desperately needs has yet to be born.
III. THE OPIUM OF THE INTELLECTUALS
One of the best-selling books last year in France was a bitter treatise by the journalist and cultural critic Éric Zemmour called Le Suicide français, The French Suicide. Zemmour has made a name for himself in recent years by attacking and, in his view, exposing what he sees as the dangerous influence of post-1968 France, the generational cohort colloquially referred to as the soixante-huitards, who came of age in the heady days of revolutionary May, overthrew Charles de Gaulle and have dominated the politics and culture of the Fifth Republic.
Zemmour opens predictably enough with a lamentation for de Gaulle, the last great patriarch of France in a line stretching back to Napoleon Bonaparte. This tragically sincere eulogy concludes on a timely note: “Soon, the most turbulent and most iconoclastic children [of ’68] would come to spit on his grave: ‘Tragic ball in Colombey, 1 dead’ sarcastically sneered the cover of Charlie Hebdo.” Zemmour is referring to a famous Charlie Hebdo cover that mocked de Gaulle’s death in 1970. It’s one of the great Charlie covers, a slaughtering of France’s most sacred cow. It represents all of the magazine’s founding traits: an anarchist’s radical disdain for authority, for tradition, for any and all hints of militarism, a willfully pubescent sense of humor that loves to stick a finger, or more likely a cock, in the eye of the headmaster.
In Zemmour’s account, the crisis of values and identity facing France originated with the accursed soixante-huitards, who introduced a relativism that spawned two major threats: the feminization of society (and its associated “gay ideology”), and the Islamic culture of France’s North-African immigrants. These are mutually reinforcing; a weak, “feminized” people is less likely to be able to stand up to the aggressive Muslim population swelling in its midst. This creeping process, he believes, originated in French Deconstructionism, was incubated and radicalized in American universities (where it spawned gender studies), and is now being foisted upon an unwitting French society by a conspiracy of multiculturalist transatlantic liberals who, refusing to see the dangerous errors of their ways, are willingly destroying traditional France — committing the titular suicide.
To say that Zemmour is a crude thinker would be an understatement. He is also a highly polished speaker, perfectly groomed for French television, where he fits in alongside Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard Henri-Lévy as mainstays who have made a name for themselves by attacking “multiculturalism.” Like their American analogues, these writers insistently paint themselves as marginalized and speaking courageously in the face of the liberal leftist indoctrination of the country. This despite Zemmour’s best-selling status, not to mention that of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, Finkielkraut’s election to the Académie Française, the massive and at times violent demonstrations against gay marriage in 2013, and the persistent inroads of the extreme-right in elections.
There is in fact a terrible need for intellectuals to challenge the dominant assumptions and calcified binaries that are poisoning the possibilities of change — of opening France to the future. But in doubling down uncritically on a republican universalism that axiomatically asserts neutrality while protecting a great deal of condescending and paternalistic racism, Zemmour and Finkielkraut encourage the French state to pursue a policy that suits their preconceptions but is empirically failing. The result is wish-fulfillment politics, some notion that a return to the baguette-and-beret postcard of France — one that has never existed outside of posters for Pétain’s Vichy and Le Pen’s Front National — will somehow become possible.
This moldering climate, abetted by an aloof, nepotistic and irresponsible political class on both sides of the political spectrum, has been crippling France for decades. Irrespective of outcomes in Syria, or new terrorist attacks, France will require a civil rights movement, a sustained social movement to involve and empower deeply marginalized communities so that they are equal stakeholders in the nation’s future. As it is, the stubborn evasion of reality in the pages of Zemmour, and the governing class’s complacent reassertions of a Frenchness that has little connection to any social reality, is the suicidal tendency that worries me most.
IV. FLUCTUAT NEC MERGITUR
The cartoonist Cabu, one of the founding members of Charlie Hebdo, began publishing his drawings in his high-school paper in the small Alsatian town of Châlons-sur-Marne. He came to Paris in 1954 to work at commercial drawing for a small studio. He fell in love with American jazz, which would remain a lifelong passion, and became an avid chronicler of the scene for local reviews and journals. His career was interrupted in 1958 when he was drafted into the army and sent to Algeria, where France was struggling to put down the anti-colonial independence movement. He was enlisted in the 9th Zouaves, a branch of a military unit famous for its role in the original conquest of Algeria in 1830. That conquest: Who remembers now how it came about? Who now recalls that France owed the Dey of Algiers money, refused to pay her debt, and then invented the flimsiest pretext (a slap in the face of the French consul) to invade, overthrow and colonize their creditor? The war against the FLN in Algeria disgusted Cabu, as it rightly did so much of his generation. He left the army in 1960 a confirmed anarchist.
Cabu’s most famous and lasting caricature is a figure known as the “beauf.” This is short for beau-frère, brother-in-law. Cabu thought this was a particularly French type, annoying the way only your brother-in-law can be annoying; a provincial jerk who assumes he knows everything because he’s heard a little about everything; who has all the right opinions at the right time, because all his opinions are the latest conventional wisdom. It’s a pointed self-examination of the French temperament, and that’s what makes it funny. The word has since passed into the language. The beauf, Cabu liked to say, is a part of us all: it’s the person we love to hate, but the one we hate because we know him so well.
The response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks was an impressive outpouring of solidarity and grief for personalities who had been familiar faces in French life for at least thirty years. But the “JE SUIS CHARLIE” hashtag and the dogmatic demand to adhere to it, reminiscent of the Bushism “You’re either with us or against us,” also exemplified much of what is wrong with the discourse on identity and race in France. Wasn’t it clear that the demand for identification risked alienating precisely the swaths of the population that need to be brought into the fold? Besides, nothing could be more absurd than sententious displays of solidarity with one of the most virulent anti-establishment rags ever printed. Let’s not get it twisted: over the years Charlie Hebdo has most definitely printed racist cartoons; almost no issue of Charlie isn’t profoundly sexist or misogynistic. They also printed material that was coded anti-Semitic; and their anti-clerical offensiveness is legendary. The cartoons of the Prophet were in particularly bad taste, but for the Charlie crew pretty much run-of-the-mill. Not all humor is equal; when it is deployed without intelligence it opens itself to questions of judgment and intent that one should have to answer for. But not in blood. Bad humor is a crime against comedy. No humor is a crime against humanity. One thing that always gives away the fascists: that degree zero sense of humor they carry around like a nightstick.
In the dead gray of January I went for a walk in the neighborhood where the November attacks took place. I started in the little streets of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. I walked up the rue de la Forge Royale and turned onto the rue de Charonne. Even from the distance of a block or two you could make out the shoal of flowers and cards in front of La Belle Equipe. It means the “Beautiful Team.” The night of November 13th, Hodda Saadi brought together her group of friends for drinks on the terrace. She was celebrating her 35th birthday. Her friends were her coworkers — bartenders, waiters and waitresses from the nearby Café des Anges. Hodda’s sister Halima, who had recently moved to Dakar with her husband to start a life there, was also on hand to celebrate. Then the black car rolled up and the Kalashnikovs started firing. The whole group of ten friends were murdered together. Khaled Saadi, their younger brother who was working inside, emerged to discover both of his sisters dead on the sidewalk. The owner of La Belle Equipe, Grégory Reibenberg, survived. He lost his wife Djamila. Their daughter will grow up with her Jewish father; she was robbed of her Muslim mother.
I made my way up to Place Voltaire, where the Mairie stands. Weddings in the 11th Arrondissement were canceled for months because of the need for funerals. From the square I pursued the boulevard up to the Bataclan just past the intersection with Richard Lenoir. Shuttered and still surrounded with police barricades strewn with flowers, I was surprised to find myself thinking about how small the venue looked. I suppose when I was younger it loomed larger in my mind because of its status as a mecca of cool. Now it looked vulnerable, banal, crestfallen. We are always told that life must go on as before, that the terrorists can’t be allowed to make the party stop. But how do you do that? How do you put the site of a mass murder on mute so you can have a nice night out?
I remembered how nearly one year earlier I had walked in the procession, the so-called “Republican Marches” after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The Place de la République was a sea of people seething with tension and mixed emotions. I was surprised by how many parents brought their children, carrying them on their shoulders. The scale is hard to convey. 1.5 million people turned out in Paris alone, and closer to 4 million across France. I had a “Charlie” sticker on my winter jacket, and I carried a rose for socialism and fraternité and a blue Bic pen as a symbol of freedom of expression and solidarity with writers. A French news reporter interviewed me in English as an American observing the scene. “Why are you here today?” he asked. I told him that I believed the importance of the crowd was in the young people. I said we were determined to make a different future. I said it was important for people to come together unafraid, and to know that we are free.
That was last January. Since the November attacks, the state of emergency has prevented people from coming out to mourn together. Heavily armed paratroopers are ubiquitous, not only in public transportation but also guarding high schools, synagogues, mosques and cathedrals. Armored jeeps patrol areas of central Paris after hours. Prime Minister (and presidential aspirant) Manuel Valls has declared that we are now facing “hyper-terrorism,” whatever that may mean, and that a major new attack is not a matter of probability, but “a certainty.” Highly placed French intelligence officials have made statements to the press suggesting that November 13th was merely “a dress rehearsal” for a more ambitious attack, a “European 9/11” coordinated across European capitals.
In place of a great rallying of the people there has been official state-sponsored grieving, including a performance by France’s geriatric rocker Johnny Hallyday that was empty, uninspiring, and went largely unnoticed. Yet perhaps the inability to mourn isn’t necessarily something we should deplore. There is something powerful about wresting the clock back from those who operate on apocalyptic time. Impatience is the zealot’s most critical flaw. The assassins believe their time is always now, their triumph always imminent. They are convinced by the theater of their own cruelty and multiply their acts. In the short term we are on edge, of course, but eventually even these events are absorbed into our “new normal.”
I had forgotten that the Boulevard Richard Lenoir turns into the Boulevard Jules Ferry. I was pondering the significance of Ferry, that contradictory French statesman, architect of French secular law, champion of free education, and faithful believer in France’s colonial mission to civilize “inferior races,” when I came suddenly upon the plaque commemorating Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who tried to stop the Kouachi brothers as they left the Charlie Hebdooffices. President Hollande had just officially consecrated it the week before. I felt the strange compression of history. Like the hundreds of commemorative plaques all over Paris on schools testifying to the Jewish children deported under the Occupation, or resistance fighters fallen in battle or executed by the Nazis, Merabet’s plaque is diminutive, unnoticeable really until you look. I realized with horror then that I was standing on the pavement right where he had been killed. I had watched his death on YouTube. Ahmed in his blue uniform already down, shot in the upper leg. “C’est bon, chef,” he moans. The words so human. Neither plea nor a protest, but a statement of understanding, submission. It’s over, you don’t have to. Then the crack of the Kalashnikov.
The boulevard runs up to the southern end of the Canal Saint-Martin. I passed the terrace of the Café Bonne Bière, which had already reopened in December. A defiant “JE SUIS EN TERRASSE” banner floated over the awning where people sat outside despite the awful weather and the passersby lifting their phones to take pictures. But when I reached the canal proper I was stunned to find it completely drained. Municipal barricades had been erected all along the quays. Looking down from one of the green elevated footbridges you could see the trench, surprisingly shallow, as it cut a brown swatch, like a great scar, running along the gray curve of buildings under the gray sky. At the intersection ahead, a building face usually covered in graffiti or street art had been entirely painted black with the motto of the ancient mariners of Lutetia, “FLUCTUAT NEC MERGITUR,” stenciled across it. She wavers but does not sink. Someone explained to me that they were draining the canal to improve navigation. Yes, I thought. You can’t sink any further if you can see the bottom.