LONDON, United Kingdom – I was reading about the English response to the reign of terror in Revolutionary France when I checked the BBC News app on my phone.
Gunmen had opened fire in the Stade de France.
I stared numbly at the page. Every time I refreshed the article, a new location appeared. Le Carillon, Le Petit Cambodge, rue de la Fontaine au Roi, La Belle
Equipe bar, Boulevard Voltaire, Bataclan concert hall.
The death toll rose with each addition.
I was just six years old when the world watched two planes fly into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. But the futile horror my younger self had failed to feel in 2001, I felt now as photographs, figures, and footage started to emerge from Paris.
My first thought was: How can this happen again? I realized that I had wrongly come to see terrorist attacks as one-off events.
America had suffered 9/11, the UK the 7/7 bombings, and Paris the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January. My mind reeled. How could France suffer two
attacks in one year with Friday’s atrocities even worse than the first? A new reign of terror, planned this time by Islamic State, had begun.
The next day my friend and I walked through London. A somber, subdued atmosphere pervaded the streets, and almost every person we passed seemed to have Paris on their lips. City authorities cancelled an annual fireworks display for the Lord Mayor’s show, out of respect for the victims of the attacks.
Instead of the lively bangs of fireworks, there was silence as London tried to comprehend what had happened to its sister city across the channel.
The British have always had a love/hate relationship with France, but they abandoned all such petty rivalry after Friday night. In Trafalgar Square, thousands of people attended a rally in solidarity with Paris, waved the Tricolour, and sang “La Marseillaise.”
The National Theatre in London, illuminated with the French flag. (Emily Couch/YJI)
Walking along the South Bank, I saw Tower Bridge, the National Theatre, the London Eye, and the Royal Festival Hall illuminated with the French flag. The flags of Somerset House and Westminster flew at half-mast. It struck me to see how the attacks were not just another news story to be glanced over on a smart phone, but an act of inhumanity that struck the hearts of the nation.
There are many who decry this public display of mourning. Why were there no Lebanese, no Japanese, no Kenyan flags projected onto London’s landmarks when those countries suffered loss? Why is Britain only ‘standing with France’ – as the popular Twitter hashtag says – when it ought to be standing also with the other nations enduring heartbreak?
While I agree that the media is Euro-centric, I do not agree with the derision or shaming of those who mourn for Paris. If all lives matter, as these critics claim, then French lives matter no less than those of any other nation.
I am appalled to see some people claim that Paris should stop being ‘selfish’ when it is still counting its dead. For those who number a parent, a child, or a friend among the dead, it must feel like salt in a gaping wound to have unconcerned, anonymous people tell you to sympathize with strangers in other countries.
We are bombarded daily with stories of unimaginable suffering caused by terrorism, primarily from the Middle East. If we let ourselves become emotionally involved with every instance, we would be mourning every second of every day. As individuals, we cannot handle this.
Detachment is self-defense.
When people fly the French flag, they are not doing so to deny or ignore the countries for whom terror attacks are a regular occurrence. For me and for many others, the assault on Paris
unleashed renewed vigor to the pain and anger we feel at all terrorist attacks.
Many British people have been to France. It is the closest thing we, as an island nation, have to a neighbor. Few British people have not dreamed of making their pilgrimage to the City of Light.
For the last three days, my social media accounts have been filled with my friends’ written and visual memories of their visits to Paris. They express pain and disbelief that such a horrific assault could be made on the city where they had such wonderful experiences.
I’ve been to Paris four times. My most recent memory is of sitting on a café terrace in a sun-bathed square near the Sorbonne and feeling an unbridled sense of happiness. Rightly or wrongly, this peaceful and romantic atmosphere is what Paris represents to the world. It is a city of unparalleled symbolic significance. An attack on it was felt by Britain, as it was by many other nations, as an attack upon the fundamental ideals and dreams we share.
The attack on our closest continental neighbor sent shock waves through British society. Friday’s horrors were a brutal reminder after the Charlie Hebdo murders that terrorist attacks do not just happen ‘over there’ in already unstable countries, but can happen anywhere – even here.
For the British, as for many nations, Paris symbolizes resilience and beauty in the face of terror. Several people I know posted the famous scene from Casablanca where patrons of the Café Americain sing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” to drown out the Nazi soldiers, linking the French resistance during World War II to the remarkable resilience
and determination of the French people after Friday’s attacks.
The 1792 anthem was written to mobilize French citizens against tyranny and foreign invasion.
A military response is underway, but the attacks on Friday showed that we don’t have to be soldiers to be defenders of liberty.
When the terrorists’ aim is to destroy our way of life, the very act of living becomes an act of defense. The Parisian returning to his favourite café for a morning coffee, the Londoner going for a pint of beer with his friends – in short, all of us – now participate in the battle of freedom.
Emily Couch is a Senior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.
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