It was an onslaught against fun, its hapless targets the innocently festive.
In a series of coordinated attacks on the night of Friday the 13th, armed gunmen attacked venues of culture and leisure in central Paris, launching a citywide offensive against merriment. Eight assailants undertook the lurid killing spree, some attacking diners at restaurants, three others blowing themselves up amid revelers near the Stade de France, where Les Bleus were playing Germany in a friendly soccer match. At the crowded Bataclan concert hall, where nearly 1,000 people had gone to hear the American band Eagles of Death Metal, four men stormed the venue and held approximately 100 concertgoers at gunpoint. After several hours, the assailants began shooting hostages one by one. When the police raided the building, three of the four attackers detonated suicide vests.
When the carnage finally halted late in the night, more than 120 people were dead, and more than 200 lay injured. The city of Paris was put under curfew, its mirth and merriment stanched by death.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for the assaults, saying that it “set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice” and attacked Bataclan, “where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.” Thus are the joys of Paris and of civilization itself — music, sport, cuisine, joie de vivre — judged and sentenced.
We have seen terrorism’s indiscriminate indictment of celebration happen many times before. In making the festive the condemned, terrorism’s torture masters imagine themselves underscoring some moral truth, provoking a juxtaposition of the suffering and war-torn against the callously jolly, in this case also the Western and the Parisian. It is a grand deception: Terrorism’s targeting of the merry is universal and indiscriminate, a division of the world between those who wish to live and laugh and hope and those who kill and destroy. The latter are deadly and relentless, and they have already squeezed out the mirth from too many of the world’s cities, from Karachi, Kabul and Baghdad to Nairobi and Beirut.
A coming together against such attackers requires a recognition of the depletions they have already inflicted, a union based on something more viscerally human: a recognition that laughter, celebration and diversion supply something essential and life-affirming, the greatest bulwark against the grim darkness of terrorism.
The first time I learned that terrorism is at war against celebration was when I was in high school in Karachi, Pakistan. The son of a doctor, a family friend of ours, had just passed a big exam; to mark the achievement, he went to meet friends at a restaurant. There was a bomb blast, and he was killed.
There have been thousands of blasts and attacks in Pakistan before and since, and they have transformed my country. On March 3, 2009, a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers was attacked in Lahore, Pakistan. There were 12 gunmen who encircled part of the convoy as it tried to make it to the stadium. Six cricketers were injured, and eight others were killed. Pakistani cricket, a sport that nourishes millions and is played in every nook and alley in the country, was crippled. Pakistan, which was to jointly host the 2011 Cricket World Cup, was stripped of its hosting rights by the International Cricket Board. For years hence, no foreign teams would visit, no matches could be held, there were no championships to cheer, no scores to track. The terrorists had struck, and at least for a while, they won. The fun of a sport, watched and cheered, was no longer available.
Pakistan’s story has become the narrative of so many countries at the front lines of fighting terrorism in its various incarnations. The attacks in Paris occurred a day after attacks in Beirut took the lives of at least 43 people and injured more than 200 others. In the evening rush in Burj al-Barajneh, a commercial area known for cafes and shops, a suicide bomber slipped inside a bakery and detonated his suicide vest. Like the Parisians who would be felled a day later, his victims had simply been enjoying themselves — eating, drinking and never knowing what was coming. Another suicide bomber detonated himself minutes later.
Similarly, one year ago on Nov. 23, a large crowd was gathered outside Yahya Khel, Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. They arrived to watch a volleyball tournament featuring teams from a large surrounding area. There were many young people and children, and the mood was festive. This last fact was enough to make the event a target. A suicide bomber struck, and what had been an arena of sport became the venue of tragedy. After the blast and the sorting of the mayhem, 61 were dead, many of them children.
Last night’s attacks in Paris occurred 10 months after that other assault on mirth, at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The attacks in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iraq are too numerous to count and so often forgotten. There was, however, a time when terrorism was newly terrifying even in those places, a time when people insisted that they would not be afraid or suspicious or paranoid. In those times, the calculation of eating at a café in Beirut or shopping at a market in Karachi did not have to include, on at least some subconscious level, a fatalism about sudden, violent death. In these places, terrorism has not been able to annihilate celebration, but it has shorn it of its innocence and its hopefulness and infused it with hesitation.
With yesterday’s horrors, Paris has joined the uneasy fellowship of other terrorism-tormented lands, where the fearlessness of the past becomes ever more distant and elusive. The greatest horror, ever the hope of terrorism, occurs when its targets suspect the least, are unaware of just how grotesque a simple evening out, a sporting event or a concert can be. So it was in Paris last night, an unassuming city, an innocent commitment to fun, annihilated in a few hours.
In his statement, French President François Hollande called the attacks an “act of war.” The French future will undoubtedly be one of greater security, greater surveillance and, inevitably, greater suspicion. Each is, of course, seen as crucial to ensuring safety. But fun is a more delicate thing, tainted easily by paranoia, destroyed completely by terror.