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Columns

We’ll Always Have Paris

By Shubhankar Chhokra

“But what about us?

We’ll always have Paris.” —Casablanca, 1942

The thing about death tolls is that they always seem to rise. At 40, you’d think it would stop. At 65, you’d think there’s not enough blood in the veins of Paris to quench the thirst of the jihadi. And at 129, you realize, thankfully, that you were wrong—that death tolls can indeed stop rising, and like good things, all bad things come to an end, too.

At 129, you also realize 129 lit candles can’t lift even the City of Lights from its darkest hour. Thankfully, Francois Hollande has a different response than vigils in mind: war, “pitiless” war. But leave it to the Pope to both correct the French and ignore the Church’s own history of violent zealotry in just one official statement, in which he reminded us that this is a “piecemeal” war we’ve actually been fighting for a while now.

It’s a war jihadists wage today, and other religious fundamentalists have for many yesterdays; yet despite its great span, we’re still hesitant to defend against it because until last Friday, it hadn’t quite hit home. It’s a war against France only insofar as the French historically epitomize something larger than themselves—a licentious Western spirit, a winsome disregard for institution, a near-peerless appetite for liberty. Didn't you know that the French have more poodles, more wine, and more sex than any other people? My only other guess would have been the Americans.

And there’s the rub. There’s the reason we don’t merely say “We are all French,” but actually feel it--it’s less because of our nations’ historic bond, or of poignant reminders of how France stood by us when jihadists spilled American blood barely a decade ago, and more because of this likeness in spirit, and thus likeness of victimhood. We mourn because of the fear that I’m sure we all felt this weekend, that Paris could be weeping for Los Angeles, Chicago, or Boston tomorrow.

For what it’s worth, this fear that the United States may be next is arguably a lot more visceral after Paris than after the similarly horrific attacks this weekend in culturally and geographically distant Beirut and Baghdad. Those who twist this reality to cry of moral favoritism against the outpouring of solidarity with France as opposed to browner countries like Lebanon and Iraq seem to base their argument on the risibly opportunistic, wholly inappropriate speculation that somehow Americans value French lives more than Middle Eastern ones.

But don’t they realize that we’re mourning more than just lives? Don’t they realize that the jihadis didn’t attack a government building, but rather a theater, a soccer stadium, and a restaurant? Don’t they realize that Paris is for lovers?

Lovers of each other, yes, but also lovers of liberty and modernity. Perhaps the most important article in the aftermath of these attacks on Paris was Jeffrey Goldberg’s list in “The Atlantic” of some of the things that militant Islamists are specifically fighting against. They’re fighting against people going to school in Peshawar and people publishing bibles in Istanbul; against people drinking coffee in Mumbai and people going to work in New York; against people shopping in Nairobi and people watching the marathon in Boston. They’re fighting against both the students at Yale and Mizzou who have the nerve to speak their mind and the critics who have the nerve to tell them to grow up.

The absurdity of this list reminds us how lucky we are to be born in a time and place in human history where the most remarkable of freedoms can be quotidian. And the aftermath of tragedies reminds us how beautifully unshakable our resolve is to defend them. Pace the jihadis, we’ll always have gaudy plays, soccer matches, and boozy dinners. We’ll always have Paris.

Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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