"Is it safe to travel to Paris?"
It’s a question that many are asking themselves right now. Travelers planning a summer trip to Europe. Business people who’ve got Paris-based meetings on their agendas. American students contemplating study abroad options.
2015 was a sad year for Parisians as we witnessed the January 7th Charlie Hebdo shootings and the November 13th Bataclan slaughter. March 2016 brought more horror in nearby Brussels, with graphic coverage of airport and subway bombs and a reinforcement of the perception that we are not safe anywhere.
Because I live in Paris, I am frequently asked the “is it safe there?” question. In the aftermath of the November 13th murders, my answer was no. Wait a bit. Let things calm down. The Paris you dream of seeing is not the Paris we can show you right now. Heck, the Eiffel Tower is closed!
But some time has passed, and I reflect more and more on this question. I’ve come to discover this: how we live threat—be it a health threat, or a geo-political one-- most often mirrors how we live in the absence of threat, in “normal” times. Anxious people will be anxious, loonies hatching nefarious plots or not. A subway line is down and they envision a ricin attack. A police siren wails in the distance and their blood pressure rises.
People born with calmer baselines live these events as unfortunate, aberrant occurrences. These are the folks that know what the CDC knows: you are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack. On November 14th, we saw Parisians doing their thing : shopping at the street market, sitting down to a strong coffee at the corner café, getting a haircut , walking the dog. Threat or not, the beautiful banalities of normal living cycle on.
As the sad events of 2015 mounted up, I spent some time thinking about places, safe and unsafe, that I might map out for visitors. Avoid the Louvre, I thought. An obvious target, for the cultural destruction an explosive device could cause and the thousands of people who would perish in the confined space. Add to this the challenge of trying to exit the museum even under the best of conditions—let’s not even think about under panicky circumstances—and the Louvre becomes a perfect target for ill-intentioned screwballs.
Don’t go to Versailles, either. Security measures have limited the entrances to one unique way in, and the bag-opening and coat-patting-down of the thousands of daily visitors means a 2-hour wait in a holding pen. Another target for nutcases to score an impressive number of deaths and destroy a vital symbol of France’s cultural heritage.
Don’t attend mass at Notre Dame, I thought of telling friends. That’s gotta be on the fanatics’ list. One more glorious representation of everything they’d want to crush, right in the center of the city.
And then I started thinking a bit more deeply about this culture of terror. And I realized that there are few people that alter their plans based on what the zealots may or may not do. Because most people are like the Parisians on the day following the Bataclan attack. Most people understand that these things happen, they’ve happened since the beginning of time, and that it serves no purpose to stop doing what you love to do (and what you need to do). I know I have more chances of dying from heart disease than becoming a terrorist’s victim, and still… Waiter, I’ll have the foie gras and a glass of sauternes, please.
And this truth probably infuriates the religious extremists more than a suicide vest that fails to explode.
Albert Camus devoted a good portion of his post WWII writings to the idea of the absurd, and how in the aftermath of war, people sought ways to strive for clarity in an unreasonable, unorganized world. Camus called this the « wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. » I think this is what we are seeing in today’s Paris, despite (or alongside) the heightened presence of security forces. Our world continues to be unreasonable and unorganized---there is little difference in that regard between the years following WWII and now—but our clarity is sought in the perpetuation of life’s rituals, both the poignant and the unremarkable.
I never did tell future visitors to stay out of the Louvre, or to forgo the splendors of Versailles. I urged them to partake in Notre Dame’s heart-filling (even for atheists) services at Notre Dame. No one—not even experts in risk assessment-- can predict what is safe and what is not. But we can predict that living in fear will lead to a lesser life. So come to Paris. Have a croissant. I guarantee it will add to your life, and temper a world that appears at times so very unreasonable.