Paris Burning: On the Obligation to Weep With Those Who Weep

I’m supposed to be doing reading right now. I have the book in my bag, bookmarked and flagged with various post-it notes. I have a couple hours between events today and I could easily knock out another chapter. But I’m not.

I realized this past week that I’ve not been to London since my first weekend there, about a week after I arrived in England. My days have been swamped, from daybreak to well past sundown, with essay writing, reading, running errands, and time with friends. I’m incredibly lucky.

A couple Fridays ago, my friends and I were sitting in a pub, debating trigger warnings and free speech and just generally engaging in the intellectual exercises common to graduate students at any university, but especially common at Oxford. I texted a friend about the discussion, complete with eyeroll emojis, and he wrote back, “Did you see what happened in Paris? Check Twitter.”

I dutifully followed his instructions and was immediately removed from the comfortable corner in the pub where I was chatting with my friends. The real, visceral feeling of shock killed any laughter, any relief I’d found from the stressful week. Paris was burning. And one of my friends was there.

I texted her and informed my friends, “Katie’s in Paris now.” We waited an agonizing twenty minutes for a reply. When the text finally came through - “Yes, we are all right.” – it was like the wind had come back up into our sails. The terror, the anxiety that had swelled up somewhere below my rib cage released in one gigantic breath.

When I think of disasters – whether they be murders committed by violently ideological men or natural disasters of a groaning and grieving world – my mind does not have to travel far to land at a book I read in 2009, when I was in graduate school the first time. Don DeLillo’s Falling Man speaks of grief – specifically around the events of 9/11 – as happening in concentric circles. The further from an event you are, the more dispassionate a person becomes. A European man, in the book, wonders with some harshness why people he knows in the states are not yet over the terror of the attack on the twin towers. A mother whose son died in the towers loses herself in grief. A man who was there when the towers fell finds himself unable to explain his experiences to any around him.

We are all interconnected and yet held at physical and emotional distances from each other because of the various identities and personalities each of us brings to the grief. The process of grief that happens with any death is amplified and disseminated throughout larger populations when an event like the bombings in Beirut and Paris happens. This is the nature of terror – it sends us immediately into a communal grieving process, but a process that is unequally distributed amongst people both close and distant to the events.

Being further from an event does not make one more “objective” about those events, however. Indeed, as Falling Man demonstrates, it is often those closest to the scene of the crime, those who are “emotionally compromised” who are actually the most articulate at exploring the impact of this terror. Those of us who are further and farther away are, in fact, less objective for thinking that we are somehow objective. We are actually unable to place the magnitude of such events in context.

Paris was frightening for many, overshadowing the events in Beirut of the day before. The backlash of the overshadowing was immediate – our communal processes of grief not only speak to our distance from such events, but to the entrenched white supremacist system about whose bodies are valued or ignored. Our physical and emotional distance from the events in Beirut do not allow for more objectivity – instead, we find ourselves calloused. Black and brown bodies are expected to die in hails of gunfire and suicide bombings. White bodies are not.

White Western bodies, on the streets of a city where I know people? Where we set romantic movies and where we propose to our white, Western girlfriends? These bodies are to be protected – these bodies invoke our communal grief in the world of those who believe themselves to be “civilized.”

Paris, by any measure, should feel emotionally closer – I had a friend who was there at the time, it’s only a few hours from me by car, and it’s a place I have been. But I have friends who have family in Beirut, who have shown me pictures of their trips there – it is a city I feel immediately familiar with as well, despite not having been there. I cannot claim it to be as much my own, just as I cannot claim Paris for the same. I am not French. I am not Lebanese. I am not Nigerian. I am not Japanese. I am a white, Western, American. And by recognizing my position within this system, I can make an effort to identify, to empathize, to take on pain where pain exists. It is my responsibility – as a citizen, as a Christian, as a human being – to both see where I am and to feel where others are, no matter their nationality.