“They stopped France when its guard was down,” announces the BBC reporter from a TV in the corner of my house so far away from Paris. Of course they did.
I should know by now that a popular concert venue in Paris on a Friday night is not an unexpected place, that there are some for whom Paris is “a legitimate target.” I should know by now not to be shocked that a gunman would fire indiscriminately into one restaurant at the intersection of Rue de Charonne and Rue Faidherbe. And then another. Learning that two explosions were heard outside the Stade de France during the friendly football match between France and Germany, I am reminded of 1994, the year Ireland qualified for the World Cup. The country was ecstatic, its factories, offices, shops, even banks, all closing early so everyone could make it home, or to the pub, in plenty of time for kick-off at the Ireland v Italy match being televised live from Giants Stadium in New Jersey. We had thought of going out to the pub to watch the first-round match, but my father convinced us to stay at home, have a few jars, and watch the match from the comfort of the living room. So we gathered around the TV and held our breath as Ireland went up 1-0 against Italy at Giants Stadium. Like Boston Red Sox fans prior to the 2004 World Series, we were afraid to look.
The second half of the match was well underway when two men in boiler suits, their faces hidden behind balaclavas, stormed into a tiny packed pub, The Heights Bar, in the village of Loughinisland, County Down. With an AK47 and a Czech made rifle, they shot madly and indiscriminately at the sixteen men who had gathered around the bar to watch Ireland take on Italy. They killed six of them, and according to witnesses, the two gunmen laughed as they made their getaway. The first killed, Barney Green, was in his eighties, someone’s grandfather, and as I recall from the stories that later poured from that heartbroken village, he had put on his best suit to mark Ireland’s making it to the World Cup. In the same moments, the jubilant Irish football team was making its way out a Giants Stadium awash in green, held aloft by the chants of 60,000 supporters, anticipating champagne and a night of revelry, only to be silenced and sickened by news of what had happened in a country pub back home.
Anything can happen.
In Paris last night, I imagine some in the crowd guessed or hoped or dismissed those blasts outside the Stade de France as something else, the way we convince ourselves that it is a car backfiring on the freeway not a gunshot, that it is merely a clap of Monsoon thunder not a bomb detonated on a railway line. But then comes the scream of sirens, the plumes of grey smoke, the unmistakable stench, the blood thick on the aisles at The Bataclan and the realization of being under attack, once again in the lingering aftermath of two planes that crashed with such force into the heart of a city, on a clear Autumn morning that had been full of possibilities, the Manhattan skyline sparkling in the sunshine.
Until that grotesque morning in September 11th 2001, I know I had taken for granted the sense of security I felt as a woman who had traded Northern Ireland for America. Foolishly, I had too quickly dropped my guard. I had grown complacent and smug, confident that – unlike her mother – my American daughter would never have to look twice at an unattended shopping bag that had been simply forgotten by someone in a hurry, or that she would never find herself standing stock still with her arms over her head to be searched before proceeding through airport security, or wonder while poring over international headlines, how a complete stranger could hate her because of her nationality; or, that she would find out from her grandmother on a Facebook message that 129 people were confirmed dead following a shooting at a rock concert in the center of Paris.
As bits of sentences sped across time and distance with harrowing news of suicide bombings and indiscriminate shootings, I kept going with my Friday evening plan to attend The Psychedelic Furs concert in Scottsdale, nostalgic for the verve of the 1980s.
I kept going, all the while knowing that such horror was unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic? Has my heart grown numb? And what fear lurked in the minds of The Psychedelic Furs as they took the stage in Scottsdale, Arizona, aware that just hours earlier, the Eagles of Death Metal were performing in Paris, forgetting, the way we do, that anything can happen, that gunmen can storm in and slaughter scores of fans with automatic weapons.
Anything can happen.
On September 11, 2001, it seemed that the world could barely breathe for fear of what might happen next. My little girl was just four years old, safe in her pre-school, learning how to be away from me. As the news tumbled out of New York city, I found myself unable to think or do, momentarily frozen by a revulsion familiar to children of The Troubles. Blindsided again. I suppose, with the Good Friday Agreement and talk of peace and renewal, I had grown complacent. How could I have so quickly forgotten that anything can happen? Anything. I should have known better.
Anything can happen.
The tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted
Those overlooked regarded.
~ Seamus Heaney
Did we used to be more resigned to that maxim? Maybe. Growing up where I did, when I did, I was often confounded by the bombs and bullets, the brutality and barbarism on both sides, but at the same time, somehow – and sadly – resigned to it. I held tight to the ordinary rituals, those I thought I could control. I tried not to be afraid that “it” might happen to me. I never fully gave into the fear as I went to school or the shop or to the pub on a Friday night or out to a concert. Had I succumbed to the fear, I might never have left the house.
With hundreds of people out and about in the city of lights, there is the potential for a tremendous loss of life, and a profound sense of sadness and weariness accompanies this awareness. It reconfirms my fear that it is impossible to defeat terrorism. At the same time, it is impossible to live in constant fear of it, otherwise you might never go outside, as my mother often told me when I was a young girl growing up in Northern Ireland.
While we struggle to find the words to explain the inexplicable – again – we can remind our children – and ourselves – of the helpers and their humanity that shines through the darkest days:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.