Yesterday, around 11 p.m., I sat on the Pont des Arts, waiting for the last tendrils of twilight to release the long day to the tardy European summer night. Only then, finally, would the Bastille Day fireworks commence. Behind me, I could just make out the jagged, illuminated spire of Notre Dame. In front of me, the highest third of the most iconic landmark in the world lay exposed against the sky. By the time darkness at last arrived and the Eiffel Tower began its usual champagne-fizz electronic array, the Pont des Arts, like the bridges in front of and behind it, as well as the pedestrian walkways on the banks of the Seine below, swelled with the flood of French citizens and Francophile tourists who had come to central Paris for the annual spectacle.
The French don’t celebrate Bastille Day — they prefer calling it le 14 Juillet— with quite the same animated pride that Americans do Independence Day. They gather together in groups of friends, this person with the bottle (or two) of wine, that one with the crisps and cigarettes, and laugh and joke cordially until the big faux bombardment begins. There are no ribald screams of “France! F — Yeah!”, no spontaneous singing of La Marseillaise the way we do the The Star Spangled Banner — no kids with sparklers scrambling underfoot. Certainly no gauche flag onesies.
Maybe that cultural deflation has something to do with the differences in our revolutions: The American Revolution was fought by the to-be citizens of a new nation against their external foes. The French fought each other. John Adams staked his career defending the rights of the British soldiers his zealous cousin Sam wrongly wanted hanged for the so-called “Boston Massacre.” The Jacobins held kangaroo courts as la revolution devoured its own by the thousands.
George Washington said he preferred the plow to the messiness of politics — Robespierre preferred the guillotine.
But maybe it’s not just France that’s a bit quieter on nights like this nowadays. As the Eiffel Tower stopped its silver sputtering and adorned itself in a brilliant blue, the signal for the beginning of the show, I felt the hair on my neck stand up. I couldn’t shake that uncanny, something — just — isn’t — right feeling. I looked behind me, to my left and right. Every few minutes, as the bombs lit up the sky, I stopped watching and began worrying. I disconnected.
Do you blame me? Do you blame me for thinking, If something happens, the crowd is too packed for me to be able to run? For silently cursing myself for choosing a location with only two possible exits? For wordlessly calculating how far the emerald grey waters beneath me were, should I need to vault the side of the bridge in panic? For being in the first place on this bridge with hundreds— rather than with the thousands gathered on the Champ De Mars — because the former seemed like it would be a less likely target than the latter?
Maybe this, more than anything, is the saddest casualty of the age of terrorism — the death of communal celebrations. Yes, we still go through the motions and attend large gatherings, partly out of defiance and partly because we tell ourselves that our fears are overblown, the product of a reptilian brain unable to process that the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are microscopically low. But we can’t help it. Try as we might, behind the rational part of our mind, the part Plato wanted to have firm command over the emotions, our emotions refuse to comply completely.
When we gather together — at a concert, a Pride festival, a patriotic display — we remain just a little bit tense, just a little bit anxious, just a little bit less willing to let go and give in to the catharsis of being unguarded together.
Long after the medical teams and clean-up crews have done their macabre work, after the politicians have expressed sympathy and prayers, and after our tears are dry and we get on the metro to go to work and manage to almost forget, it’s this kind of of small oppression — this petite tyrannie — that slowly corrodes the foundations of an open society.
By midnight, the finale to the fireworks was finished. I waited politely for the crowd to move and began my trek back home, back to comfort and safety and certainty.
My phone rang. It was my father.
“Something’s happened in Nice,” he said.