As I watched the frightening events unfold in Paris two weekends ago, my mind became a tumble of recollected experiences. From a couple of trips to the City of Lights in the 70’s, I recalled a world city of magnificent proportions. The cavernous Louvre, where I viewed the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, seemed to cover an entire block. We walked for hours across the city to reach the Eiffel Tower jutting skyward. I was just another tourist gazing at the cathedral of Notre-Dame and traveling out to Versailles for a palace visit. I was spellbound by the panorama the boulevard of Champs-Élysées provided, stretching grandly through the city toward the storied Arc de Triomphe. On return visits some twenty years later, I discovered charming small neighborhoods with open-air markets and tucked-away parks as well as the interplay of old and modern architecture: world capital grandeur in a place also called home.
The Paris I saw on the TV screen was all of these, and the city was under attack. I felt my mind lurch back to that September day fourteen years ago: in losing 3000 people who were simply going about their day, we also lost a certain amount of innocence and a solid sense of security.
Since then, there have been scores of terrorist attacks around the world. In the wearying confusion of names so foreign to our American ears, in places many of us would be hard-pressed to locate on a map, by groups sending their recruiting tentacles across the globe to commit incomprehensible atrocities – the assaults on everyday Parisians in Friday night places made the handwriting scribbled on the wall quite some time ago suddenly very real.
As the French ventured back into their streets, I knew we shared their caution, even fright, on many levels: for our families, for our cities, for our country, for – some would suggest – the civilization of man. And I tried to find some historical comparisons.
There had to be concern in America as the Nazis marched across Europe; but the attack on Pearl Harbor consolidated our nation’s anxiety, and American soldiers were deployed to distant war zones. A ship of Jewish refugees from Germany had been turned away, and a majority of the Japanese “relocated” to internment camps were American citizens. The abomination of the Holocaust committed in the concentration camps became common knowledge only after the defeat of Hitler.
The specter of Communism and the USSR and bombs and bomb shelters frightened me during grade school. When I was an 8th grader, the Berlin Wall appeared practically overnight; my high school freshman year had hardly begun when Soviet and American ships headed toward Cuba. The prolonged Vietnam situation dominated my college years.
It is difficult to compare feelings through the ages or to measure imminent threat and collective dread. I can only point out that developments in technology have intensified whatever emotions we experience. Photos on the evening news showing the rage of conflict in Vietnam shocked us then – now we watch another kind of rage and its aftermath in real time.
There is something in us that needs to express the concern and grief we share across the miles that separate us. On the Wednesday before the Paris attacks, individuals and groups honored military veterans in our communities with moving tributes. The next day the front page of the UDC recounted Vietnam veteran Dennis Crego’s trip to Washington, D.C. in recognition of his service. At their first homecoming, he and his comrades had faced protests against an unpopular war. By contrast, Dennis and the other Honor Flight participants were cheered everywhere they went.
And then some 500 people in Parisian restaurant and concert venues were caught up in assaults carried out by a handful of attackers whose motives we cannot comprehend. As shocked citizens laid flowers and lit candles in tribute to the slain and injured, I remembered another set of candles from two decades ago. A day after the kids in one of my exchange groups learned that a classmate back home had died during surgery, we departed on our scheduled trip to Paris. After their climb to the beautiful, white Sacré-Coeur church overlooking Montmartre, my loving and lovely students lit candles in honor of their dear friend.
As gestures of tribute appeared on TV news reports and Facebook profile photos became bathed in the French national colors, I recalled events following the coordinated Al Qaeda attacks on September 11. The 2001 German group was scheduled to fly to New York City on September 13; when I tried to reach Ingrid, who was leading the group, her husband answered the phone by saying: “Shirley, we are so sorry.” A few weeks later the students of GHS received a packet of condolence letters written by OHG students after their all-school assembly on September 12.
NOUS SOMMES TOUS AMÉRICAINS was the French response at that time; the return headline – WE ARE ALL FRENCH – appeared everywhere on Friday night, along with the peace symbol redrawn to include the Eiffel Tower.
When we bow our heads on Thursday, we will most certainly give thanks for the lives we have such good fortune to lead. But I believe we will also express gratitude for the blessings of international friendship and faith that give us all strength to face the disturbing times in which we live.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.