What to say?
The news hit me at night, in Brooklyn. A choking black fear suddenly gripped me, because I am Algerian and know what war means: the destruction of all that is human, rupture, the triumph of blindness in all its myriad forms. For years I’ve watched as the world fell victim to a potentially fatal disease of the heart. I have felt like a hunted man, trapped, the bearer of a plague because of my geographic position: I stand between the killers and the victims. What use are people like me in a time of open war?
My first anxiety after absorbing the shock of the slaughter concerned the nationality of the killers, because today a killer kills not only his victim but also his native land.
The hardest thing is to know how to react. There might indeed be nothing left to say. Condolences are clichés, and proclaiming one’s anger is banal and inadequate, like shaking the hand of a corpse. Humanity does not share the color of my skin, but the face of the barbarian resembles mine. This, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of the hostage. I am a brown man between two worlds, trying to sell a vision of the world demolished by the explosion. “Allahu Akbar” was a cry I used to hear often, and it terrified me. God is great. Now, once again, these words emanated from the mouths of killers, diminishing the world and calling forth accusations, racism, suspicion, insults, and bodies. “God is great” makes the individual feel small, presaging not ecstasy in the face of the divine but death. What can one say to this country that it has not already heard and even decent people now struggle to believe? That Islam is not Islamism? That the terrorists are killing me as much as you? That they kill more Muslims than Westerners (as if comparing cemeteries offered consolation)? That one should not emulate the killers by killing all kindness and tolerance in oneself? That Muslims should take to the streets in protest? In what language is one supposed to address people whom pain and fear have deprived of reason? My words are but a fistful of sand—for what can they possibly count?
I therefore waited two days before reacting, because I do not see how words can help to restore reason. The global September 11 has endured for a decade now and moved from hurtling aircraft to open warfare. In New York, where I have spent the past few weeks among journalists, I was struck by the numb routine of the reaction to the Paris attacks. Reporters rushed to cover the events, they wrote and commented, but mechanically, as if distracted by fatigue, as if indignation and cries of pain were no longer adequate to capture the facts. As if there were nothing more to add to the end of the world, or the end of the sentence. Everything had already been said. War had become routine.
What to think?
First, fear. There is nothing worse or more stressful than the after-effects of the attacks. You think of your own skin and of the others who share skin of the same color and who will have to “pay” for the crime in France and the West: immigrants, refugees, expats. Daesh (Arabic for Islamic State) struck France for what it represents: its secularism and diversity. Daesh knew that it was precisely in France that it had to strike in order to provoke rejection, racism, hysteria, and extremism. On all this its future recruitment depends: The monster feeds on alienation and old messianic texts. One book, one desert, one purpose. The attacks would not have made sense had they not been aimed at the country with the largest Muslim community in Europe. Without this the horror would not have been possible. France’s diversity is its wealth, but also its vulnerability. And diversity will suffer. The world will become even more closed than it already is. And Daesh will have been proved right.