When terror hits home, when bombs go off here, it's as if this never happened to anyone else, anywhere. Wrong, of course. Remember Northern Ireland? The Basque provinces. London. Lockerbie. And now Atlanta and, maybe, TWA flight 800, while memories of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City are still raw and fresh.
And we wonder as Americans why God frowns on us, why conspirators and whackjobs are stalking a decent people.
Hit the rewind button back to the early `60s in Paris.
France was fighting a major war in Algeria and in order to bring the ferocity home to the French, Algerian insurgents set off the odd bomb, shot the occasional policeman, were themselves killed.
But because this was France, nothing is ever that simple. There was something called the O.A.S., the Secret Army Organization, composed of French colonels and generals who were determined Algeria would never be set free. These were the lads who, if you saw the flick "Day of the Jackal," kept staging coups and trying to bump off President de Gaulle. And the O.A.S. also was setting bombs. Two sets of competing bomb-throwers with Paris in the middle.
We were young Americans living in Paris with our two small daughters, two poodles and a white Renault convertible, and every morning there were stories in the French papers about new bombs going off and every night, pretty much, we could hear them from our apartment. Sometimes the babies woke. When you have a child born in France the father has to go within 24 hours to register its birth in the mairie, which is the town hall of each district of the city, and I did so at our mairie which was only a little red brick schoolhouse sort of place, and one night they blew that up. My French teacher was Madame Des Georges, and another night they blew out the front of her building. In front of our apartment with its distant view of the Eiffel Tower, French troops and riot police set up nightly roadblocks and stopped and searched cars rolling in from the burbs. Middays along the Faubourg Ste. Honore cops routinely cradled submachine guns. And blue buses of riot police dozed behind heavy mesh screening (so they could fire out but you couldn't lob a grenade in).
It was random but when it happened to your French teacher or your mairie, the terror became personalized. The idea of both sets of terrorists was to destabilize France and frighten the population into speeding up the process. The bombs were laughably simple, a plastic explosive called C3 you could knead like putty. You'd sit at a sidewalk cafe and when you finished your aperitif and sent for the check, you jammed a bit of plastique under the table, shoved in a small detonator, and walked away. Six minutes later, BOOM! And if the next person at the table were a pretty girl in a mini or an old gent in a straw hat reading Le Figaro, well, that was too bad, wasn't it?
The headline writers coined a verb, "Plastiquer," "to blow up."
Yet people still sat in cafes and attended the movies and watched the Tour de France and went to the office and there was professional futbol every Sunday afternoon and people fell in love and continued to drink red wine and eat steak with pommes frites.
And maybe it was that which in the end defeated the terror. Ordinary folks doing ordinary things and refusing to panic or be intimidated. And if we in the States are in for more of this, and I guess we are, that's what will stop it here as well. Ordinary people who may be scared but won't be defeated.