Abroad in Paris

Experiencing fear after the terror


Photographer: Kristen Wangsness


hen a suicide bomber detonated outside of the soccer game between France and Germany on Friday, November 13, the spectators first cheered, thinking it was a firework. There was no news report until twenty minutes later, after the second bomb had already detonated. Sirens blared outside the stadium, soon to be heard throughout the city as the attacks continued elsewhere. The night become a nightmare, the highest casualty terrorist attack France has seen since World War II. News reporting and social media allowed me and the rest of Paris to watch—horrified—as the events were drawn out until the early hours of the next day.

A student studying abroad, I left my apartment the next day expecting the city to be essentially shut down out of fear, sadness, or a combination of the two. I was surprised to find the streets bustling, though people were quieter than usual. Almost all my neighborhood shops and market stalls were open and the metro system was running again after being halted the night before. I heard a shopkeeper say that his heart was broken, but he felt as if the terrorists would have won something from him if he closed down his shop.

The city didn’t stop moving, but it still grieved. People turned out in thousands.

At the sites of the shootings, where flowers and letters overflowed the sidewalks and candles burned until the wicks ran out. At Place de la Republique, where crowds honored the victims and came together with music, hugs, and dancing. At the blood clinics, overrun with donors to the point of turning away many others and including me. On Twitter, the very night of the attacks, people used the hashtag #porteouverte (“open door”) to announce that they could provide shelter for those who could not get to their own home for any reason.


Photographer: Kristen Wangsness

There is love in this city, a sense of unity, support. At the same time, there is fear. Multiple scares have occurred where crowds hear a loud noise and take it for gunfire. There is running, screaming, and confused news reports about more attacks until it is discovered that the source of the sound was only a light fixture breaking or something heavy dropping.

A state of emergency, which usually has a legal maximum of twelve days, has been implemented and extended to three months. This means, among other things, that there is a heavier presence of police and military who have been endowed extended authorizations, such as the power to conduct warrantless searches. The increase of military jackets and guns in the streets puts the atmosphere on edge, serving as a frequent reminder that something is wrong. The people I know who were here during and after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January say that this fear is a different kind. Although still so tragic, that attack was specific and targeted. This time, those who were injured or killed were victims in some measure by chance. The general public has been struck with the feeling that it could have been us, if only we had chosen a different cafe for dinner.

Most people show their fear in small ways, avoiding the metro or public squares at busy times or not going out on weekend nights. Others are choosing to react with violence and prejudice. France’s National Observatory of Islamophobia recorded that while four to five attacks on Muslims occur during a typical week in the country, 32 such attacks were reported in the week after November 13.

ISIS, the Islamic State, has very publicly claimed responsibility for the events on November 13. In contrast with the vast majority of those who practice Islam, which is a religion that believes in peace and non-violence, ISIS has claimed that they do not believe that the rest of the world can coexist with their religion. They aim to sow dissonance and separation between Islam and the rest of the population. ISIS are extremists, not representatives of the Islamic faith. In the wake of the attacks, Muslim groups have spoken out to declare that ISIS is not Islam, and the French government has decided to use the Arab acronym Daesh instead of the commonly used ISIS or Islamic State in an effort to separate the terrorist group from references to the religion.


Photographer: Kristen Wangsness

All of the perpetrators of the attacks were identified as French or Belgian citizens, all with European passports. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the suicide bombers, leading to a loud first reaction of associating the attacks with refugees. However, the passport did not match the body, and the identity had been falsely registered in several countries along popular immigration routes. The passport has been confirmed false and is believed to have been planted by ISIS to raise prejudices against Syrian refugees. The planting has been to some extent successful, as political discussions in many countries over policies for acceptance of refugees have turned into security debates.

Not even 24 hours after the attacks stopped in Paris, Poland’s incoming minister of European affairs announced that the government would not honor a previous commitment to take in approximately 7,000 refugees. In reality, the prejudices that have been capitalized upon to call for tighter migratory restrictions are unfounded, as the Syrian refugees are fleeing groups such as the Islamic State, not joining to fight with them. The idea that other terrorists would use Syrian identities to cross into other countries and attack is also not an efficient one, as the process of refugee immigration is far more complicated and time sucking than simply using the passports of their citizenry.

Terrorism is about weaponizing emotions. The goal of the perpetrators is at least as much the societal ripples as the actual casualties. What the terrorists want is fear and for the world to react with violence and prejudice. Let us refuse them that. Like the shopkeeper who wouldn’t shut down his store lest he give the terrorists anything, it is crucial to continue offering love, unity, and support, making sure to extend it to those who are now being wrongly persecuted.