Statue of Alfred Dreyfus holding his broken sword in the entry courtyard of the
Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme, 71 rue du Temple, 3rd arrondissement, Paris
It’s true that I’ve been away from my blog for quite some time because I’ve been working on a special issue of Dream of Italy devoted to Lago di Como and Expo Milano; but the other reason is that I have been thinking about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher store in Paris (which just reopened two days ago) and I have wanted to write something but didn’t know exactly what. So I continued to think, and at one point I thought that perhaps, over two months after the horrific attack, I didn’t need to post any thoughts. But then I concluded that it didn’t feel right at all to say nothing, and the passage of time is not a reason to ignore it. As a writer I feel compelled to acknowledge the attacks, but I also feel compelled as a traveler to say something.
I can’t express my sorrow for all the victims and their families better or more deeply than others who wrote and posted in the days and weeks immediately following the tragedy, nor do I have some moving remarks expressing my support for the staff of Charlie Hebdo (and by the way, since it seems at least some people do not know, Hebdo is short for the word hebdomadaire, meaning weekly). But what I can do is remind travelers about some facts of terrorism, and share some thoughts worth pondering by writers far wiser and more eloquent than me.
I referenced an enlightening article in Condé Nast Traveler, “Terrorism: Weighing the True Risks” (July 1996) in my book on Venice, the Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. For this piece, reporters prepared a ‘Targets of Terror’ timeline from 1972 through April 1996. Some of the attacks featured on the timeline included the following: Palestinian terrorists kidnap and murder eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games (September 5, 1972); two IRA bombs explode in London’s Hyde Park and Regent’s Park (July 20, 1982); Palestinian gunmen hijack the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean (October 7, 1985); explosion at the World Trade Center in New York (February 26, 1993); Palestinian terrorists bomb La Belle nightclub in West Berlin (April 5, 1986); Arab terrorists throw a bomb from a passing car into a crowd at the Paris department store Tati (September 17, 1986); Shining Path guerrillas detonate a car bomb in front of a Lima, Peru hotel (May 24, 1995); and Algerian Armed Islamic Group bombs the St.-Michel Metro station in Paris (July 25, 1995). As is clear from these highlighted examples, terrorist attacks happen not only on airplanes but on cruise ships, in department stores, in parks, in nightclubs, and on public transportation – in short, anywhere, to anyone, for reasons as random as wearing purple socks (yet another attack was one on April 18, 1996, when Islamic Group terrorists killed eighteen and wounded another fifteen Greek tourists in Cairo, mistaking them for Israelis). If terrorist attacks are always within the realm of possibility, then so are the mundane activities of our daily existence, such as walking out the front door and picking up the morning newspaper, standing on a ladder and cleaning the leaves out of the gutter, or carrying clothes a few blocks away to the dry cleaner – each of which carries the risk of falling down and hitting our head on the sidewalk or the stone steps or the fire hydrant, not to mention drunk driving accidents, street crimes, hate crimes, heart attacks, rape, or murder. If we never leave our homes, we are effectively living in fear; if we travel with fear, we are victims of that fear, real or imagined, even if not a single incident occurs while we’re away.
One of my favorite writers, Francine Prose, wrote an essay in the travel section of The New York Times on September 8, 2002, and in it she reminded us that “Travel alters and expands our perspective. By showing us that life really is different in other places, it provides a reality check against which we can measure the misperceptions and even prejudices we may have developed at home.” She concluded that “The events of September 11 have – or should have – turned us not just into patriotic Americans, but into citizens of the world. And we owe it to ourselves, and to our fellow citizens, to go out and see for ourselves this fragile, damaged and brave new world that, like it or not, we’ve come to inhabit.” Like a Condé Nast Traveler reader who, after September 11th, wrote a letter to the editor to say she believed that “Every American who travels abroad is a bridge for peace,” I believe we are all, in a small way, promoting international understanding by reading about other places and traveling to them.
I remember how surprised I was when, just after September 11th, a friend said she wasn’t making any travel plans “until all this blows over.” It seemed so obvious to me that the world had changed, that we were in this situation for the foreseeable future, and that nothing was going to blow over (and my husband and I left for northern Spain two weeks later). Certainly there have been more incidents, enough for a new timeline, and I believe that Charlie Hebdo was not the last.
On days when the newspaper headlines make the world seem like a particularly nasty place, I recall that my friend Lindsay M. sent me the following lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest on the morning of September 11, 2001, a year after the World Trade Center attack:
How beautious mankind is!
O brave new world
That has such people in’it!