Leonard Pitts Jr.: Paris, the City of Light
“I believe the light that shines on you will shine on you forever … though I can’t guarantee there’s nothing scary hiding under your bed.”
– “Father and Daughter” by Paul Simon.
My wife has a bad knee and isn’t much for long walks, so that night after the Chunnel train had brought us over from London and we set out on foot from the hotel to do some exploring, I wasn’t expecting to go far. Maybe a block, maybe two.
I have no idea how far we actually went, but I know it was a lot farther than a couple blocks. I kept asking if she was OK. Marilyn kept assuring me that she was and wanted to keep going.
She was enraptured, as was I. Walking through Paris was like walking through magic. We went down a fairytale street, paused on a bridge overlooking the Seine to watch the glass-topped dinner cruises plying the water, ended up at the Place de la Concorde, looking west along the Champs-Elysees. In the distance the Arc de Triomphe glowed.
Some cities disappoint you. Some cities you visit and that thing they are known for, that thing people come from around the world to experience, turns out to be exaggeration, myth or mirage. In the ’70s, I used to feel sorry for tourists who came to Hollywood (which has since been largely redeveloped), only to find that the fabled film capital was little more than office buildings, souvenir shops and street corners where prostitutes gathered six deep.
But Paris is exactly what they say. Paris is, in reputation and in fact, the City of Light.
So I suppose we ought not be surprised that it now finds itself under attack from the forces of shadow.
By now, you’ve already heard all you can stand — and then some — about the series of coordinated terrorist assaults by ISIS that left well over a hundred people dead on Friday. By now, you have already wept or prayed or vented your fury or wondered aloud what this world is coming to or simply stood mute in the face of humankind’s seemingly bottomless capacity for savagery.
I almost called it animalism, but that’s an insult to animals. They, after all, kill to feed or defend themselves. Only human beings kill for beliefs — in this case, a twisted, fundamentalist strain of Islam.
And it’s no accident it was Paris. Like New York City 14 years ago, it was a representational target. New York stands for American power and Sept. 11 was meant to spit in the eye of that power. Paris stands for light and the events of Nov. 13 sought to eclipse the glow — not simply the glow of beauty and romance, but also of enlightenment and hope.
Paris has always been a beacon of such things. That may have been part of the reason Adolf Hitler ordered the city destroyed when his troops were driven out in 1944. It may have been part of the reason Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz disobeyed the order.
The quote at the top of this column is from a song not about terror, but about a father’s love for the bright light that is his daughter and his promise to be there for her in a world of uncertainty and threat. But though they were not crafted for this moment, the words feel apropos to it.
No, it is not monsters hiding under the bed by which civilization is menaced. But it is monsters just the same, forces of savagery, ignorance, hatred, fundamentalism and extremism striking from corners where light does not reach. And no one can guarantee perpetual safety against such threats.
But we can strike back hard when they come, as France is doing now. In the long run, though: It isn’t bullets and bombs these monsters fear the most, hate the most, or that hurts them the most. No, that which lurks in shadow despises light — and well it should. Light reveals bankrupt ideologies for the failures they are. Light draws people together. Light gives courage. And light gives hope.
So Vive la France!
And shine on.
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