Last Friday morning in Paris, 129 people woke up to a new day for the last time. 129 people spoke to friends and family who would never hear their voices again. 132 men and women got dressed, ate breakfast and set off for work not knowing that before the day was up their lives would be brutally cut short by a devastatingly cruel and senseless act of terrorism. As the first news reports began to come through people all over the world sat glued to TV screens and mobile phones, unable to tear their eyes away from the horrific events unfolding before them. For a few hours, perhaps, we looked on in stunned silence as yet another act of hatred stole innocent lives from us. And then, in the aftermath, as though the world bravely took a collective breath, people began to act. And hope.
News began to filter through of acts of kindness in the midst of terror: strangers holding hands as they played dead and waited to be rescued, survivors dragging the wounded to safety, emergency services workers risking their own lives to save as many as possible. And the kindness continues. In the ensuing days thousands of Parisians have queued for hours to give blood and many more have laid flowers, lit candles, embraced each other and even played music in the streets in an effort to give of themselves in some small way. As the Eiffel tower went dark thousands of buildings around the world lit up in red, white and blue as a sign of solidarity. Millions have expressed their grief and solidarity with the people of France on social media, not because they naively believe that a profile picture or a hashtag can somehow right the wrong that has been done, but because they feel a deep sense of compassion for those afflicted and a need to respond with love and humanity.
I, too, feel this. I could tell you about the personal significance that beautiful city has for me. That my mother was born there, that she met my father there and that they fell in love dancing on the streets of Paris. I could tell you about all the times she took me there as a child, trying I think to instil in me the same love that she has for her country, or about the times I visited myself when I lived in France as an adult. And I could share photos of the weekend I spent there with my husband just a few months ago, when I was finally able to introduce to him my favourite city in the world. But none of this really matters, because it isn’t about my perceived closeness to the event or the claim any one of us can make to justify feeling personally afflicted. The truth is we are all aggrieved for no other reason than that we are human. We are bound in common humanity with the 132 people who were murdered on Friday night, the hundreds more who still live but will never truly recover, and with all those who have lost the ones they love. We hurt because they hurt; that is all.
So to those seeking to further their own agenda in the aftermath of this tragic event, I ask you to reconsider. There is a place to debate about immigration, prejudice, the ills of social media and the hypocrisy of the West, but I don’t believe it is here. There is a time to express opinions, and freedom of speech is a right that should never be taken from anyone, but please think carefully before making that comment, sharing that video or posting that reply. Perhaps you are right and others deserve to hear what you have to say. If so, then I’m sure you will find a loving way to share it. But not like this.
What happened in Paris matters. Not because we can reframe it as yet more evidence for the validity of our (mis)conceptions about race, politics or religion, or because other atrocities don’t. But because on Friday night 129 innocent people died at the hands of those they had never met, in the name of an ideology that knows no mercy. Now is not the time to argue, take offence or extend our own political or religious positions. Now is the time to respond, just as so many already have, with kindness. In every moment of generosity, selflessness and love lies a powerful act of defiance against those who would seek to bring oppression and cast a shadow of fear over the world. They must not win.