Terrorism in America: Reflections from a French Field

Article excerpt

"IT is war", said the fat men sitting opposite. 'It is war on all of us'. 'It is worse than war', said his wife. 'In war one can see one's enemy'.

We were gathered, about 250 of us, lunching in a field under polythene glasshouses in warmth that was almost tropical. It was Sunday 16 September, just five days after the terrorist attacks on the United States. It was a French meadow and all around me there were French people enjoying each other's company and excellent food and drink in generous quantities in a beautiful pastoral landscape in perfect autumn weather. Our hosts were a group of farms that devote themselves exclusively to organic farming, produits bio as they are known here. This was their open day. It happens once every four years when for the equivalent of [pounds sterling]5 you can enjoy five excellent courses accompanied by cider and bagpipe music. For all of us seated around the trestle tables it seemed a different and much more comforting world from that which had dominated the headlines throughout the previous week. But our neighbours were in no doubt, as they tucked into cote de porc roti, that we were all in it together. Conversation fl owed on as such conversations do into the problems of the young, unemployment, immigration ('only one person in thirty in Paris is French these days'). It was all very puzzling and sad, these disturbances of a life so otherwise agreeable.

'It is our fault', said the fat man. 'We who were in the war created this world. We wanted a Paradise with no more wars. We have made a hell for ourselves. Do not forget my crepe, cherie', he called after his wife, 'pas trop sucree',

It is not often that the French find themselves at a loss for words, especially when they are gathered around a table. If they did so on this occasion it is because they were suffering, as President Bush had been earlier in the week, from the inability to find ones that would convey the appalling personal impact of the attacks, a decent man suddenly finding that words have been devalued, that there is little choice between the extremes of hyperbole and silence. In more formal times when language, the categories of insult, of diplomatic language, of commiseration, congratulation and condolence were carefully graded there would have been less of a problem. I still have the letter from the Admiralty received by my grandmother confirming the telegram which had reached her the previous morning as she was setting out for church regretting my grandfather's death in action. To me it seems a little impersonal. It had to be since those drafting such letters would have gone mad if they had had to search for suitable exp ression of personal sympathy. But earlier generations were more nuanced and also more private, like society itself. There was no Global Economy, no World Village, no World Trade Center, no passenger aircraft, no prospect whatsoever of watching night after night on television the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in flames, no BBC journalists like James Naughty, Sue McGregor and John Humphreys to investigate and report for them. There were terrorists though, as portrayed by Conrad and Dostoyevsky, living in the society which they sought to destroy, Verlocs, Raskolnikovs and Stavrogins, dedicated to revolutionary change and violence, plotting from down at heel premises in Basle or Paris and London, but still most of them the subject of Punch cartoons with their shady hats and homemade bombs which fizzed uncertainly, good for a little shiver and a laugh, all very foreign and strange, always nabbed by the authorities before they committed some frightful atrocity. Much has changed. There have b een momentous changes and events in the hectic weeks since these September reflections in a French field. Yet here I want to concentrate on how a group of French people saw the terrorist horror in its immediate aftermath.

For us, our grandparents' heirs and successors, who live in a world of conglomerates and international organisations, a world proliferating with acronyms and initials, a world depersonalised to a degree unthinkable even a generation ago despite the accessibility provided by modern communications technology, it was all very well to hypothesise about such a catastrophe. …