November 18, 2015

In Burgundy

Some observations from rural Burgundy in the wake of Friday's attacks.
  1. Like everyone around the world, the people of this region have no answers and no explanations for what happened in Paris.
  2. Everyday life seems to be conquering paralysis. On Saturday morning, the dump was a beehive of activity. The farm tractors continue to rumble past our house with the same regularity. We didn't cancel my wife's birthday dinner party at our house on Saturday night. Our children went to handball practice as normal. School is open, the Post Office delivers our mail, the bakeries in town still smell like a mother's hug feels. None of this is calculated, of course, but I cannot help but feel like there is some undercurrent of a noble defiance of the hard-working people of this country. 
  3. In some horrific way, the near-continual onslaught of massacres (Madrid, London, Russian airplane, Paris in January, etc.) may have resigned people to a new reality.
  4. One café in the area, run by an Arab family, was as active this Monday morning as any other. The proprietor used the informal "tu" with most of his clients and engaged in conversation. Patrons greeted each other in the same way as always, with handshakes and les bises. In other words, business as usual, a good thing.
Despite this air of normalcy, however, I cannot help but feel that change is happening. Slowly, I am beginning to get emails from French friends with a decidedly political bent to them. Fourteen years ago, it was hard to find many Americans who were openly questioning President Bush or the American government's efforts to respond to the attacks of 9/11 in the days immediately following. Here, one can feel a rising tide, not so much of anger or sorrow, but of frustration. More than one observer and plenty of politicians have been criticizing the French's government's reaction over the past year. It feels, to me at least, like the question on a lot of French people's minds is, "Why weren't we doing everything we could to stop this before it happened?" A lot of Americans got to that point after that Tuesday in 2001, but it took a lot longer to travel the road.

As an American here, when speaking with French people, I can offer them some insight into the debate that they are going to have about how to protect themselves going forward. I know what it is like to live in a place where more and more of our conversation and activity is monitored by my own government. Like a lot of my fellow Americans, I have --however reluctantly-- accepted that every text, every email, every phone call, every pixel posted online is able to be observed, tracked, and analyzed by my good friends in Washington, DC. The French, on the other hand, still express outrage when they discover that a foreign or local government is tracking their activities. "C'est ça la liberté?" they ask. Is that liberty? I, of course, have no real idea what the government here is going to do, how much it will share with its citizenry and the world, or what ultimate impact it will have on the national mood and, more fundamentally, the national core values. But what I do know is that the debate is just beginning.

Unfortunately, given what I am reading in the American media (governors "refusing" Syrian refugees, the CIA director calling privacy concerns "hand-wringing," calls to monitor mosques), I also know that the same debate remains entirely unresolved back home, a full generation after 9/11. Now, the conversation has finally gone global, but answers and solutions remain as slippery and elusive as ever. 

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