There have been soldiers stationed outside my front door for the past eight weeks. It started with two, and now there are sometimes four.
Immediately following the Charlie Hébdo shootings on January 7, 10,412 soldiers were stationed at "vulnerable locations" across the city. I live in an ordinary building in a residential and populaire (meaning working-class and ethnically mixed) neighborhood in northeast Paris. My backyard is the Parc de Belleville, not the Champs Elysées. Before this, I had no idea my neighborhood was considered "vulnerable."
France's national security alert system is called Vigipirate. I can't be totally sure of how this term sounds to a native French-speaker from France, but as a nearly-native French-speaker from Canada, to me it sounds like a kid's cartoon on YTV. Since the shootings, the Vigipirate rating has been at the highest level—"attack alert"—across the Ile-de-France region that encompasses Paris and its suburbs.
On January 12, the French Defense Minister, Jean Yves le Drian, said, "This is the first time that our troops have been mobilized to such an extent on our own soil." He admitted that the deployment involves "almost as many men as we have in our overseas operations."
Enter the Vigipirates. I can't remember them arriving, but all of a sudden, they were here.
At first, I came home from the grocery store making sure my hands were visible, not concealed in my pockets, and tried to make eye contact with one or both of the soldiers before sharply diverting my gaze. Sometimes we'd exchange a quick bonjour or bonsoir, but that depended more on proximity than disposition.
I felt confused as to why they had been stationed outside my front door. I felt afraid of why, too. There was even some defensiveness: We don't need you, I thought. We get along fine without you.
But as the weeks passed, and it became clear that these 20-year-olds with guns were my new neighbors, my defensiveness abated. The confusion and fear were still present, but I had questions, and I wanted answers. I ventured a conversation. I realize now that it was the sort of conversation that parents have with stubborn toddlers asking why the sky is blue.
- Why are you here?
- Because it's a vulnerable zone.
- But why?
- Because there's a nursery school.
- Is it a special nursery school?
- There could be some Jewish kids.
- So it's a Jewish nursery school?
- No. There could also be some Muslim kids.
- So it's a normal one.
- How long will you be here for?
- We don't know.
- When will you know?
- We don't know.
And I believe that's the truth: they don't know the answers any more than I do.
During the first Iraq War, an anthropologist named Emily Martin conducted a study of how we think about immunity. Her research showed that "popular publications depict the body as the scene of total war between ruthless invaders and determined defenders."
As Eula Biss points out in her recent book, On Immunity, many scientists even deny that this military imagery is a metaphor. It is, they insist, simply "how it is." Biss continues: "The body employs some cells as 'infantry' and others as the 'armored unit,' and these troops deploy 'mines' to explode bacteria, while the immune response itself 'detonates like a bomb.'"
If we imagine the immune system as a war zone, how do we imagine a war? It seems clear that the soldiers have been stationed across the city largely for show. The French government understandably wants to display that it's doing everything it can to protect its people, though it is a risk to make it seem as though the people need protecting.
Maybe not everyone feels protected, though. I'm a 27-year-old white woman, and while the soldiers' presence made me feel uneasy at first, I am part of the demographic that is likely to feel safeguarded. But I wonder how my neighbors feel—the teenagers, many of whom come from North Africa, who attend the high school across the street; the Senegalese family who run a local print shop; the man from Algeria who runs the community theater. Do they feel the soldiers are watching out for them? Or do they worry that they're being unfairly observed as targets?
The fact that the three terrorists—the Kouachi brothers, who gunned down 12 people in the Charlie Hébdo editorial meeting, and Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered the police officer and hostages in the Kosher supermarket—were all born and raised in France was particularly difficult to come to terms with. The press tracked their childhood and upbringing, mapping it out for the public: born in the 10th arrondissement, radicalized in the 19th; met in the beautiful Buttes Chaumont park to perform military-style training exercises. It's as if the geography offered a way of both understanding their outlooks, and isolating the place where their vision mutated. If it happened to them, we wanted to know, could it happen to anyone?
The definition of "homegrown terrorism" reminds me of how malignancy is described: these men were considered a cancer that had grown in the country; our own body had turned against us.
The comparison to the immune system goes further. One idea that Biss develops throughout On Immunity is that "we owe each other our bodies." She's speaking of vaccination, but I'm thinking of the monumental Marche Républicaine, where it seemed as though all of France took to the streets—giving our bodies to the body politic, even though many of us were afraid—to prove that we outnumbered those who threatened us. That seems more like an immune system to me. We marched nearly four million strong, united against something that was both inside and outside of ourselves.
For weeks, it seemed as though the soldiers just transformed from one pair to another. I never saw how the handover happened. Then, in the early hours of pre-dawn when my partner was getting a taxi to the airport, I saw it go down. The whole thing was so swift, so sudden, that by the time R had taken the elevator from the sixth floor to the first, the camo-print truck had come and gone. The soldiers finishing their shift had climbed in the back of the covered pick-up and the new ones had taken their place.
"Did you see that?" I called down to R.
The next time I saw the truck was several weeks later, in the middle of a weekday afternoon. The truck stayed for several minutes this time, and the group of soldiers talked for a while. A few were sitting in the back of the truck, two were leaning against the side of it, and the pair stationed on the stoop had adopted a casual attitude. An elderly man with a cane and a white flat-cap walked by slowly, not even looking, as if this was the sort of thing he saw every day.
Now I sometimes see the soldiers at the grocery store, or taking out their iPhones to give people directions. I no longer worry about making it clear to them that I come unarmed. How quickly we adapt.
It's been a cold winter, and I often think of the soldiers standing outside of the blue gates to the nursery school next to my apartment on the long, rainy February nights. They never seem to talk to one another; I wonder what they think about to pass the time.
(A confession: I've not quite lost that childhood fear of people breaking into my room in the night, and lately, when I've woken up with that mild, vague anxiety, I've felt relief in remembering that the soldiers are outside my front door.)
One night, when I was coming home in the early hours of the morning from a party, I climbed the bridge that crosses the disused train line behind my apartment—the petite ceinture, where kids from the social housing block play in the day, and homeless people sleep at night—and was surprised to notice that I felt grateful knowing the soldiers would be waiting there for me. But when I came down the other side, they were not there at all. I almost felt abandoned.
When I went out the following morning, though, they were back. As if nothing had changed. Over the past couple of weeks, while they sometimes disappear again for a day or a night, they always come back.
But when will it be OK to stop, for real? When will it be the right time to let the guard down? I'm speaking of both the government and the individuals it governs. If you made your profile picture JE SUIS CHARLIE, when did you, or when will you, feel it's appropriate to switch back to you smiling on a beach?
Oddly, the soldiers' presence makes that brief period of terror more distant in my mind. I rarely think of them as a consequence to the Charlie Hébdo attacks; at this point, they seem like their own thing. A new reality. And one that, against all evidence, no longer scares me.
In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag says that the clearest and most truthful way of thinking about diseases is without recourse to metaphor. Maybe this is the way we have to think about war, too, and of the soldiers that are still standing on thousands of front doorsteps across Paris. But I don't think I know how to do that.
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