In Richard Linklater’s film “Before Sunset,” two old lovers who haven’t met for years run into each other in an old bookstore in Paris. He is American, she is French. They don’t know what to say and don’t have much time. She takes him to her favorite cafe, a quintessentially Parisian haunt where people sit for hours nursing a Perrier.
The place where these two dust off long forgotten memories is Cafe Pure, located on a quiet street corner in the 11th Arrondissement. This neighborhood is like the Brooklyn of Paris. It’s a place where an Algerian grocer, a Chinese restaurant, a Catholic church and a gay bar can be found within a few blocks. Students, Bohemians, Sephardic Jews and West African immigrants all live here. If you were asked where to go to get a taste of Paris, this is it.
Cafe Pure is also near a restaurant where 19 people died when gunmen opened fire on Friday night in what has become the worst attack on Paris since World War II. All told, at least 129 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in six well-coordinated attacks. The day before, over 40 people were killed by suicide bombers in Beirut, Lebanon’s bustling capital. ISIS has claimed responsibility for attacks in both countries.
Why did the terrorists chose to strike so hard at Paris? Perhaps because the city has captured our imagination across Western cultures.
The terrorists, in particular, chose a neighborhood in Paris where life teems with exuberance. Usually their targets are strong symbols of state power — airports, railway stations, government buildings. But this time it wasn’t just an attack on the French state; it was an attack on the beating heart of the city itself.
Bars, restaurants, a concert hall, a sports stadium — these are the social and cultural infrastructures of the city. They are where strangers meet and share their love of football, music, food and conversation. They are sites of serendipitous encounters and social clamor.
Cities such as Paris are a magnet because they make you feel alive. Sure, they are expensive, inconvenient and tiring at times. But they make you feel like you’re part of something bigger.
They are full of what my colleague Santi Furnari calls “interstitial spaces.” They are places you can randomly come across people you have never met and probably would otherwise never meet. They are places where the rules of the game are not so clear. They are spaces for discovery, creativity and play.
The attackers aimed to stoke a sense of collective agoraphobia. They wanted to make people feel scared of going out into gathering places. They hoped to choke the collective life of this great city. They want to crush the spirit of Paris.
There is a book called “The Management of Savagery” that has been providing fuel for the wave of terror sweeping the Middle East. The text, by an anonymous ideologue who calls himself Abu Bakr Naji, recommends those struggling to establish a Caliphate should create “zones of savagery.” These are places where social order has broken down because of extreme violence.
This terrorist tome recommends that images of savagery should be beamed around the world using clever media tactics. Jihadists should then step into the breach and provide the stability that they had destroyed. This strategy has already proved to be remarkably effective in parts of Syria. It seems as if jihadists are starting to try to turn parts of cities in Europe into zones of savagery, too.
The big problem is European cities are not zones of savagery. They are quite the opposite. They are places where civility flourishes. The residents of Paris will not be permanently driven indoors. Giving up on gathering places such as the concert halls, sports arenas and restaurants would mean giving up on the city itself.
Following the terror attacks, the city is in lock down. The usually busy streets of Paris emptied out. Residents were told to stay indoors.
Yet, as quickly as the state security forces swung into action to secure the city, a hashtag on Twitter was set up: #PorteOuverte, which means Open Door. People outside can use it to locate a safe space nearby where they find safety.
Parisians are rightly proud of their great city. What draws millions of people flocking to it is not just the economic opportunities, the beautiful architecture and the wonderful art. It’s the vibrant city life.
We keep returning to Paris because we want be part of the sea of unexpected connections. The dense web of random associations, which give us surprises, joys and adventures, are what the attackers took aim at.
Paris is strong. The city has lasted through countless instances of strife and it has come back, again and again. French President Francois Hollande has described the terror attacks as an “act of war.” While he rallies the security forces, there is something ordinary Parisians can do. In the coming weeks and months, residents can fight back slowly returning to the restaurants and bars, concert halls and sports arenas.
For Parisians, the fight back has already begun. The simple act of sitting in a cafe and watching the world go by would be an act of resistance against the terrorists who tried to defeat the city. In the words of one Parisian, “We must smile and drink our glasses on the terraces of our bistros, to prove that there will be no submission.”
Andre Spicer is a professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School, City University London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.