The world spent the weekend mourning after eight agents of the Islamic State launched a series of attacks in multiple sites in Paris on Friday that killed at least 129 people and left at least 352 wounded. The murders are undoubtedly a political event that may well draw the United States and other allies of France into a wider military conflict.
But they’re a cultural event as well. The Islamic State targeted French artistic and sporting institutions, as well as France’s culture of pleasure more broadly. And understanding the very particular way that culture takes us away from ourselves and requires us to trust each other is the only way we can fully comprehend the full cruelty and violence involved in killing people as they lose themselves to a concert, game or movie.
In the statement the Islamic State released claiming responsibility for the attacks, the organization laid out political reasons for targeting cultural performances and restaurants. According to the translation of the statement by the SITE Intelligence Group, the perpetrators targeted Paris because of its status as “the capital of prostitution and obscenity, the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe,” suggesting that Paris’s cultural life and its military engagements were equally important motivations for the bloody campaign.
The statement went on to explain that the attackers targeted the Stade de France as the French soccer team played the “Crusader German” team in part because President François Hollande was there. And the Islamic State described the Eagles of Death Metal concert at Le Bataclan, where the largest number of victims were killed, as a place “where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party.”
U2’s Bono, discussing the band’s postponed Paris concert, told Rolling Stone that he was shocked because: “This is the first direct hit on music that we’ve had in this so-called War on Terror or whatever it’s called. It’s very upsetting. These are our people. This could be me at a show. You at a show, in that venue. It’s a very recognizable situation for you and for me and the coldblooded aspect of this slaughter is deeply disturbing and that’s what I can’t get out of my head.”
But as a critic, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to write about a murderous attack on culture lovers. Three years ago, I grappled with what it means to be killed in the dark, as you give yourself over to something that you love, when James Holmes shot up a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Colorado.
There are obvious differences between Holmes’s shooting and the coordinated attack in Paris. The Islamic State’s actions were wider-ranging, and deadlier; in addition to fans, like the movie patrons murdered three years ago, music writer Guillaume B. Decherf was killed at Le Bataclan, along with Eagles of Death Metal merchandise manager Nick Alexander. The Paris attacks may pull the United States further into military action in the Middle East and Africa. Holmes’s attack was horribly upsetting, but like other mass shootings in America, it failed to change our hopelessly deadlocked gun control debate.
But what these incidents have in common is the way the attackers took advantage of the ways in which people at cultural events allow themselves to be transported. When you go to the movies or to a concert, you make yourself vulnerable. You give yourself over to the events happening on the screen, stage or field, rather than paying attention to your surroundings. You trust the people in the crowd with you to be surrendering themselves in the same way, rather than waiting to take advantage of your delight and suspension of watchfulness.
When we read stories about attacks such as these, there’s always something heartbreaking about the moments when members of an audience are wrenched out of their fantasies and back into a reality different from the one they left behind before the performance began.
The audience at the screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” took fatal seconds to comprehend what was happening when Holmes walked into the Aurora theater in 2012. His calm suggested to some that he might be some sort of performer.
In Paris, the noise of the Eagles of Death Metal provided cover for the gunmen. “François Granier, a wine consultant and rock music fan, thought the concert he was attending Friday night had simply taken a particularly raucous turn,” Andrew Higgins and Milan Schreuer reported in the New York Times. “‘I thought this was just part of the show,’ Mr. Granier, 24, recalled. ‘There was so much noise and shouting you could not tell what was going on at first.’ ”
Ann Patchett captured this particular form of cruelty towards the beginning of “Bel Canto,” her novel about a terrorist group that attacks a vice presidential residence in an unnamed country during a concert and holds the guests hostage for several months.
“No one was frightened of the darkness,” Patchett wrote, describing a moment of profound strangeness that at first seemed to be of a piece with an evening of miraculous music. “They barely noticed. They kept applauding. The people who lived in other countries assumed that things like this must happen here all the time. Lights go on, go off. People from the host country knew it to be true. Besides, the timing of the electrical failure seemed dramatic and perfectly correct, as if the lights had said, You have no need for sight. Listen.”
If only that were true in Aurora, in Paris, and wherever else beauty will turn to horror next.