In Paris I saw that these terrorists will never stop the music and dancing
Having reported on terrorism around the world for years, I know that while these attackers can terrify millions, people keep going and overcome the odds
Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30
I was just in the door from the long flight home from Burma. Jetlag had reduced my brain to a more than usually turbulent mess of images and voices. I was still in the place I had left where people were joyous and celebrating the power of democracy. It would take me days to feel I had arrived at home. I fell asleep in front of the television every few minutes only to be repeatedly woken by my daughter. "If you sleep now you won't sleep tonight."
And then Paris. There was a phone call: can you go? It is very rarely that I feel so exhausted that I plead to be left rest for a few days. And there was the significant matter of my son reading poetry at an event in Oxford. My presence mattered. It is always so hard to say no but there are times when you instinctively know it really matters.
For the next two days I watched the unfolding horror in Paris with a sense of weariness that was more than physical.
In one form or another I have been following the story of terrorism since the beginning of my reporter's life. As a child I lived south of the Border but the dark soundtrack of the North echoed into our living rooms every night. Occasionally it arrived as a physical reality: the Arms Trial, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the burning of the British Embassy after Bloody Sunday, the great upheaval of the Hunger Strikes, the bodies dumped on border roads.
I went and lived in the north for five years from the mid-Eighties. In those days Belfast was a city where you counted the days, sometimes the hours, between bombings and shootings. By then the 'acceptable level of violence' had been achieved - such a milestone!
Every so often there would be an upsurge. The murder of civilians on Remembrance Day at Enniskillen, Michael Stone's murderous rampage at Milltown Cemetery, the deaths of Corporals Howe and Wood - these last in a week when it felt as if violence might hurl us back to the nightmare days of the early Seventies. Since then I've reported on terrorism in more places than I can remember.
A few stand out. In Algeria at the height of the Civil War in the Nineties I was more frightened than I have ever been anywhere else, before or since.
Nothing happened but the air of looming menace was suffocating. We had four police bodyguards each when filming in the Casbah. I have seen terror in Iraq and Lebanon and Colombia and Tunisia and in Africa and many points between.
So I went to Paris on the Wednesday after the attacks with plenty of context. Checking into my hotel the young Algerian man behind reception asked if I knew his country. I told him I had been there in the civil war. "Well, you know what I escaped from then," he said, "and now this is happening."
My days in Paris were filled with diverse encounters: the Bataclan survivor, Laura Jardin, who spoke of the love of her family and friends and how it embraced and protected her now; the cop called 'Hugo' who was at the forefront of the assault on the attackers' flat in St Denis, how vividly he recalled the seven-hour battle; the Muslim men, young and old, who crowded around me in Barbes to explain their rejection of terror but whose fear of being labelled terrorist was fervently expressed.
"You come to us as if we were the terrorists," one said.
If not literally true, his statement reflected a painful sense of isolation felt by so many Muslims after the Paris attacks. The older Irish in Britain will remember this kind of feeling in the wake of IRA atrocities. Can we ever condemn enough, can we ever distance ourselves enough from that which is done by a minority who claim to speak in our name?
But the Paris attackers were a minority.
The perverse genius of terrorism is that a handful can terrify millions. But it is equally true that the frightened millions do eventually lose their fear. People keep going. The overwhelming truth of the human experience is our capacity to overcome seemingly impossible odds.
I went to the Bataclan exactly one week after the attacks. There was a pianist playing by candlelight, lines of people paying quiet tribute at the gallery of homage erected opposite the concert hall and suddenly as I was about to go live on air came the thunder of motorbikes. The bikers carried the French flag and roared past the Bataclan, hoarsely singing La Marseillaise.
At the end of our broadcast I was walking back to the car when I heard loud disco music pumping out of a restaurant. Inside a crowd of young people were dancing on the bar, arm in arm, and smiling. The music had not stopped in Paris, or the dancing. It never will.
Back in London and to my horror I am called upon to attend the switching on of the local Christmas lights. My 12-year-old insists. She is still thrilled by the simple mention of Christmas.
My problem is that it is still November. Why are we already celebrating? Can it be long before we hear Bing Crosby crooning in September? I mutter about commercialisation and the real meaning of Christmas.
As always I lose. At the switching on of the lights we meet some huge Shire horses from the local brewery bedecked in seasonal regalia. They are duly patted. The Mayor of the Borough - the first Muslim to hold the job - arrives and presses the button.
But the lights don't come on. Then a second press and hey presto the High Road is glittering. Children run around the feet of adults who are drinking mulled wine.
I see that I am an old crank to object to any of this. People are happy and sharing. I feel I belong here. So does my daughter. This is my first gift of Christmas.
Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent