On the campus of California State University, Long Beach, near the port of Los Angeles, a vigil brought together teachers, professors and friends of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old student who was studying abroad at the Strate École de Design in the French capital.
On Friday night, Gonzalez was killed by a series of gunshots from the attackers, as she sat with her friends in a restaurant in the 10th Arrondissement. The California girl is the first ascertained American victim of the massacre.
Nick Alexander, a British national, was killed in the carnage at the Bataclan concert hall. He was the merchandising manager for the band Eagles of Death Metal. Meanwhile, the band, hailing from Palm Desert, California, has interrupted its tour and returned home.
The group’s name is ironic because the band does not play metal but commercial rock, apparently an equally valid symbol of Western dissolution for the commando who spread death among the crowd of youngsters who were attending the concert.
Beyond the fatal and geographical coincidences (it was two Californians, passengers of the TGV in Pas-de-Calais, who in August foiled a massacre on the train), Americans are participating in the French mourning with an inevitable sense of déjà vu.
Their participation in the Charlie Hebdo massacre was also heartfelt, but the Parisian Friday the 13th recalls more closely Sept. 11 because of the pure randomness of the violence designed to hit sports, music and entertainment (the everyday lives of innocent people); the cruelty to propagate panic; and the intent to paralyze the citizenry of an entire city.
President Barack Obama called it “an attack on humanity” before leaving for the G20 summit in Turkey. “Those who think they can terrorize the people of France or the values that they stand for are wrong,” he added compulsorily.
The institutional solidarity was supported by people’s heartfelt and vocal expressions, monuments illuminated with the French flag, songs of Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg playing on the radio, the programming of French films, schedules changed and the Marseillaise played by orchestras.
Saturday Night Live, the NBC satire program, last night opened its broadcast with a tribute to the “City of Light whose light will never fade.”
All the major networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN — have sent their anchors to France to broadcast services from Paris (including Geraldo Rivera, the Fox News neo-con whose daughter coincidentally was at the Stade de France during the attacks), all making evident the solidarity with America’s “oldest ally,” as expressed by Obama.
The love/hate, admiration/distrust relationship that has always linked and separated America from its American friends/competitors, who sent the Marquis de Lafayette and gifted the Statue of Liberty, was confirmed by the events in Paris that emphasized empathy.
But the attacks also took place at a time when America is seething with pre-election politics, and political exploitation was unavoidable.
An Islamist attack inevitably falls into the wheelhouse of xenophobic populism, and predictably the conservative shields have gone up. Donald Trump has stopped momentarily his attacks against “illegal and rapist” Mexicans that feed his Republican approval ratings to hurl abuse at the “barbarians of Paris.”
He did it by brushing up on the discourse tested after the events of Charlie Hebdo: a tweet on the scarcity of weapons in circulation that prevent old Europe citizens from defending themselves — if Europeans were armed, it would have ended differently (a statement that the French ambassador in the U.S., Gérard Araud, called “repulsive”).
Implicit paladins of a hypothetical Paris, his fellow contenders for the Republican nomination fell in line. And the reactionary conservative pundit Anne Coulter cashed in on the fear by ruling: “Trump was elected tonight.”
For sure, Friday the 13th is a real gift for the extreme right sowers of panic in America. But the Democratic candidates were also implicated, just last night, at their third presidential debate.
In Des Moines, Iowa, the debate began with a minute of silence — or rather, a few seconds of reflection. But what was supposed to be a debate on the economy and social policies shifted to focus mostly on terrorism.
On paper, this favored Hillary Clinton whose political and diplomatic credentials as a former secretary of state are more impressive than her foes, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. But Clinton struggled to dissociate herself from decades of U.S. policies that have greatly contributed to the current mess.
Opponents and moderators could rightly ask her to account for the interventions in Iraq and Libya and, in general, for the instrumental interventionism that supports her political philosophy. “From the coup in Iran to those in Guatemala and against Pinochet,” Sanders could have said, “our actions have had historical consequences.”