Nice

The same cars that preceded the President of the Republic sedately along the Champs Elysées during the military parade, speed ahead of him, 12 hours later, to Place Beauvau.

I was on a rooftop when I got the news, perched amid the chimneys and turrets of Paris’ skyline with the Eiffel Tower effervescing in the distance. I’d gone up there with a man I barely knew to watch the fireworks and when my friend sent me a message saying, are you ok? I assumed she meant, he’s not a creep is he?

But then.

A truck has crashed into a crowd in Nice. They think it’s terrorists.

We had come so close. There were only minutes left of the 14th, the national holiday, and we had almost got through it, clustering in defiant joy along grand boulevards and in vast parks and beside famous seafronts, flags in our hands, shouting bravo! for the sapeurs-pompiers in their shiny helmets, lifting children onto our shoulders to be a little nearer the pyrotechnic peonies that bloomed in clear summer skies.

France needs the 14th, people had told me with quiet but emphatic nods. After November, today is important, to be happy.

And we were happy, or at least it seemed that way. The police who patted us down before we entered the exclusion zone around the Champs Elysées to watch the parade were businesslike but warm, bordering on unexpected friendliness. Men with idle machine guns gave cheerful directions to bewildered tourists. The officers in plainclothes dispersed among the crowd joked and grinned, prodding us to cheer loudest when their unit marched past, putting gentle arms around a woman having a dizzy spell.

In the afternoon we spilled onto grass, laden with rosé and cheese and prosciutto, and basked in uninterrupted sunshine. We talked away the long evening until at 10:58 we fell silent and expectant, turning to our skies or our televisions, waiting for the first shock of beautiful, violent colour that would explode harmlessly above us.

But then.

Choosing Nice was brutally clever. Recognisable, beloved, packed with locals and tourists, but perhaps without the extreme level of security that encircled Paris.

As I descend from the rooftop another friend asks, are you okay? Rumours of smoke on the Champs Elysées. I stop on the silent street and wonder: is this it? Is this the moment when I go from optimistic observer to endangered citizen? Twitter tells me it’s a fire caused by a stray firework and I fall back from afraid into sad. I look along the silent street and wonder how they do it, the people who live in places where they get those messages every day. The people for whom the smoke is almost never just a wayward spark. The people for whom a jet flyover is not a spectator sport. How do they keep going?

I hurry home but I do not sleep until 2am. I send a lot of pre-emptive messages and a lot of responses to concerned questions but I am safe, so very safe. The flicker of police lights fills my tiny flat from the television screen. I do not cry until a reporter says, there are many children among the dead.

I am desperately sad but not surprised and that makes me even sadder. This place we are in has no exit that I can see. This morning we paraded our military might in all its splendour but what good is might against a truck and some reckless hate? When the danger worms its way into isolated minds and springs up in unexpected places, the tanks and fighter jets start to look as anachronistic as the cavalry with their swords and the soldiers in their Napoleonic hats.

I can see a myriad of ways this is going to be responded to, and I don’t like any of them. I am as afraid of what we will do as what they will do.

All I know is that I would go back, today, if there were another parade. I would dance again on the Champ de Mars and I would follow the crowd to the spectacle. I would sit on busy terraces and I would duck under police barricades to get to concerts. I would move to Paris.

I would continue to live with bullish joy, and I would risk dying happy. Because I have that option. Because I’m one of the lucky ones. Because joy is the only weapon I have ever had to wield.

But then.

Today we are all Nice. Last week we were all Orlando. Last month we were Istanbul, and before that Brussels, and before that Paris. We should have been Dhaka and Baghdad and Aleppo and Mogadishu. It makes us feel better, to type these things, to stand electronically alongside grieving families. It makes us feel righteous, and ever so slightly less helpless. And in some small practical way it helps: hashtags on Twitter can identify the missing, find beds for the desperate, demand attention for the forgotten.

But it scares me too, because we really are all Nice. There is no longer a there and a here, a deadly and a safe, an us and a them. We all inhabit the same small world and it doesn’t work that way anymore. It feels like it’s not working at all. And I have no idea what we’re going to do about it.

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