A Weekend in Paris

It all started shortly after 9:30 last Friday night -- a constant stream of sirens, a fleet of police cars racing below my windows.

"Another traffic accident somewhere along the Quai," I thought.

But half an hour later, the sirens had only increased. I sensed then that something strange was happening, and I turned on the news -- first the BBC on the internet and then TF1, the French television network.

And for the next four hours, until 2 a.m., I watched the live coverage of the Paris attacks, until the network signed off. Then I spent another hour answering emails from anxious friends and family.

Many years ago, as the Paris correspondent for CBS News, I covered innumerable incidents that involved bombs, hostages, violent demonstrations, and battles with the police. But never a cataclysm like this one.

Saturday, I had planned to do my weekend marketing but I stayed home (as President Hollande suggested we should do). Perhaps I needed to sense the security of my four walls. There was very little traffic along the Quai, very few people strolling along the river, very few bookstalls open. Museums and department stores were closed. The Eiffel Tower was barred to visitors. Even local open-air markets were cancelled. It was a Saturday like no other.

I got numerous emails and phone calls from friends. I assured them I was fine, that the violence took place in another part of town, but we all know that Paris is a small city. What happens on the Rive Droite reverberates on the Rive Gauche. The Seine is merely a stream of water, not a wall.

Again and again, the question comes up in my mind: Why Paris?

France, like other European nations, has had its sordid history of colonialism. It battled for a few years in Vietnam, then gave up and turned it over to the Americans. It fought fiercely to keep Algeria, and lost that, too. It has entered the conflict in Syria only recently, like Russia.

If ISIS is taking revenge on anyone, why not America? -- the nation that launched deadly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But America is too far away to attack very easily or very often: the 9/11 attack was a complicated, sophisticated operation that (hopefully) will be impossible to repeat.

But Europe is an easier target, and France represents the epitome of European culture. Paradoxically, France has been very open (some say too open) to Muslim immigrants, who now account for nearly ten percent of the population, including an estimated three percent who are illegals. Originally, in the '60's and '70's, they came to France from North Africa to fill menial jobs, but their numbers swelled as they brought in their families -- with the approval of the government.

Apart from numbers, one must question the lifestyle of the Muslims, many of whom have lived in France for several generations. They have had access to free education, health care, family allowances, and subsidized housing, yet have not fully integrated into mainstream French life. Delinquency and crime are rife in their neighborhoods. Compare this to immigrants arriving in America a century ago, who struggled, with success, to become fully "American". Perhaps it is their very determination to hold on to their culture that has kept French Muslims on the fringe: women in hijab on the streets and in the Métro; a recent demand to ban pork on school menus. And occasionally, crowds of Muslim men kneeling in the street to pray, as a protest.

There are more than two thousand mosques in France and regrettably the Muslim clerics here, like those all around the world, do not openly condemn acts of terrorism nor the terrorists. Their silence is tantamount to condonement.

Which brings me back to the horror of last weekend.

Whatever anger and recriminations the Muslim radicals hold against the Western world, deliberately slaughtering innocent people is obscene. That they cover their faces, and gladly blow themselves up, shows how little life means to them -- even their own.

Life still means a great deal to most of us -- a life lived in joy and peace. It will be tragic if we think we can achieve that by waging more wars and continuing the bloodshed. Other solutions must be found.