Touched by Terrorism, Here and Abroad
When 9/11 happened, the entire world was shocked. In the 15 years since then, terrorism has become a part of our daily lives. These days, we know that another attack will happen; we just don’t know where it will happen.
In the 15 years since 9/11, we have watched seemingly sedate European countries turn into war zones of refugee masses and blood-thirsty terrorists who wreak havoc in great cities like Paris and Nice.
It’s almost as if what happened on 9/11 has since desensitized us to the point where we’re not surprised to see journalists beheaded on YouTube, and we’re happy to take off our shoes and subject ourselves to intense screening in the airport because of two men with bombs in their shoes and underwear who nearly got away with taking down more planes. After they did that, the government treated us all as potential terrorists and instituted extreme, not to mention costly, measures that we continue to accept in the name of “safety.” Do you feel safe when you travel?
Last year, I published a book, called Like It Was Yesterday – A Journalist’s Files Since 9/11. Aware of the fact that there are people graduating from high school this year who have no recollection of what really happened after 9/11, I realized that it was important to remind them not just about that day, but about the way we reacted afterward. There was patriotism and anger. There was love of country and neighbor; and a war was begun that would claim the lives of many of our military members, people who were kids on 9/11.
I began my career in journalism at The SandPaper. My first round of articles reported on hospital waste that had washed up on LBI beaches in 1987. And then there was the time I jumped out of a plane for a story on parachuting, and my parachute malfunctioned! I wrote some crazy stories back then, and looking back, I now understand that it was excellent training for what I have to write about now.
I have not experienced terrorism first-hand, but I know people who have. One of my close friends was actually a witness to the Boston bombing. Having just run the marathon, she was getting a massage in a building right above the finish line, and that’s when she saw the explosion on the street below.
Is terrorism coming to a street corner near you?
Months ago, I sold a copy of my book (it’s available on Amazon.com) to a man from Rouen, France named Nicolas Heurtevent, 32. Through social media, we struck up a long-distance friendship, and Nicolas has become my coal mine canary, alerting me to the ISIS attacks in Paris less than an hour after they happened. Paris is nearly two hours away from his town in Normandy. Then a terrorist mowed down people with his vehicle in Nice, which was even farther away from Nicolas’ home.
Early on the morning of July 26, I received a chilling text from Nicolas: “Attack in Rouen today,” he wrote, noting that a Catholic priest was murdered in a local church by teenage terrorists who slit his throat in front of the nuns. I had learned earlier that Rouen is the historic town where Joan of Arc was burned alive, and the church where the priest was murdered is only five minutes away from Nicolas’ house. “So weird to think that it can happen 5 minutes away from home when you’re ‘used to’ hearing about cities like New York, Paris, London, Munich ...”
Nicolas commented that an attack on a French church was bound to happen, considering that there are more than 40,000 churches nationwide and more than 100 churches in Rouen alone. He added that one of the two terrorists had recently been released from an overcrowded jail after just a few months and came back to do jihad. “French people are more into reflection than action,” he told me. “That’s probably part of the problem.”
Nicolas’ experience made me think about what would happen if such a massacre took place in a neighborhood church in Small Town America. Would such a clear-cut case of Islamic jihad be attributed to a case of the “crazies,” as it was by some when the terrorist in Orlando killed all those kids in the nightclub?
I asked Nicolas to interview his family, friends and neighbors about how they feel now that terrorism has arrived in their town. Right away, he reported, “I had my grandmother on the phone, and she told me that the priest who was beheaded officiated my parents’ wedding 38 years ago! I didn’t know that!” For Nicolas, the attack had suddenly become personal, and he attended the priest’s funeral on Aug. 2, impressed with the outpouring of condolences.
“There were 2,000 people, live TV, our homeland security minister and people from the Jewish, Muslim and Catholic communities. That’s pretty huge,” he told me, adding that the problem remains the same. “The image of a gathering of all religions is beautiful, but consistency is not there, and the symbol has a very limited lifetime. The people suffer acts, unite in sorrow and invariably forget.”
Nicolas pointed out that the government’s failure to make strong decisions is a contributing factor, along with what he identified as the idealism of a majority of the French population, who prefer to wait and see before taking any action. “This combination has led France to be a prime target,” he noted, adding that he believes that the French propensity to think and to reason is good. “But it is clear that at some point you have to be factual and act. The priest who was slain was the one who married my parents 38 years ago. I am taken aback by the fact that beyond the atrocity of the act, my parents did not seem particularly shocked. The fact that a majority of French have lost links with the church there is certainly no surprise. What is surprising is that the majority of those most affected by this barbaric act are the people of my generation.”
Jill Cueni-Cohen lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.