You may well remember the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on November 13, 2015. That evening, 6 separate attacks were carried out across the city, using both suicide bombers and gunmen with automatic weapons. In little more than an hour, 130 people lost their lives and 413 people were injured. It was the deadliest assault on French soil since World War II.
In January of that same year, terrorists broke into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others. Many saw this and previous acts of terror as assaults on free-speech or as singling out specific Jewish targets. However, French people viewed the November 13 attacks somewhat differently. That night’s violence directly targeted ordinary French citizens and their way of life. Those alleging responsibility claimed that France’s bombing of Syria, as well as contempt for hedonistic Parisian culture, had motivated their actions. In recent months I’ve watched (Netflix) and listened to (podcast) two excellent series that shed light on the lives of both the survivors and perpetrators of the attack.
November 13: Attack on Paris is a 3-part documentary series that presents a chronological account of the evening’s horrific events. The entire narrative unfolds through eye-witness accounts of people that were directly touched by the attacks. Security guards, politicians, police officials, medical personnel, victims, bystanders, hostages, and others share their experiences. The only interruption to these skillfully organized testimonials is a full-screen digital clock, momentarily announcing the time as the night wears on.
Listening to real people describe what happened that night is both emotional and fascinating. It’s emotional for obvious reasons: people feared for their lives, others lost loved ones, no one knew how long the attacks might continue, etc. What I find fascinating is each contributor’s capacity to clearly and calmly recount the unimaginable trauma that they experienced. Their ability to recover and restart their lives is captivating and inspiring. I felt the same way after watching Je Suis Charlie, a documentary about the Charlie Hebdo attack.
The November 13 documentary clearly illustrates that the number of people that behaved admirably—exhibiting bravery, or caring, or self-sacrifice, or intelligence, or coolheadedness, or comradery, or civility, or strength—far, far exceeds 9, the number of brainwashed lackeys that carried out the attacks. The main takeaway is not that dangerous terrorists are in our midst and may strike at any moment. The unmistakable conclusion is that people, and the western society in which we live, are resilient. In the end, violence, loss, and tragedy do not win the day.
Last November, to mark the 4th anniversary of the Paris terrorist attacks, France Inter released a 9-episode podcast series, titled 13 Novembre L’Enquête. Unlike the Netflix docu-series, which focuses on the victims, the podcast focuses on the lives of the terrorists. By piecing together the assassins’ movements in the years preceding November 13, 2015, the podcast shows how young people become radicalized. Journalist Sara Ghibaudo narrates this production, peppering her commentary with a variety of archived interviews.
We learn about the recruitment and training of young European jihadists, the reactions of parents who tried to prevent their radicalization, and the seemingly normal conditions in which they grew up. Judges, journalists, law-enforcement officers, former members of ISIS, and former ISIS hostages, all weigh in. All in all, it’s a sobering portrayal. Yet, I think it’s important to understand as much as we can about the young men and women that continue to join ISIS in hopes of finding their place in the world. This podcast certainly helps us do so.
- The Stunning Courage of Coco, Female Contributor to Charlie Hebdo
- Kobane Calling, Captivating Account of Kurdish Struggle in Syria