Friday, July 08, 2005

Pigeon terror

I was thinking more this morning about how I felt about the terrorist attacks in Paris that summer of 1995. Most of the time, of course, I didn't think about the fact that the city was under a kind of light siege -- it was just something you were protoconsciously aware of. Then suddenly there'd be another attack, and everyone would call each other to make sure everyone was all right.

In other words, the psychology of it was an oscillation between a low-level awareness and sudden shock -- which would again return to the baseline level of background noise as soon as you knew everyone was all right. What was most surprising, in retrospect, was how quickly the whole population adjusted psychologically to the expectation of another bomb, and learned to live with that possibility, in much the same way that one learns to live with the possibility that one might get hit by a drunk driver.

Another "background effect" of the bombings began after the first garbage-bin bomb went off some time in August. Part of the police response to that bombing was to order that all the garbage bins in the city be sealed. The result of this action was as predictable as it was gross: the instant proliferation of garbage in the streets everywhere, despite the heroic efforts of the Parisian street cleaners and garbage collectors to stay on top of the problem. The summer was warm, moreover, and as you wandered through the city, the sickly sweet smell of rotting garbage would hit you more than occasionally.

A turning point in the terror campaign occurred in late September, when Khaled Kelkal, the supposed mastermind behind the July 1995 St. Michel Metro bombing, was shot outside Lyon (on live TV, no less). The French authorities claimed that this was a major break in the conspiracy, and the tension level in Paris began to decline.

By this time, however, another effect of the police response to the terrorist attacks became apparent: the explosion of the pigeon population. More garbage in the streets, of course, meant more food, and as more food became available the Parisian pigeon population (already one of the most aggressive and disgusting in Europe) began to rise exponentially. I have no objective measure of this of course, but I would guess that the Parisian pigeon population probably doubled by November.

In late November, when no further bombings had occurred since Kelkal's death, the authorities decided it was safe to reopen the garbage bins. Initially, this was a significant relief, since the amount of garbage in the streets instantly declined. Again, however, there was a feedback (or rather, literally, a non-feedback) reaction on the part of the pigeons. A doubled population now was back to its old food supply, and the result was horrific: everywhere you went in Paris there were desperate, starving pigeons, hanging around anyone sitting at a park bench, hoping for a crumb. And whenever anything remotely edible did appear, the pigeons would peck and claw at each other for every last scrap. The final straw came on 8 December, when it began to snow, auguring a frost that lasted a week. For the starving pigeon population, this was a collective death knell. The result was again nauseating and predictable: all of sudden the streets of Paris were littered with dead and rotting pigeon bodies.

Those pigeons, too, can be seen as victims of terror.

There are a couple of lessons here. The first lesson is that the experience of living in a terrorized city (that is, a city that has adjusted its way of life to the expectation of continued random terrorist acts) is very different from the experience of terror that people in Europe and the United States feel today. Europeans and Americans today have scarcely altered our routines at all, perhaps to a fault. Unlike Israel, where the whole way daily life takes place has been deformed in response to the terrorist threat, life goes on as before in the United States and Europe, except for the fact that we all know, very vaguely, that any moment there is a tiny chance that something calamitous could happen. The second lesson is that often for the majority of the population that is not directly affected by the attacks (and the majority will always be unaffected directly), the major phenomenological affect of terrorism is not the attacks themselves but the impact of how the authorities respond to those attacks. And that's a thought worth pondering at some length.

No comments: