Living With The Fear: Finding Love And Power In Music After The Paris Attacks
    • MONDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2015

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    The first time I was terrified to leave my home, I was 10 years old. I don't mean frightened in the sense that I was scared to scurry across the shadowy depths of my backyard to my grandfather's house at night or the way that my fear of needles led me to create any excuse whatsoever to avoid getting a shot; I mean terrified to the degree that I felt with existential certainty that leaving my house would mean that I would die. The day I felt that way for the first time was April 21st, 1999.

    I was in the fourth grade in 1999, and my daily routine after school was to come home, eat the lunch my mother had waiting for me, and watch Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network. At that point in the series' American run, Goku had just transformed into a Super Saiyan for the first time and was preparing to finally defeat the evil Frieza. I couldn't wait to see how that (absurdly lengthy) Namek arc was going to play out. But when I got home on April 20th, I didn't get to see that episode of Dragon Ball Z. My mother was watching the news.

    For those of you who are too young to remember it or don't have a head for dates, April 20th, 1999 was the date of the Columbine High School massacre. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 of their classmates, one of their teachers, and then themselves. Another 24 classmates were injured. At first, Columbine didn't feel real to me. I was a smart kid, but I couldn't point Colorado out on a map. The idea of two teenagers killing their classmates was so foreign to everything that I knew about the world that my 10 year old brain couldn't compute what it meant. School was a safe space. There were bullies, but if I whined to a teacher, they'd leave me alone. It never occurred to me that somebody could decide to kill me.

    But I had to go to school the next day, and that was when it became real. My elementary school was separated from the nearby middle school by only a small field (where'd I'd later have football practice as a middle schooler) and a creek. And when we went out to recess that Wednesday afternoon, our play was interrupted when we noticed that all of the middle schoolers were standing on that field in formal lines and that a squad of police cars had arrived, in a flurry of lights and sirens.

    The next day we would discover that someone had called in a bomb threat. There was no bomb. But that afternoon, we were harried back into the school and placed in our classrooms, and sobbing was the overriding emotion and action of the ten year olds packed in our room. Many of the kids had older siblings at the middle school. In our irrational pre-adolescent state, we were convinced that whatever horror had taken over Columbine had made its way to our middle school and it was coming for us next. It was an inevitability.

    In 2015, it's easy to mark Columbine as the end of any shred of national concern/impetus to protect children from gun violence. Charlton Heston -- then president of the NRA -- claimed that the government could pry his guns from his cold, dead fingers. The denizens of Philippi Elementary School and Philippi Middle School were saved from actual violence that day -- although this year, my home town would make news for all the wrong reasons when a teenager held his class hostage at gunpoint until the teacher and a local minister were able to talk him into surrendering himself without harming anyone -- although the fact that we're averaging one mass shooting incident a week in 2015 means that countless students in the last 16 years have not been so fortunate to only have to feel the terror we felt that day without having to actually experience it's barbaric, tragic reality.

    On the afternoon of Friday, November 13th, 2015, I was finishing up my work week. I had a concert to attend that evening, the Lone Bellow at Webster Hall, and I wanted to answer some last e-mails and check the traffic performance on a few posts before I went home and prepared for the show. As is the norm though for any Millennial, I got distracted by Twitter. A friend was live-tweeting the soccer match happening between Paris & Germany. His very Irish use of the word "pitch" amused me because it made think of Quidditch and Harry Potter. And then the shooting at the Moroccan restaurant and the explosion outside the soccer pitch occurred and work became a bit of an afterthought.

    The shooting -- with the initial reports that upward of 10 people had been killed -- was horrific enough. I hear a lot of folks talk about how desensitized they've become to constant reports of atrocities...that the fact that we have to hear about this day in and day out on the news has made us immune to the ability of these events to shock and terrify us. And, on the one hand, it's true. Constant exposure to suffering and horror begins to inure you to the realities of said suffering and horror. The ability to be shocked and horrified is privilege. It's why the massacre in Paris sparked national outrage and memorials were lit up at monuments around the world, but hardly anyone batted an eye at terrorist attacks in Kenya and Beirut the same day. Americans/Europeans expect these events in the Third World; we only care when it happens to us.

    But for a lot of folks who read Baeble and find their lives enmeshed daily in the music and performers that they love, it was the hostage situation at Le Bataclan during the Eagles of Death Metal concert that made the Paris terrorist attacks ring home in the most unsettling language. By the end of Friday evening, over 100 people had been killed inside the concert hall alone -- including a journalist, a label representative, and a member of Eagles of Death Metal's merch crew. I would never discount the horror of the restaurant shooting or the bombing outside the soccer pitch, and I'll never know what it was like to be inside that concert hall -- a hall which folks have consistently been comparing to NYC's Webster Hall -- but fear of what's happening in the world is always at its most "real" in a personal sense when it seems to infringe on a world you know and recognize, and music is my life. Going to shows is my life. And the events in Paris have changed that part of my life forever.

    Eventually, I had to leave the office Friday, but, already, the fear had seeped in. I walked instead of taking the subway home. In 1995, religious extremists in Japan released sarin gas into the subway line killing 12 people. The attacks that evening were in France but in my mind, I had already entered fight-or-flight mode, and I was decidedly in "flight."

    Our offices are in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and I live in South Park Slope. When I walk home from work, I pass by the Green-Wood Cemetery. 78 of the 2,9777 victims of the September, 11th terrorist attacks are interred behind its gates. The second time that I felt that existential terror that if I left my home I would die, I was 12 years old, and it was September 11th, 2001.

    It was second period in the seventh grade. My class was discussing John Steinbeck's The Pearl. The Pearl isn't as famous as Steinbeck's other works, but it was my introduction to the author, and we were having a class discussion about the book's themes of greed and man's inhumanity to man. We had just reached the death of the protagonist's child when our assistant principal came bounding into the office. He was a large man. Despite the fact that he was my football coach, I'd never seen him run before. But he burst into the classroom, yelled at the teacher to turn on the news, and sprinted away. That was five minutes before the second plane hit the South Tower.

    The TVs were on in class for the rest of the day. Teachers were explaining what the word terrorism meant to terrified pre-teens. Football practice was canceled. Rumors were swirling around that despite the fact that flights had been grounded in the rest of the country, people had seen planes near the local FBI center -- a finger print analysis center which would hold no strategic value to al-Qaeda but when you're 12, you aren't thinking logically -- and kids with parents who worked there were crying. Kids with family members in the military were already worried about their parents being called into active duty. And all I could think was that no matter where I was, I wasn't safe. Somebody with a bomb or a plane or a gun could kill me, and there would be nothing that I could do about it.

    By the time I made it home from work on Friday after the Paris attacks, my hands were shaking so badly that I dropped my keys trying to put them in my lock. I tried again and dropped my keys again. I eventually made it inside my apartment and spent the rest of the evening glued to my phone and Twitter. And each detail that trickled in -- reports that the hostages at the show were being executed one by one, conflicting reports on death tolls and new incidences of violence, graphic photos strewed across my Facebook and Twitter feeds -- was a stab in the heart. I was paralyzed in fear and couldn't move.

    I did not make it to the Lone Bellow concert at Webster Hall that night. Fear was a driving factor. The rational part of my brain knew that I would be fine at an alt country show in New York City while the attacks were taking place in Paris but rationality doesn't always win out during traumatic events. I also couldn't imagine enjoying myself at the show. The Lone Bellow are one of the best live bands working today, and the thought of having their music forever associated with such brutality felt wrong. It also felt wrong even attempting to enjoy myself at a concert when hundreds of folks just like myself in Paris had their evening and lives scarred forever.

    I'm not disparaging the folks who went. I know a journalist at another publication who attended the show and called it a profoundly powerful evening. After major public terrorist attacks/mass shootings, two schools of rhetoric form, and they should both kindly f*** off. On the one hand, you have the fear mongers...the people that exploit the natural response folks have to horrendous events like Columbine and 9/11 and the attacks in Paris. And that's already happening. Folks on the far right of American political discourse are blaming the European refugee crisis for Saturday's events and calling for the deportation of Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees from the United States. They're making this call despite the fact that those same refugees are fleeing ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, the group claiming responsibility for Friday's atrocities and countless others since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

    The other form of rhetoric says that it's not alright to be afraid. That you can beat the terrorists by not showing fear. Congrats to anyone with the superhuman fortitude and psychology to live unafraid in our current world. I'm not that strong. Last week, I had three concerts on the books to attend. That's 43% of my evenings in a week spent at shows. I average about two concerts a week. Concerts are a place where I go to hear music I love, to discover bands I might love, to spend time with people that care as much about music and art as I do, and to decompress from the weariness of the work week. And every time I step into a concert hall for the rest of my life, the nagging thought in the back of my mind will be, "Is this the place where I'll die?"

    I don't know if that fear is entirely rational but it's going to be there. It's something I'll have to learn to live with and deal with in the same way that I had to learn to be alright entering a plane in the post-9/11 world and to keep going back to school in a post-Columbine world. We now live in a post-Bataclan world. And the key to living in the world we occupy isn't to deny your fear. That denies that there are solutions to the problems we face in today's world. And the key isn't to give into that fear. That leads to anger and hate and the endless wars that have consumed America since 9/11.

    We have to recognize our fears. We have to contextualize them. We have to find ways to deal with them. But we can not give into our worst impulses. We can not ostracize. We can not scapegoat. We can not sacrifice liberty and peace in the name of safety and the war drums that many will pound in the weeks to come. I couldn't go to the show that night because I'd spent the hour and a half preceding when I needed to leave nearly catatonic with shock. But I have shows this week that I'll be at. I'll have that lingering fear, but I'll find a way to overcome.

    And in the weeks ahead, when you find yourself wanting to rage against a world that let something like this happen, remember who's responsible. Remember that ISIS does not equate to Islam. Remember that fleeing refugees from the Middle East just want what Americans have had for two hundred years now: freedom from religious persecution and a chance to build a better life for themselves and their family. And remember that despite the horrors of Bataclan, music can and must still be a source of pleasure, escape, and power in our lives.

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