On September 13, 2001, Le Monde, the French international paper, published a huge front page headline:
NOUS SOMMES TOUS AMÉRICAINS
Translated, it meant: We are all Americans, and the meaning was clear: the French people were standing with Americans, sending us support after the worst terrorist attacks ever to occur on US soil.
That day, I was in Ireland on vacation. In shock, my then partner, Nicole, and I cancelled our plans and watched endless news of the attacks on TV in our Irish B&B, Side by Side. The owners were an unusual lesbian couple: one woman came from Northern Ireland and one from the south, the Republic. In the normal course of Irish life, they’d be enemies or at least strangers, but they were in love and living together, happily. They told us that no one else they knew was even FRIENDS with someone from the “opposite” religion: most Protestants, from the North, avoided or just didn’t know any Catholics from the Republic, and vice versa. But they’d met and formed a lasting love — and named their B&B after it, too.
Fascinated by their story, I asked something I’d been wondering about for a long time: how on earth did Irish Catholics or Protestants KNOW who was what religion? How on earth could a Protestant KNOW she was meeting a Catholic person? I compared their difficulties to racism in the US, but of course most racism is based on physical characteristics like skin color or eye shape — it’s obvious, if you want to be prejudiced against people of a certain physical cast.
Bernie thought about my question for a while, and then said, “Well, first there are the names.” A Mary, she said, would be a Catholic, as would an Anne. I was surprised to learn that, and even more suprised by what Sallie added. “And the noses,” she said. “You can tell by the noses.”
Nicole and I exchanged amazed glances. “What do you mean?” we said, in unison.
Sallie laughed at us. “You two! You’ve both got Protestant noses!”
We gazed at each other’s faces, focusing on the middles. Both Nicole and I have rounded, rather small noses, but we’d never attributed religious significance to them.
“Catholics have long, thin noses,” Sally said. “They’re Latin, Italian noses.”
Ever since then I’ve enjoyed testing the theory on my American (or European) friends, and it’s an amusing party trick. But more importantly, it’s significant of the ridiculous ways we find to separate into groups.
The day that I learnt that, a lot of Americans were rushing to blame “Arabs” and “Muslims” for the attacks in New York and Pennsylvania and Washington. And this week, after the Paris attacks, the Twittersphere and the halls of Washington there are new reams of anti-Muslim, anti-Syrian, anti-immigrant speech, which seems designed to bolster xenophobia but not stop any form of violence.
I’ve been crying, praying, and thinking about what I can do. Of course I along with millions of others switched my Facebook portrait to a pro-France image (see above). So what? Of course I sent out messages of support on #parisisburning, #Frenchlivesmatter , #Frenchattacks, #toutsommesnousfrancais and so on — and I even started (?) a new hashtag, #noussommestousfrancais. I wrote my bimonthly CURVE column about what I was feeling:
But none of that helped anyone except me, I think. I was frustrated and sad and felt I could do NOTHING of any import. I can’t invite a Syrian refugee into my home (there isn’t room). I can’t fly to Paris and sit rebelliously in a cafe all night. I can’t start a pen-pal relationship with a survivor of the attacks.
But I realized today, after reading a message from my aunt on Facebook (!), there IS one useful thing I can do: I can petition Rick Scott to change his deplorable resistance to Syrian immigants. Scott has in the past opposed “illegal immigrants” being allowed to get drivers’ licenses, but he has also supported their getting in-state tuition rates at Floridian universities. Of course, until last week Scott had probably never thought about immigrants from anywhere but Mexico and Central America, but now that he knows the word “Syria” he’s opposed to all things Syrian.
So, enough with the hashtags and photos of peace signs. I’m off to write to my governor — and I hope you will, too. Nous sommes tous Francais.