Women comfort each other as they stand in front of the Carillon cafe, in Paris, Saturday, Nov.14, 2015. French President Francois Hollande vowed to attack Islamic State without mercy as the jihadist group admitted responsibility Saturday for orchestrating the deadliest attacks inflicted on France since World War II. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Women comfort each other as they stand in front of the Carillon cafe, in Paris, Saturday, Nov.14, 2015. French President Francois Hollande vowed to attack Islamic State without mercy as the jihadist group admitted responsibility Saturday for orchestrating the deadliest attacks inflicted on France since World War II. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

In a somber, off-kilter Paris, mass murder leaves emptiness

  • By JOHN LEICESTER
  • Saturday, November 14, 2015 9:34pm
  • News

PARIS — The indiscriminate taking of so many lives squeezed life out of Paris itself. Not all life but enough to create a sense of emptiness. Although far from extinguished, the City of Light is now unmistakably dimmed.

On somber streets, scattered with the dead leaves of autumn, Parisians went through the motions of trying to pick up where they left off before suicide attackers slaughtered 129 people, the latest official count. So much felt wrong and out of kilter.

The Eiffel Tower closed and, in doing so, became a 324-meter (1,063-foot) tall symbol of how much is changed. Its glittering lights, so powerful they usually radiate beams far and wide across the city, were also switched off Saturday night in mourning.

Disneyland Paris shut its doors. Instead of an Andy Warhol exhibition, the only thing out-of-town visitors Yvette and Guilhem Nougaret saw at the Museum of Modern Art was a sign announcing its closure “because of the circumstances.”

Shoppers expecting to fill their carts with groceries for the week trundled Saturday to outdoor markets only to find them shuttered and empty, on government orders. Bags of ice that fishmongers would have used to keep wares fresh on their stalls lay unused, melting tears.

As they always do, people still sat and smoked at the sidewalk tables of cafes, but did so knowing that dozens were gunned down and killed doing exactly that just hours before.

“I wouldn’t sit outside,” waitress Flora Jobert said as she served a thick espresso, advising her customer to shelter inside. “I mean, you never know.”

Sirens wailing, blue lights flashing, a police car sped past.

“It’s been like that all morning,” Jobert said.

Along with fear, there also was deep and roiling anger. A retired lawyer, a fashion designer, a musician — people interviewed at random — all insisted: Life must go on, no surrender to terror. They clung to those thoughts like lifebuoys.

“I’m scared,” said Patricia Martinot, a cleaner, who still mustered the courage to take her dog, Dream, out for his morning walk and reported to work at dawn, traveling through unusually empty streets.

She looked battered, but not bowed.

“The TV has been on all night,” Martinot said. “I haven’t slept.”

On subdued Metro and suburban trains, passengers stared into the distance, lost in thought. Cesar Combelle, a bass guitarist, was awakened Saturday morning by his sister, who called him panicked, thinking he might have been among at least 89 concert-goers killed at the Bataclan hall, where witnesses described floors running with blood and bodies piled on top of each other.

“I feel like we’re descending back into the Middle Ages, that we’re slipping back into religious war,” said Combelle as he headed into the city center for band practice. “What really worries me are the political consequences and the military response that’s going to lead us to war.”

But in the face of such blind hate proudly claimed and celebrated by the Islamic State group, Parisians also were defiant.

Outside the Bataclan, a man on a bike towing a piano emblazoned with a peace sign stopped and played John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Then, after a smattering of applause, he rode off again. Video of the poignant moment made the rounds on social media, shared like a beacon of hope and resilience against darkness.

A graphic image of the Eiffel Tower as a peace symbol went viral. At an impromptu shrine of flowers at the Bataclan, a hand-written message declared: “Know this, terrorists: The French fight those who steal away life.”

For many, this spree of six attacks by three apparently coordinated attack teams felt different, more visceral, than the massacres at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in January that killed 20, including three shooters.

Not just because the death toll was so much higher, but because these killings were viciously indiscriminate, turning life and death into a lottery, with victims simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, gunned down and blown up seemingly at random as they unwound from the week on a Friday night — sipping beers on sidewalks, sitting in cafes and watching American rock band Eagles of Death Metal perform. Three suicide bombers also detonated their explosive vests outside the national Stade de France stadium, where France’s soccer team was playing an exhibition match against Germany.

By shooting journalists who ran cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, the Charlie Hebdo gunmen targeted France’s mind, assaulting values of free expression that the French cherish. Friday’s suicide attackers — a new strain of terrorist for France — landed more of a blow to the heart by massacring people who were simply out having fun.

“It is unbridled barbarity,” said Michel Touffait, a retired lawyer who looked visibly shell-shocked. Finding his local market and bank closed in the state of emergency and its ATM machine empty unsettled him even more.

“The president says we’re at war,” he whispered. “It’s terrifying.”

Choosing a rock concert at the Bataclan and the hipster 10th and 11th districts of the city — places for in-the-know Parisians, instead of more obvious tourist spots — as their killing zones suggested that at least some of the seven attackers, now all dead, must have known the French capital or scoped it out intimately.

That insider knowledge made the attacks more personal, suggesting to Parisians that enemies are in their midst, not thousands of miles (kilometers) away in the Middle East and Africa where France’s military is actively involved in fighting extremism. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said one of the Bataclan hostage-takers was born in France. The rampages also injured 352 people, 99 of them in critical condition.

“What’s very scary is that this time it was against public areas, anonymous people. It wasn’t at all directed. It was just against ‘the French.’ We all could have been on the sidewalk of a cafe or at a concert,” said Etienne Jeanson, a fashion designer who purposely didn’t cancel an outdoor photo shoot on a swanky boulevard Saturday because “we’re not going to stop our way of life just because of some big bastards.”

Eyes burning with anger, he said President Francois Hollande must redouble the fight against the Islamic State.

“Just blow it all up,” he said. “When there’s gangrene, you have to treat it. Cut the leg off.”

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