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Terror In Europe Hits Close To Home

I know what it's like.

I know what it's like to be living in a city where terror lives and breathes, a place where terrorists do plenty to put civilians in harm's way.

More than ever this is the scene playing out in Paris, London, Brussels and other places in Europe following the Charlie Hebdo murders these last couple of weeks, with word of hacked websites, copycat crimes, police crackdowns and foiled terrorist plots.

But these are not unique times.

As an American who lived abroad in the late 1970s and 1980s, I was there, too.  I know what it's like.
My first encounter with an act of terror came when I was about 11 or 12.

Sure, some of you might think it was a prank.  But I sure don't.

The year was 1980 or 1981.  I was in a play, I think, or maybe it was simply a fourth or fifth-grade night assembly, or concert.

Our performances were in a converted World War II assembly room, all above ground - not exactly a venue conducive to the thespian arts.  Our stage directions frequently involved physically jumping off the stage, fanning into the crowd, and exiting the venue through one of three different exits.

In any event, my stage directions were to exit the building where our stage was  and enter through the side door of the backstage outside.  It was on the right, a big green door with a lock, up a small flight of concrete stairs.

As I and a handful of students followed whatever instructions we had that evening, I was the last kid to get to the stage door to enter backstage on the right side.  On the ground, I saw what looked like a small stick of dynamite with a lit fuse.

I had no idea what to do, with only seconds to do it.  What my racing brain guided my body to do was to pull the stage door shut.  But the door didn't shut in time, leaving an enormous bang that could be heart throughout the auditorium.

Only a few years later, terrorists would bomb the school I was in, the American School of Paris.

The bomb was placed there by an anarchist group called Direct Action, at a time when the school was thankfully closed to students.  It exploded a few rooms down from where my sister attended classes.

When Paris is like the way it is now, on heightened alert after the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, I think back a lot to those sometime tense times I spent there.

I think back to what if that had been a stick of dynamite?  Would I have been killed?  Crippled?  Did I do the right thing?  Should I have tried to kick it away from the door?  What if it had exploded on my foot?

You also cannot convince me that particular incident, as harmless as it would end up being, wasn't an act of terrorism.  The very large firecracker, or whatever it was, was meant to make a huge bang and meant to terrorize either the kids, the parents, or both.  And I know it worked on terrorizing at least one kid.

At that age I always sensed a tension in the air, too, that our island of Americanism wasn't always an island of safety.

After the bombing, ASP put a security fence outside the entire school grounds and hired 24/7 security to protect the premises.  Before, you could walk to the school and enter it through several places - no more.  Those doors were now shut.

And the tension continued well into the 1980s, when the president was Ronald Reagan and protest groups were not beneath placing bombs in public places to try to prove whatever idiotic point they were making.

After Mommadar Quadhafi was nearly killed in a USA-sponsored assassination attempt, I remember our printed ASP Bulletin, which implored students to keep a low profile if they were going to travel to the big city.  Things like not wearing your varsity jacket, or wearing things that make you look especially American.

That didn't keep everyone safe.

I knew several people that were caught close to actual bombings, one of whom permanently lost part of their hearing over it.  One came when a student was shopping for records at a music store.

The names have changed, but the situation remains the same today in Paris, and I think of the current generation of students over there who probably think these are unique times with the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

They are probably, at some level, scared.

They see a world where Americans are targets - where they can't be themselves, a place where, for safety's sake, they need to hide who they are, because they don't know what some nut with a deathwish might think in the street.

It's a situation that I don't think every American really appreciates, to be honest.  If you never set foot outside of America, there are never any ramifications for being American.  You can blast Bruce Springsteen at full volume in your car and never need to worry that a mob is going to look at you and target you for being American.

But to the students at ASP now, I want to say that these bad times won't last.  They will be a part of you, for sure, but they will not be around forever.

I'm not unique as a Paris resident in the 1980s.  The 1990s and 2000s also had their share of scares and scrapes.  Safety has never been a guarantee in a city like Paris with the tensions it has.

And there will be plenty of times in the future when you won't be a target for what you are.  You might come back to America, and these types of threats will be almost zero.  You'll be able to wear what you want, pretty much do what you want (within reason), and you'll have people on your side.

But in these tense times in France, especially in Paris, it's important to stick together and to stay safe.
The terrorist threats will pass; they always will.  Though the Charlie Hebdo attack seems unique, it's not.  Over time, the names of the groups have changed, but the one constant is that they've all burned themselves out, either by electing to kill themselves, shifting political allegiances, or any number of factors.  The ideology of terrorism will not survive, because it never has.

I had to look up who the terrorist group was that bombed ASP in the 1980s - I had completely forgotten their names, and why they even did it.  They followed the ideology of terrorism, and they didn't last.  This will happen with these latest nuts, too.  It will just take time.

So all you have to do is be careful for a few weeks, a month, and things will start to get back to normal.  Pretty soon you'll be able to wear your varsity jackets out into the town without a problem, too, and things will be somewhat back to normal before you know it.

The key is to stick together and lay low together and let the storm pass.  That's what we did.

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