The importance of being militantly normal…

WHEN my brother owned a small flat in Paris, he was very proud of his ‘terrasse’. To reach this small outside area you had to climb through the window. If two of you were out there at the same time, it was an advantage to be on intimate terms. If you weren’t before, you certainly were afterwards.

This small family story came back to me when reading about a slogan gaining online popularity following the atrocity in Paris. After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, ‘Je suis Charlie’ gained international currency as people expressed their anger and their solidarity at the killings.

The new slogan is less dramatic, less neat – but powerful in its own way, too. It is this: ‘Je suis en terrasse.’ This translates as ‘I am sitting at a terrace’ and the English equivalent might be ‘I am down the pub.’

Restaurants and bars in Paris are said to be reporting fewer customers than usual, although people are still going out. Amid the sorrow, anger and uncertainty – amid, too, the recriminations, the fear and the racial tensions – doing something as normal as going out for a café au lait, a verre de biere or a verre de vin becomes an act of militant togetherness.

I like this notion of the ordinary elevated into defiance. While going out for a drink or a meal won’t change anything directly, it does help to suggest that the people of Paris won’t be cowed into hiding indoors.

Of course you can’t escape the sad truth that there will be repercussions for years – personal, political and societal. Yet showing that life can be normal again, even if it is a new post-traumatic normal, is an important step.

France is a troubled country at present, a frail and divided country even before the attacks. President Hollande may have acted with dignity and offered the solidity and strength his countrymen needed to see, but he was a weak leader before the attacks, and probably remains so still.

Another normality is the use of social media at times of tragedy and tension. Conflicting theories suggest that social media can help or that it pollutes what has happened by sending out waves of anonymous sympathy to strangers half a world away. Does this vomiting up of emotion make us more or less human – more or less connected?

Hard to say and I guess it depends on taste. Personally I’d rather not emote on Facebook and Twitter, but perhaps others gain something from this.

What can’t be denied is that sometimes a bit of Twitter nonsense can raise the spirits. So it was in Belgium when the police asked citizens not to tweet about armed operations being carried on around the country on Sunday night. The authorities feared, and still fear, a Paris-style attack in Brussels. So this was serious stuff.

Yet according to reports this morning, people responded by putting amusing pictures of their cats on Twitter, using the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown. Many of the pets are in costumes. Assuming the pictures are genuine, that must be quite an effort. Never mind putting your cat in a Superman outfit, you’d have to be Superman to pull off that feat with our cat. Perhaps Belgian cats are unusually cooperative.

Anyway at the top of today’s Man On Ledge you can see one of those pictures, courtesy of Twitter. It shows Belgian counter-terrorist cats, apparently.

I don’t normally go for this sort of stuff. But if internet silliness and inanity is another measure of normality, then bring it on.

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