The call came at half past midnight, my mobile buzzing on the floor of my room in my parents’ apartment in the south of France. My younger sister, back home in Scotland.
I panicked, the glare of the screen hurting my eyes as I swiped to answer. Something was wrong. “Are you OK?” my sister’s voice was shrill. Frantic. I automatically looked to my left, to my children sleeping next to me. We were OK. “Are you OK?” I demanded.
“There’s been an attack in Nice,” she said. “It’s all over Facebook. Someone drove a truck into crowds of people. Children and babies are dead.”
And so it happens again. One person — possibly working in collusion with others, possibly alone, we don’t know yet — has murdered dozens of people. At the last count, 84 — at least 10 of whom are children — with many more seriously injured. A senseless crime, a completely random attack whose innocent victims were mainly families returning from an evening watching a Bastille Day fireworks display on Nice seafront. Eyewitnesses spoke of “bodies flying like bowling pins” as the driver, who has now been identified as French-Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, “swerved the truck from side to side for over a mile to try to kill as many people as possible.”
My parents, children and I are not in Nice. We are in a nearby town, 12 miles away from the Promenade des Anglais. It has been described as a tragedy. Another tragedy. Yes, these people’s deaths are tragic. Heartbreaking. This was a crime. Today, the atmosphere — in local shops, on the beach, on the streets — is completely different than it was yesterday. Saddened and subdued are the best words I can use to describe it, but really, there are no words.
What do we do, as parents, in the wake of such an attack? My children heard my parents and me talking this morning and wanted to know what had happened. I told them a man had done a very bad thing and that many good people were hurt. “Did they die, Mama?” asked my 5-year-old daughter, whose Minecraft obsession has led to something of a fascination with things being killed. I don’t lie to my kids. “Yes,” I told her. She looked at me in bewilderment. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. She gazed at me seriously a little longer. I could almost hear her little mind ticking, trying to fathom the unfathomable. I wrapped my arms around her. I couldn’t answer the questions she had, but I could give her comfort as she tried to process what I’d told her.
I believe it is possible to make our kids aware of the horrific stuff going on in the world without making them scared. While still providing the comfort and protection they need to feel safe. Because ultimately they are our only hope. It’s only by raising our children to be good, decent, honest, kind people that things will ever change.
I’ve been inundated with messages of concern and love from friends and family today, wanting to make sure my family wasn’t affected by the atrocity. Thank God for social media and the ease with which we can reach hundreds of people with a single reassuring post. One friend messaged me, “Are you going to come home?” I simply replied, “No.” I didn’t question her question, because I understood her position. It’s one shared by many. The people who have canceled their trip to France. Who are looking at other destinations for their summer trip next year.
But I am not one of those people. I have been coming to France every year for over 10 years. I love this place. I love the weather and the food and the relaxed attitude of the people. I love the smiles on my kids’ faces as the plane swoops down low over the Mediterranean and touches down in Nice, their whoops of glee as they run into the sea for the first time. I won’t stop flying to Nice, just as I won’t avoid Paris or Copenhagen or anywhere else I might conceivably visit that has been hit by a terrorist attack.
We are living in a frightening world, and we need to be aware and do what we can to stay safe. But these attacks are always so random and unexpected that we’d have to lock ourselves in our houses to completely eliminate all risk. We have to fight back by standing strong, showing support for the communities who are torn apart and by teaching our kids to do the same.