Burning churches. Their images so often raise the specter of the worst of human impulse and behavior. Fueled less by accelerants than by fear, hatred, race and terror. Three in central Louisiana over the past three weeks reminded us of this in a most personal way.
So what to make of the images that lit up our TV, iPhone and laptop screens Monday afternoon, smoke pouring out of two massive towers in an iconic international city so often beset by random attacks?
The Cathedral of Notre Dame was burning.
The mind reels immediately with notions of revulsion, horror, anger and revenge. And then we find out what likely happened. Human error, not terror. And then it’s just sadness. Everything else stripped away, it’s just really, really sad.
You don’t have to be Catholic to feel it. You don’t even need to be Christian. If you are simply a sentient being with any appreciation of art, architecture, history, music, theology or literature – the highest elements and aspirations of the human condition – then this one hurts.
Or even if you just like classic Disney films.
And I don’t know, maybe this is a stretch, but it seems like this event – so far away and dispossessed of Trump and Mueller and the NBA playoffs and NFL draft and other American obsessions – hits New Orleans particularly hard.
We are the American Paris. What with our own obsessions with food, romance, architecture, royalty, scandal, cafe society, saints, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, absinthe, exhibitionism, pageantry, statuary, accordions and even begniets.
They’re called doughnuts everywhere else.
Our city, too, is anchored by a magnificent Cathedral, a grand holy basilica whose mere silhouette is familiar to all countrymen. Or, well, many.
And resiliency. More than anything else. Although, admittedly, we come up short on revolutions, Inquisitions, blitzkriegs, occupations, plagues, famine and terror attacks. But then again, we’re only 300 years old. Give us time. Construction of Notre Dame began in the middle of the 12th century.
And you thought Preservation Hall was old.
I remember back when the Cabildo caught fire, on May 11, 1988, sending plumes of smoke across the city skyline, broadcasts interrupted, sorrow struck into our citys’ heart. That fire was started by welder’s equipment during an extensive renovation of the historic building.
The building that housed Napoleon’s death masque and where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803, making all New Orleanians American citizens, was eventually saved. But much was lost. Documents, maps, artworks, furniture, antiquities — the stuff of history and memory.
(For the record: Flush with the financial windfall from his sell-off of New World colonial holdings, Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor of France in 1804 at – of all places — Notre Dame.)
Buildings like these have stories to tell. Lives to account. Histories to reckon with.
I was working at the Times-Picayune the morning the Cabildo caught fire. We were in the preparation stages of transforming from an all black-and-white broadsheet into a full color publication, as many newspapers were doing at the time.
But because our photos of the Cabildo’s famed cupola exploding in a burst of flames and the torrent of fire shooting from its roof were so profound and moving – and disturbing – orders came down from the publisher, and the press room, that we were rolling color overnight.
It was a transformational moment for the newspaper, to be sure, but for the city as well. Watching the grand spire of Notre Dame toppling into the Cathedral nave Monday, it’s hard to forget what happened here.
We’ve rebuilt the Cabildo. And if you didn’t know what happened there, you’d never suspect it if you walked in the doors today. Unfortunately, there’s no way in hell – or even heaven – that visitors to Notre Dame in the future will be unaware of what happened there, on a sad April day in 2019.
They just don’t make stone masons like they used to.
But it will rise from the ashes, in one glorious form or another. So it goes. Cities burn, cities flood, cities rise, cities fall. It’s all written in the books of history. The books that survive, that is.
The day after 9/11, when the images of two burning towers in New York City were broadcast around the world, the headline on Page One of Le Monde, France’s largest, most powerful and influential newspaper, read: Nous Sommes Tous Americans.
We Are All Americans.
Sadly, that sentiment does not hold so strong these days. Maybe it will again some day. That must be our faith.
But this week, on Monday – during Holy Week on the Christian calendar of all times — it was safe to say: We Are All Parisians.
Vive le peuple.