What the two catastrophes have in common, and don’t.
On television Monday, Jean-François Colosimo, a French historian of religion, described the burning of Notre Dame as “images of the end of the world.” New Yorkers, too, know that feeling, at least those of us who watched the Twin Towers burn almost 18 years ago.
Of course the national calamities differ. The Notre Dame fire was an accident, not arson, not terrorism. In both Paris and New York, firefighters fought heroically. But in Paris, nobody died. Only one of the 400 who battled the massive blaze was seriously injured.
In New York, the twin towers collapsed in a few hours. In Paris, Notre Dame’s twin towers, the cathedral’s iconic rectangular towers, survived. So, too, did its magnificent stained-glass Rose Window, which I once viewed daily from my apartment on the Left Bank, just across the Seine. Also unharmed were many of its treasures — the huge, historic organ, its gargoyles and flying buttresses, the holy Crown of Thorns which many Christians believe Jesus wore, the linen fabric associated with Saint Louis. The 16 copper statues representing the 12 Apostles and four evangelists had been removed days earlier to permit Notre Dame’s doomed spire to be renovated.
A mass terror attack leaves a deeper scar that even a massive natural disaster. But in many ways, France, and the world, have had a similar reaction to what French call their own “catastrophe” — the monstrous blaze at the 850-year-old Gothic cathedral that for French citizens and foreign visitors alike is the heart and soul of their country, among its most beloved national symbols.
Both disasters united people, at least temporarily, if only through their heartbreaking sense of loss. In both tragedies, expressions of sympathy and solidarity poured in from ordinarily people, celebrities, and religious and political leaders throughout the world. Calling the cathedral “one of the world’s great treasures,” Barack Obama tweeted: “we’re thinking of people of France in your time of grief.”
“So horrible,” tweeted President Trump, who could not resist advising French fire-fighters that “perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly.” Pope Francis, also under fire for his prolonged indifference to the sexual abuse of young boys and nuns by priests, said people everywhere were united “in prayer with the people of France.” Democratic presidential aspirant Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s reaction to the blaze went viral on Twitter as he offered the people of France condolences — in perfect French.
In both New York and Paris, politicians benefited from the tragedies, at least initially. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s courage, strength and compassion made him “America’s Mayor.” President George W. Bush’s popularity soared when he vowed through a bullhorn and with an arm wrapped around an emergency worker that the people who attacked the Twin Towers would soon see America’s response. In Paris, embattled French President Emmanuel Macron, who had been preparing to try again to mollify his country’s “Yellow Vest” protesters, was widely praised for his visit to the still-burning church and his determined vow to rebuild.
In Paris, as in New York, ordinary people and businesses pledged vast sums to help rebuild Notre Dame. The French state, which owns the cathedral and was devoting two million euros a year ($2.4 million) to its maintenance — far too little, given the cathedral’s imperiled state — has made a major commitment to its restoration. Total, the French oil and gas company, has pledged 100 million euros ($113 million). French billionaire François Pinault has pledged the same. The family of Bernard Arnault, the French entrepreneur who owns LVMH, the luxury goods and fashion house, has contributed 200 million euros ($226 million), and Capgemini, the tech company, says it will donate 1 million euros. Though the embers are still burning, over $300 million in donations to rebuild have already been pledged.
Such outpouring of financial support is unusual in France, where the state, rather than businesses and ordinary citizens, is expected to finance major national projects. Many who mourned the terrible fire’s destruction noted with some irony that the Friends of Notre Dame, one of the cathedral’s major private benefactors, is based in the United States.
Restoring Notre Dame will take years. So, too, did rebuilding the World Trade Center site. One can only hope that Paris project will be less politically charged than New York’s was. But perhaps debate over what should be built on such an iconic site and who should build it is inevitable. So, perhaps, is delay. Democracies often take longer than autocracies to resolve profound political and even aesthetic differences. And for that, both France and America should be grateful.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images