The Doric Column
October 22, 2001
Three years after the terrorist attack
of September 17, 1986
If you walk directly across the street from the Hotel Acacias St. Germain on the Rue de Rennes in Paris, you come upon a stone plaque dedicating the spot where a terrorist attack took place on a September day in another year.
I noticed the plaque the night before I returned to the U.S., after two weeks in France in October, mostly in Provence and Paris.
A few days earlier I was having breakfast in the hotel when a young couple came up to me. They had heard me ordering my breakfast in a version of French that had been dusted off and propped up following a long storage, so naturally they concluded I was not native stock.
"Are you an American?" the woman asked. When I said yes, she said "I just want to say how sorry I am about what happened." I hesitated for an instant, being preoccupied with something that must have just happened to me. But I recovered from my self-consciousness and acknowledged her expression of sorrow for September 11th.
Terror. It should not be forgotten that the modern understanding of "terror" derives from "The Reign of Terror," of the French Revolution, the period of 1793-1794 when Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin's famous decapitation machine, designed as a "humane and egalitarian method of execution," was in full throttle. Altogether the guillotine dispatched more than 15,000 heads by 1799. Dr. Guillotin's residence is a stop on a historical walk in the St. Germain district, which I undertook.
The French have been through a lot of terror in recent years, albeit on a much smaller scale than what happened in one day in New York and Washington, DC. In his book Paris To The Moon, long-time New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick describes how "Islamic terrorists" continue to operate in the city, often in or around the Paris Métro, the subway. In 1995, Algerian militants trained in Afghanistan planted bombs in the Métro that killed eight people and injured 200. My companions and I listened anxiously to warnings issued in French and English to Métro passengers, which meant us.
The bomb that exploded in front of the Tati department store in September 1986 killed seven people and injured 54, most of them "mothers and children as they shopped for school clothes" by one account. The bloody attack horrified French public opinion. It was blamed on the "Fractions armées révolutionnaires libanaises" (Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Fractions - FARL), a branch of the French extremist group "Action directe." The attack launched Mary McCarthy, the American woman-of-letters then living across the street from the Tati store, into a protracted period of nightmares.
The attack on the Rue de Rennes turned Paris into an armed camp. Armored vehicles hovered around Notre Dame cathedral. I was reminded of that scene by the heavily armed presence at the Palais de Justice and Conciergerie, near Notre Dame, when my friends and I attended a concert in Sainte Chapelle. Vehicles entering the courtyard were searched and their underbodies were scrutinized with the use of a mirror attached to an angular pole. Then there was the matter of the concrete trash containers on the streets. All had been sealed by metal disks screwed into the openings. Trash containers had been converted to bombs long before jet airliners.
I walked down the Rue de Rennes from the place of the honorary plaque and turned right at the Boulevard Montparnasse. Montparnasse swings northward after a bit and turns into the Boulevard des Invalides, home to the Hôtel National des Invalides, where Napoleon is buried, and its garden, the Jardin de l'Intendant.
In the garden you can find a sculpture-fountain by Nicolas Alquin dedicated to the victims of terrorism. The French association for the victims of terrorism, S.O.S. ATTENTATS, was created in early 1986, before the attack on the Rue de Rennes.
The association "created by victims, for victims" sponsors epidemiological studies of the health risks posed by terrorist attacks. The studies are conducted jointly with INSERM, the French research consortium. Until now, no Western country has had as large an affected population base for such studies as France.
S.O.S. ATTENTATS held a ceremony in the Jardin de l'Intendant a week after the terrorist attacks in the U.S., with many leading French officials and dignitaries on hand.
Speech by Françoise Rudetzki general delegate of S.O.S. ATTENTATS, on the occasion of the ceremony organized the 19th of September 2001, at the Hôtel National des Invalides (Paris) dedicated to the memory of the victims of terrorism
"Dear friends, Dear victims.
It's been three years now, December 3rd, 1998, that we were united for the occasion of the inauguration of the Memorial dedicated to the memory of the victims of terrorism. Surrounding this sculpture-fountain, we evoqued [sic] the victims 'Words Carried' beyond death, words of memory, words of hope and words of justice. At that time the victims, united in the core of S.O.S. ATTENTATS, urged the responsibles to fight against terrorism and against impunity. The appeals were in vain. Since the 11 September 2001, after the attacks committed in the United States, almost everything has been said that can be concerning grief and pain that has hit the international community and that has touched us particularly. Nearly fifty countries are counting their deaths. We are all concerned. Everyone will be able, on the pages of the 'golden-book,' to express their emotions, their solidarity. These messages will be transmitted to the victims of these attacks...."
A couple days after the attacks, the leading French daily Le Monde, in a rare expression of French-American solidarity, editorialized: "Nous sommes tous Américains." "We are all Americans... How can you not feel, in this grave moment of our history, profoundly united with the people and the nation of the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe our liberty, and thus our solidarity."
But the ghost of Charles de Gaulle is still present, and the yin and yang of French politics makes complete solidarity with the U.S. in its response to the attacks problematic. President Jacques Chirac is in favor of such a commitment; Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Chirac's rival in the upcoming election, favors a more cautious, consultative approach.
France's traditional transatlantic coolness is defensible in this instance because of its demographics. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, more than 5 million people, nearly as many as in the entire United States with just 22 percent of the U.S. population. Le Monde reported in its October 5th edition that France's Muslims are "plus pratiquants" and "mieux intégrés," highly practical and well integrated into French society.
My sidewalk observations along the streets of Paris, in its shops, hotels and public buildings, and earlier along the Côte d'Azur, tell me that is true.
In a survey by Le Monde, Le Point and Europe 1, 90 percent of French Muslim respondents believe that the September attacks are contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an and 70 percent favored French assistance to the U.S. in tracking down and punishing the perpetrators. Yet nearly as many (68 percent) believe U.S. policy in the Middle East is fueling the growth of Islamic extremist organizations. Chirac and Jospin are very popular among French Muslims (68 percent favorable rating); George W. Bush is not (21 percent).
So France will do its dance of backing the U.S. in spirit but making policy moves with extreme caution.
In an interview in Le Monde, Islamic scholar Franck Frégosi of the Robert-Schuman University of Strasbourg observed that France is a testing ground for a dynamic and progressive integration of Muslims into a modern democratic state. The challenge for French Muslims is to congregate their many manifestations of faith and express themselves and their religion in a "manière collective" in civil society.
The Pasteur Institute is about a 10 minute walk from the Hôtel National des Invalides. You proceed southward along the Avenue de Breteuil and the Boulevard Pasteur and turn right at the Rue du Dr. Roix, named after an early Institute director. The Institute is located on the left in the first block.
I wanted to visit the Institute because of what I was seeing in the kiosks along the Boulevard Montparnasse. All the newspapers, in French, English, German, and Spanish, carried screaming headlines about the anthrax attack in the U.S.
Pancho, Le Monde's leading editorial cartoonist, captured the mood with his front-page illustration in his paper's October 14-15 edition: A note is being drawn from an envelop, releasing particles in its path, with the message "les civils d'abord" ("civilians first") written beneath a skull.
It occurred to me as I walked to the Institute that, back in Minnesota, Michael Osterholm, was a busy man, busier than usual. A University of Minnesota professor of public health and former state epidemiologist, Osterholm has been one of the nation's leading bioterrorism preparedness advocates for years. In September he launched the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy, which lists "bioterrorism preparedness" among its research activities. What I didn't know until I returned to Minnesota is that France had already come calling.
"He's the hottest name in the hot zone," wrote St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Nick Coleman in the paper's October 21st Sunday edition. "Sam Donaldson wants to talk. FOX News is calling. So are a magazine in France and a radio station in Fargo. Since deadly bacteria started coming through America's mail slots, everyone wants a piece of Michael Osterholm, Minnesota's most-quoted germ warrior."
Osterholm has described the anthrax scare as a "dry run" to a potentially much more serious bioweapon. Smallpox.
The Pasteur Institute itself has been the subject of public inquiry as a bioterror target. "Si un avion tombait sur l'Institut Pasteur, accidentellement ou suite a un attentat, les virus ou les bacteries pourraient-ils se disseminer?" ("If a plane crashed into the Pasteur Institute, either by accident or by an attack, would viruses or bacteria be released?"). The question was posed on the front page of the Institute's web site under the link "BIOTERRORISME: Réponses aux questions." In response, the Institute stated that it has few pathogenic agents and that they would be destroyed by an explosion or fire.
In its "Sciences et Médecine" section for October 12th, Le Figaro featured six stories under the headline "L'anthrax, maladie oubliée devenue arme" ("Anthrax, forgotten disease turned into a weapon"). It also carried a brief history of the "feu des ardents" ("the burning ones").
In brief, anthrax has been known since ancient times. Virgil described the disease in the third book of his Georgics (39-29 AD.) and cautioned against using the skin of infected animals to avoid "le feu des ardents." He advised how to protect against the disease without knowing what caused it. Over the centuries livestock herds were affected, but not until the 19th century did anthrax became a plague.
Casimir-Joseph Davaine, a French parasitologist, discovered the germ responsible for the disease (bactéridie charbonneuse ou bacille de Davaine) in 1863; Robert Koch in Berlin described the life cycle of the disease in 1876; and Louis Pasteur and his collaborators studied the epidemiology of anthrax between 1877 and 1881.
The rise of anthrax infection and its devastating consequences to livestock was due to the pervasiveness and durability of its dormant spores. Spores from laboratory supplies Pasteur used, now well over 100 years old, can easily be activated.
Pasteur developed his vaccine using an attenuated microbe, one in which the biological apparatus that produces the toxin had been removed in the laboratory. By heating a stock of the anthrax bacillus at 42 degrees centigrade, the anthrax bacterial plasmid pXO1 tosses off its toxic element, leaving behind the basis for a vaccine that stimulates antibody production against anthrax but does not harm the host.
On June 2, 1881, a large crowd of physicians, government inspectors, veterinarians, farmers, and reporters gathered in a field near the village of Pouily le Fort, a few miles south of Paris. There they witnessed the results of one of the greatest experiments in history: 24 animals (mostly sheep) vaccinated with the attenuated anthrax bacteria a month earlier, and 24 unvaccinated control animals. Both groups had been infected with anthrax the previous week.
Pasteur himself released the vaccinated animals into the field. All gamboled about in good health. Then he led the crowd to another part of the field. There it witnessed the carnage of the control group: 21 animals already dead and two dying in front of them. The sole survivor died before the end of the day.
Pasteur's original anthrax vaccine was superseded by a less virulent agent developed by South African scientist Max Sterne in 1937, which is still in use today.
According to the report in Le Figaro, human infection by anthrax occurs sporadically in France, mainly in regions where people are more likely to come into contact with animal cadavers. The last reported case of human infection in Minnesota was in 1953.
France is not currently producing an anti-anthrax vaccine for humans. It is made only by the Michigan firm BioPort Corporation, according to Le Figaro, and only since 1998 when it was approved for human use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Michèle Mock, a director of research on toxins and pathogenetic bacteria at the Pasteur Institute, observed that older formulations of anthrax vaccine, developed 30 years ago in the U.S. and Britain for military use, are not suitable for civilians. Work is underway at the Institute and at other laboratories to improve vaccines for use in people, Mock said.
In an editorial "Bioterrorism Vaccines" October 21st, the New York Times observed that "there is no vaccine available to the public to protect against a very real threat that is already here, namely anthrax."
The Times stressed the urgency of the moment: "Most experts consider the current vaccine unsuitable for wide-scale use. It is administered in six shots over 18 months, followed by annual booster shots thereafter, a costly and cumbersome procedure that would discourage all but the most panicky. Government and private researchers are working on new anthrax vaccines that they hope will be more potent, safer and require only one or two shots. But those vaccines may not be ready for years. This is an effort that clearly needs to be accelerated with all the force the federal government can bring to bear."
University of Minnesota microbiologist Patrick Schlievert said that since the mechanisms of action of the anthrax bacterium's toxin are known, "it should be relatively easy by site specific mutagenesis to make toxoids [vaccines prepared from inactivated bacterial toxins]." To make such vaccines, he said, scientists will use the bacterium's protective antigen plus a biologically inactive form of "lethal factor" and possibly "edema factor." These proteins mediate the movement of the anthrax toxin through the cell membrane and into the cell body (protective antigen) and its toxicity (lethal and edema factors).
In an opinion on the same Times Op-Ed page, UCLA Medical School professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond called for "Keeping Panic at Bay." We may feel vulnerable, he wrote, but the U.S. "is better able to devise and deploy countermeasures, whether against skyjacking or anthrax or any still-to-be-deployed threat, than any other nation in history."
That is part of the legacy of the father of the germ theory of disease, Louis Pasteur. He believed that the "freedom of the creative imagination" and experimentation were the essential ingredients to modern scientific research, and that scientific research is essential for peace and prosperity in the modern world. And to allay fear.
"I am utterly convinced that Science and Peace will triumph against Ignorance and War," he wrote, "that nations will eventually unite not to destroy but to edify, and that the future will belong to those who have done the most for the sake of suffering humanity."
[Statement by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on Bioterrorism, October 29, 2001]
The "Gloire de France" that Louis Pasteur embodied in the scientific sphere has had some rough going in the Nobel Prize competition for the past half century.
Just before the announcement of the 2001 awards, Le Monde ran a two-page spread of articles about the prizes, their history, and how France has stacked up.
To be sure, France has had its luminaries among the Nobel elite, and the awarding of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize to Médecins Sans Frontiers, Doctors Without Borders, was a national as well as international honor. But the trends described by Le Monde show that the United States and Britain have surged ahead in science awards since World War II.
Le Monde, October 5, 2001, www.lemonde.fr
Nor was France listed among the Nobel laureates for 2001. The U.S. won two in physics, two in chemistry, and one in physiology or medicine. Great Britain won two in physiology or medicine. Japan won one in chemistry, and Germany one in physics.
"Everything seems to show that French science began its decline after 1943, whereas the United States has realized a dramatic climb, helped along by a wave of researcher immigrants, seldom French, who have then provided brainpower to their country of origin," Le Monde concluded in an article "L'exception française."
In physics, seven institutions have been particularly adept at growing future Nobel laureates since 1980: Bell Laboratories; IBM Research Laboratories; Stanford, Cornell, Princeton and Harvard universities; and the École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles in Paris (ESPCI). Cambridge University in England and the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich stand out historically as crucibles for producing Nobel Prize winners in science and medicine.
What explains the concentration of Nobel Prizes at these centers? According to Le Monde, research in physics, chemistry and medicine requires a vast support structure to be successful. In addition, the reputation of these institutions for scientific distinction serves as a magnet for young talent from all over the world.
France is not likely to reverse its position in Nobel Prize awards anytime soon, but it is trying to introduce innovation into its tightly wound higher education system, innovation that would encourage creativity.
Federal education minister Jack Lang is determined to make "fossilized" French universities more flexible and multidisciplinary. He wants to see progress in smaller class sizes, a willingness to experiment with new ideas, and more imaginative use of information technology. And he seeks to promote student mobility within Europe through improved credit transfer, "a euro for the universities."
Le Monde reported that "Une première année de médecine rénovée," the first year of medical school is being revised. Advances in medicine and allied health sciences, pharmacy, midwifery, social science and information technology will be integrated into the curriculum beginning next year.
In matters of higher learning that address the palate, however, France is, of course, still a global leader.
My friends and I visited the Université du Vin, the University of Wine in Suze la Rousse, a charming medieval town in the Rhône River Valley. The university is an international center for research and education in the fields of viticulture and oenology. It is one of France's finest professional wine schools.
We showed up over the noon hour when all of France is absent from public places. But we poked around and got a glimpse of the goings-on. Wine goblets on the tables of a seminar amphitheater awaited their work in the hands of students thirsty for knowledge about dégustation, tasting. The comparative cost of vines per hectare in different wine regions could be discerned from maps displayed in the reception room.
The library houses more than 6,000 volumes, including rare works, doctoral theses, and periodicals. Social events and wine tasting can be arranged in the restored 13th century château just above the university's research laboratories.
After our visit we learned that our French host in Cairanne, just 10 miles away, in fact worked at the university. He told us that 70 percent of the economy in the Suze la Rousse - Cairanne - Gigondas - Châteauneuf-du-Pape area is tied to wine. Winemaking is the life-blood of the entire region. The Côte du Rhône appellation is second only to that of Bordeaux.
He was preaching to the converted. All we needed to do was to swing open the windows of our flat in the walls of Cairanne's original fortress, stick out our heads and review the panorama. All we had to do was to look out upon the undulating vineyards reaching to the "Dentelles de Montmirail," the "lace mountains" forming the opening act for Provence's great Mount Ventoux on the horizon. Mount Ventoux, which the Renaissance poet Petrarch climbed to admire the view:
Nature's hid causes, who beneath his feet
All terrors casts, and death's relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron [river of woe].
The view from the window was a picture of bucolic splendor that France has in abundance. And at a generous distance from sidewalks of Paris.
--William Hoffman email@example.com