Parisians Defy Fear After the Attacks

Across Paris, people with nothing in common ignored prudent advice and did what they knew to be right. That’s what leaders do.

Patrick Pelloux is an emergency room doctor who for years has written articles for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. He was near its office in January when terrorists attacked it. He rushed to the building, where he found many friends dead and began treating the rest. On Friday night, as he heard about the massacre at the Bataclan concert hall and in nearby streets, he went immediately to a hospital and for the second time this year began treating terrorists’ victims. Like all Parisians that night, he had been told to lock himself in his home. But like a great many of them, he disregarded his own safety and went out anyway.

Everywhere during and after the attacks the world saw the spirit of leadership—a determination to decide for oneself what was the right thing to do and then to march out and do it, regardless of the risks. In the emergency room, Pelloux was surrounded by doctors who only a week earlier had been on strike to protest funding cuts; now they filled the hospitals. The taxi drivers whom visitors chronically complain about shut off their meters and gave free rides to the many people trying desperately to get home. Parisians quickly began using a new Twitter hashtag, #Portesouvertes—open doors—to offer their homes to people who needed a place to stay. Inviting strangers into your home? On that night? Crazy. But the right thing to do.

Thousands of people lined up on sidewalks Saturday to donate blood, defying orders to stay inside. There are reports of injured victims leaving the hospital earlier than recommended because they believed others needed the beds more. On Saturday night, many people made a point of dining out at restaurants on the very streets where diners had been killed the night before. Public rallies were forbidden for obvious security reasons, yet on Sunday thousands turned out in the Place de la Republique under a huge banner saying “Not Afraid.”

An accountant named Bertrand Bourgeois was fishing in the Seine under a bridge in central Paris on the morning after the attacks. He explained to a New York Times reporter that he normally does his fishing outside the city, where he lives, and of course the public authorities (and his wife) had told him to stay home. But, he said, “something in me felt like it was important to be here, to say ‘still alive.’”

Across Paris, people with nothing in common ignored prudent advice or direct orders and did what they knew to be right. That’s what leaders do. You could say that these people weren’t really leaders because they had no one to lead. Or you could say that they were leaders to Paris and the world.

Most of the time as we look around us we feel despondently that the spirit of leadership is a rare thing. But sometimes it isn’t.

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