Sun 22 September 2019

Otto English describes how the tragedy of Notre Dame and the sense of solidarity and reflection that followed was quickly over-run by conspiracy theories and hate.

Late on Monday afternoon I switched on the TV and began to flick idly through the news channels. ITV was running a story about the ‘ISIS bride’ Shamima Begum, the BBC was talking to an economics correspondent about employment figures and Sky – well Sky was broadcasting live footage – through a mobile phone stream of Notre Dame – burning furiously.

At first my brain struggled to register what was going on. After a decade on twitter I am so inherently suspicious of hoaxes that I even began to wonder if this was some stunt – or fake or disaster movie footage. Perhaps it was a documentary about an event which I had missed years ago. But – no – social media confirmed that what I was witnessing was very real and very current. The 800 year old cathedral was combusting like a pile of dry tinder.

When London was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 there were those who sought to blame it on immigrants and a Papist plot.

As the fire ravaged the ancient building, as the plume of black-brown smoke was swallowed up into the heavens, as the mighty spire tumbled, as the Parisian crowd gathered and as the world’s media descended I watched on like millions of others with a lump in my throat.

Proudly secular France seemed to be losing their grand Gothic dame – but events like this resonate far beyond the confines of cities or borders.

The Most Iconic Church in the World

Notre Dame belongs to a million postcards and poorly lit tourist snapshots. It exists in our global literature, our popular culture, in our cartoons and in our heads. It is possibly the most iconic church in the world.

Such places transcend the bounds of normal life. They are like a portal back through time – spaces we share with the dead and those who have yet to be. We are simply passing through; buildings like this root us to past, present and future. Watching something seemingly perpetual burn up in less than an hour is to reflect upon our own mortality.

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The reaction to this disaster was right and proportionate – and oddly perhaps even in tragedy there was a brief moment of camaraderie. It was as if all of those who cared and who understood were standing there on the streets of Paris in solidarity watching the catastrophe unfold.

It didn’t last long.

Even as the precious building blackened, the usual suspects were gathering like flies to turn the tragedy to their advantage.

Fake image spread by ex BNP leader Nick Griffin and Sputnik

Despite Paris prosecutor Rémy Heitz saying that the fire was almost certainly accidental, the net immediately began buzzing with baseless bullshit. Infowars – home of tinfoil consumer Alex Jones quickly pumped out a story suggesting that the fire had been ‘deliberately caused’.

Next up was Glenn Beck, former Fox News host, US conspiracy theorist and owner of ‘Blaze TV’ who described it as France’s “9/11” – hinting that it may have been caused by terrorists. Soon everyone in that malign part of the internet was at it. From Piers Corbyn, brother of Jeremy to Russia Today – the conspiracy theorists and propagandists seized on the tragedy – seeing it as an occasion to sow discord and dread.

Proudly secular France seemed to be losing their grand Gothic dame

In Britain the usual twitter accounts, some with big follow counts, sought to blame the fire on ‘mass immigration’. There were even fake stories about Muslims celebrating the church’s demise.

There’s nothing new about that of course. When London was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 there were those who sought to blame it on immigrants and a Papist plot. But you would hope that after 350 years our Western societies would have moved on from that level of basic stupidity and bigotry.  

French- Luxembourgish journalist and writer Stéphane Bern summed it up best. The collapsing spire was “symptomatic of what we are living through” he said yesterday “a society in which everything goes up in flames.”

In these increasingly febrile times – it seems that everything now is a metaphor and even the greatest tragedy an opportunity to spew unsubstantiated hate. What a pity we can’t have more of the solidarity bit.

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