The banality of terror, or how I spent my European vacation

“It’s an abandoned luggage they are going to explode,” a Charles de Gaulle Airport employee nonchalantly tells me as I am ushered away from a wing of Terminal 2.

It has been, perhaps, a half-hour since I landed in Paris. Around me, I notice no stress or anxiety about the experience. Barely two days after 84 people were killed by a truck driver on the Promenade des Anglais1 in Nice, the primary reaction to the news that part of France’s largest international airport is being evacuated appears to be annoyance.

Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle leads to trains connecting the airport to central Paris, and so shutting it down affects not only air travelers, but Parisians trying to get home as well. You can almost read the “not again” looks of exasperation on their faces.

Getting used to security

To me, though, this is a little foreign. Outside of layovers, I haven’t been to Western Europe since a long stay in 2005. Suspicious luggage now, apparently, represents only a minimal risk. The majority of the airport was not evacuated, and only minutes passed before the cordoned-off section was reopened.

But watching groups of both police officers and soldiers patrol the airport so openly was a novelty to a Canadian tourist. I registered a slight frisson as I walked by young men, who don’t look old enough to shave, clutching assault rifles, which you can almost touch when you’re squeezed by large crowds.

The Banality Of Terror, Or How I Spent My European Vacation

Riot police officers secure the Place de la Republique before a protest in May. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

In the streets of Paris and other European cities, it was much the same. Place de la R publique, world-famous backdrop of so many live TV reports following the Bataclan2 attack last November, was patrolled by men in army fatigues.

They’re as much a scar of the wound left by the deaths of the 129 killed as the flowers laying beneath the statue of Marianne, emblem of the republic.

“It’s sad, but we’re used to it now,” one of my Parisian cousins said when I remarked about the military presence. Later my travels took me to Bayreuth, Germany, to visit a friend. While there, a 17-year-old teenager hopped aboard a train and attacked passengers with an axe in nearby Wuerzburg3. ISIS claimed responsibility.

“That’s only two hours south of here,” my friend casually informed me.

A day after I left Germany and returned to France, nine people were killed when a man opened fire at a restaurant and shopping mall in Munich4, where my friend had been just before we met up. Then a man killed a woman with a machete outside a bus station in the city of Reutlingen5. Another incident occurred in Ansbach6, “about 80 kilometres from Bayreuth” my friend informed me over social media.
A Syrian asylum-seeker blew himself up, injuring 15. ISIS claimed responsibility for that too.

The Banality Of Terror, Or How I Spent My European Vacation

Police search bags at Lens railway train station in France ahead of a Euro Cup match. (Mike Egerton/The Associated Press)

Five attacks in two weeks

Include Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray7, near Normandy, where a priest was killed after two men brandishing knives entered a church, and five different terror incidents will unfolded over my two-week stay in Europe. Most of my travels during the last decade were to the developing world. I received all types of advice about staying safe and not getting kidnapped there.

Yet it is the so-called first world that seems the most dangerous.

In another French airport, this time in Biarritz, I spotted a cardboard panel with the same types of stylized illustrations you usually see on airplane safety instructions.

The Banality Of Terror, Or How I Spent My European Vacation

French armed police officer patrols during the Bayonne festival, in Bayonne, southwestern France. (Bob Edme/The Associated Press)

But instead of pulling on oxygen masks or life jackets, the nondescript figures in these drawings are clambering down the sides of buildings or pushing a couch to barricade a door as they hide from a shooter.

“React in case of a terrorist attack,” the panel is titled.

By the time I’m in Basque Country in the south of France, exploring the local F te de Bayonne with a group of friends, the worry is replaced with the mundane for me as well. Looking up from the sea of revellers dressed in the traditional white and red colours associated with the week-long Basque festival, I see two men in altogether different hues sitting on a rooftop overlooking a plaza. They’re in dark police uniforms.

A rifle with a long-distance scope rests next to one of them.

“Guys, check out the snipers,” I point out to a couple of friends. One responds saying he had spotted them as well, but preferred not to show the entire group. “Don’t want to scare people,” he said. Canadians, perhaps, are not used to the banality of terror the same way Europeans have become.

The Banality Of Terror, Or How I Spent My European Vacation

A tourist takes photos in Rome’s historical center, as Italian Army soldiers patrol the area. (Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press)


  1. ^ Promenade des Anglais (
  2. ^ Bataclan (
  3. ^ Wuerzburg (
  4. ^ Munich (
  5. ^ Reutlingen (
  6. ^ Ansbach (
  7. ^ Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray (

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