Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Fall 2015

Music, Tragedy, and National Identity


By now, all of us have heard about the coordinated attacks through France’s capitol, Paris, that left 129 people dead. Though little is known about the individual motivations of the attackers, information about some of the assailants’ nationalities sparked fear throughout Europe. One attacker is a confirmed French citizen and one is a refugee from Syria.  While home grown terror is concerning, considering refugees as terrorist threats adds a new complexity to the already tense discussion over the European refugee crisis.

Since the attacks, Polish officials have announced that Poland will stop taking in refugees.  Given that 8,000 individuals try to enter the European Union per day, if other nations follow Poland’s lead, it is easy to predict an increase in human rights violations as refugees become more desperate for the services of human traffickers, become increasingly willing to enter EU nations under unsafe conditions, and, once there, feel pressure to stay in Europe under any means necessary.  For refugees, especially Syrian refugees who have been relocated by fighting continuously over the past four years, “going home” is not an option.  So although President Hollande may have closed France’s borders and despite Poland’s pledge not to accept any more dislocated people, the reality is that they are more than likely still coming.

The question is, what are the dynamics of the society the refugees are coming to? In Paris on Friday night, football fans sang France’s national anthem as they walked out of the stadium. Media sources globally took this as a signal of French unity, pride, and defiance to terrorists. The Sydney Morning Herald compared the event to the spontaneous singing of the French National Anthem in the French Parliament after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year. Without knowing anything about the attackers, and indeed the French citizens singing the anthem did not know anything about the attackers while they were singing, the song suggests that protecting France comes from within France. The national anthem prioritizes nation’s borders as a meaningful construct for defining social inclusion.

Except as the French were rallying around being French for support, one of the attackers (if not more) was a home grown extremist. He would have known the French national anthem. The song indicates that he should be included in the acknowledgement of suffering and resilience because he is french. The refugees and non-citizens are not included in this song. We might see that a different criteria for social inclusion is appropriate and then, perhaps, a different choice of song to reflect strength and dignity of people following tragedy.

What does it tell us that in the wake of tragedy, we turn inward towards our own nation and find solace in things that differentiate us from the world ( in songs unique to our country for instance) rather than things that unite us with people globally? Is this instinct, which seems to be knee-jerk (I can’t imagine there was much thought or debate over what song to sing in response to this tragedy) a problem, a neutral fact about how people function within nations, or something to take pride in? What does singing the national anthem signify to refugees and non-citizens impacted by the attacks?



1 Comment

  1. I think a big part of singing the national anthem is that it identifies most clearly with the majority of those affected by the attack. Sure there are some people who would not identify the singing of the national anthem as a source of comfort, but I would argue that no other song at that time would be able to better communicate the feelings of the nation. Singing the national anthem at a time like this is supposed to bring unity, love for country, and defiance to terrorism. In this context, patriotism is probably the best thing for uniting the people. When a nation is grieving a loss like the one that happened in Paris, trying to unite people through patriotic means is the best approach a country can take because it unites the most amount of people together while having the country make an acknowledgment of the atrocities that occurred. In times like these, no matter what anyone does, someone is always going to be offended, the key as a leader of a nation is to figure out the best route to take among a wide array of routes that have both positive and negative consequences. I see no problem with the French singing the national anthem at this time, and I hope that we all continue to have the families and friends of those who died in the attacks in our thoughts and prayers.

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