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Witcover: The last time I saw Paris

Notre Dame cathedral erupted in flames in an intense blaze that started high in its central spire.

Nearly 18 years ago, my wife and I were in Versailles, about to tour that iconic palace, when French television showed the infamous destruction of New York's Twin Towers skyscrapers by two hijacked commercial aircraft.

All of Paris was plunged into mourning for the tragic death of nearly 3,000 innocent Americans. We raced to the Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris in quest of a return flight. There, a moment of silence was declared, as travelers of all nations froze in place in remembrance of the victims, with some travelers offering individual condolences to recognizable Americans at the airport.

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Unsuccessful at first in our dealings with sympathetic French airline clerks, we returned to Paris and attended a long and solemn Mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral. French and American Catholics, along with hundreds of other Parisians and visitors to the City of Light, shared their grief as the magnificent cathedral organ filled one of the world's greatest architectural and religious edifices with music, along with voices of compassion and shared loss.

The long and close alliance of our two countries, forged in the fires of two horrible world wars survived by Paris, manifested itself in the outpouring of sympathy and support from our Gallic brothers.

Last week, long back home safe and sound, we watched American television bring a comparable view of shock and despair with the massive fire that was bringing down the famous spire of that same Notre Dame Cathedral, also decimating some of the rest of it.

Its age and wooden construction scaffolds provided ready tinder for a rampage of flame against firefighting men and equipment inadequate to the gigantic task of bringing the colossal tragedy to heel.

For hours, French authorities were at a loss to determine the cause, though many rumors rose and fell about the destruction, from allegations of carelessness among construction workers to unfounded speculation of arson or even sabotage.

Inevitably, the existing political climate of suspicion fanned rumors of terrorism or religious antagonism threatening to take hold in some quarters.

  • Op-Ed

Hours after the fire began, French officials began to report the likelihood that it probably was a case of carelessness or unintended accident. That tentative conclusion came to the huge relief of many who may have feared it the result of a diabolical plot that could feed further divisive suspicions of radicalism and organized chaos.

There are ample reasons to deplore and mourn as a civilized society the destruction of this magnificent global treasure. It may not rank with the pyramids of ancient Egypt or the ruins of Pompeii, but it can be restored, as French President Emanuel Macron has already pledged.

That said, there is only a limited list of physical structures regarded as universal symbols of the greatness of the civilized society across the globe. The destruction of any of them is a loss not only to the country in which they are located and cherished, but wherever beauty and majesty are esteemed for their own sake.

When the Twin Towers disappeared from the Manhattan skyline, private enterprise swiftly rebuilt in their place the new Freedom Tower, a tribute as much to American resilience as to the memory of the victims of 9/11. The restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral will also be a recognition of its place in the heart and pride of France, and that of the wide civilized world itself.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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