How Music Healed Me After the Paris Attacks
On Nov. 13, 2015, when Kalashnikov-toting gunmen fired their first round on the capacity crowd at the Bataclan concert venue, 22-year-old Daniel, who was working as a customer liaison for the largest tour bus company in Europe, immediately turned to his girlfriend and told her that he loved her.
If these were going to be his last words, he wanted them to matter. The steady rhythm of the drums was replaced by erratic, staccato clicking of machine gun fire, singing was replaced by desperate screams, and the vibrational hum of guitars was replaced by the whine of bullets ricocheting through the air. There was no way out. Daniel recounts:
A girl had her feet on my head, so I could barely move it. Every now and then I tried to have a look around and see what’s happening, but I never saw anyone. The worst things were the sounds of the guns and the cries of people who saw their partners die and…hearing how people took their last breath. At some point one terrorist blew himself up on the stage. The noise was terrible. I could not hear anything for a few minutes after that. Not seeing AND hearing anything was awful. Then, the first shot hit me in the upper body. It took my breath away for a few seconds, but I was still awake. I covered the wound with my jacket.
Strangely, it did not hurt THAT much, probably because of the shock, and I did not yet think about dying. I had to stay awake, so now my focus was on not falling asleep. That was when I lost my feeling for time. I honestly couldn’t have told you if this whole thing lasted half an hour or 10 hours. Sometime after that, another shot hit my left arm. This time, I felt extreme pain. It instantly swelled up and soon there was that much blood that I could put my right hand under the surface of the blood that was on the floor.
During the massacre, Daniel spent what seemed like an eternity on the floor fighting the urge to move: He instinctually knew that if he did, he would immediately be singled out and executed. Next to him were hundreds of concertgoers, who like him, had been unable to find an exit. When French Special Forces entered the room, Daniel realized that now his wounds prevented him from moving—even if he wanted to.
His girlfriend had managed to escape the killing floor and hide behind equipment cases on the stage. She now returned, attempting to pull him out to safety. He emphatically told her to leave him and run, as he did not think the room was yet secure. Finally, Special Forces officers got to him, and carried him outside where he was shuffled between two different makeshift first-aid stations. It was increasingly difficult for him to breathe, and he thought he was going to die right there on the street while waiting for treatment.
Finally all went black; he lost consciousness in the ambulance taking him to the hospital for emergency surgeries that stopped the abdominal bleeding and saved his life.
In the days following, as Daniel was no longer listed in critical condition, he declined interviews, even when TV networks offered him generous sums of money for his first-hand account of what had happened. Daniel remains vehement that he does not wish to be another voice trying to profit from—and sensationalize—the senseless slaughter he experienced. Speaking out now, he does so unpaid, and for very specific reasons.
Daniel watched the world around him reeling from the horrifying events. He felt the press coverage created a paralyzing and continuously escalating fear in the populace. It made him heartsick, as the public’s emotions were whipped up through the repetitive nature of the reporting. Increasingly, he found himself in a faceless, detached state of being that kept him emotionally numb.
He needed to give all his energy to his body in order for it to be fixed—almost like a machine—by the teams of medical professionals performing countless surgeries, as he was moved between the hospital in Paris and later back to his homeland of Austria. Daniel felt he had to “push his soul aside”; he had too many conflicting emotions and could not make sense of any of them, as they would shift his focus away from the all-important job of simply surviving.
By mid-December, Daniel was released from the hospital. By then, he knew he was going to live—but it was uncertain to what degree he would be able to recover. He missed being able to play his guitar, but he couldn’t get his left hand to wrap around the neck of his beloved Stratocaster, given to him by his father when he graduated from high school. He missed being able to express himself in music, and if there ever was a time he needed it…it was now.
His guitar is named “Walter” after a cherished backstage encounter a few years earlier with one of his guitar heroes, Walter Trout, who, since their meeting, had been through a traumatic battle between life and death, culminating in a successful liver transplant in the twelfth hour. Trout had chronicled his story of facing near-certain death in his album Battle Scars, which was written and recorded as a musical catharsis for Trout after he recovered. Listening to this album, Daniel found that in the midst of uncertainty about how much of his own life he would be able to reclaim, there was a message in the music that brought him comfort:
After Paris I felt numb inside. There was no sadness, no hate, no feeling lucky, nothing really. Battle Scars, with its lyrics about facing death; knowing that you might have to leave your beloved ones soon—going through enormous pain, but also sensing hope despite all these bad things that happened—made me connect with my feelings again. Knowing that Walter made it through hard times encouraged me to stay positive and fight.
Although we had no contact at the time and Walter probably wrote these lyrics as a way of dealing with his own emotional problems, it somehow felt as if he wanted to say ‘Look, you’re not alone in this. You’ve got the power to do this.’ It was Walter’s messages of love that made me feel like having people you love around you is actually more important than getting your physical abilities back. The music somehow reminds me of the fact that despite all these horrible things that are happening, there is still love among people, even in dark times.
For the first time since the Bataclan tragedy, Daniel felt “some magic” enter back into his life. Connectedness to others, love, and music were the antitheses of the cold, calculated cruelty that had robbed Daniel of his used-to-be.
Yet as Daniel emerged back out into the world, he was confronted with how ratings-driven commercial media machines had amplified the effects of the terror for weeks through rapid-fire media cycles. The constant exposure had given the terrorists a continual, global reach with their appalling, yet in fact isolated, acts of cruelty that distorted the magnitude of the events out of proportion: the media machines had for several weeks efficiently delivered continuous anguish and fear into the living rooms of citizens worldwide. A fearful populace does not think clearly. And such unreasonable thinking produces hateful actions which soon were going to hit Daniel and his family as a second wave of terror.
Daniel’s stepfather, Helmuth, works for the local social services in Austria, and he is particularly engaged with helping Syrian refugees. He—as well as Daniel’s biological father, Stefan—had dropped everything, left their homes in Austria, to go to Paris immediately, when they learned of the terror acts. They knew that Daniel was at the Bataclan that night.
For a horrifying 24 hours, they searched every possible Parisian hospital, fearing the worst for their son. Daniel had no identification cards on him at the time, so the process of finding him in the chaotic aftermath was excruciating. At one point they even had to identify a corpse—but it wasn’t Daniel. Finally, Daniel somehow, in a half-conscious state, managed to give a doctor his Dad’s mobile number, and the family was tearfully reunited, as Daniel regained consciousness after the surgery.
Returning to Austria, Daniel’s stepfather was met with mixed support from the community. Few vocalized it directly, but some did: They insinuated that they felt that Helmuth could only blame himself for what had happened to his stepson. They hinted, not always indirectly, that Daniel’s family was themselves to blame for their misfortune: having helped refugees find a foothold in their country, they were now reaping what they had sowed.
Reeling from personal anguish, and now also under fire for his professional mission, Helmuth felt the need to speak up. In a feature on Austrian TV news, TV crews followed him as he visited and interacted tenderly with some of the Syrian families he helps integrate into Austrian society. Asked whether what happened to Daniel had made him question his work, he stated:
When I walked around Paris looking for my son, for me, it was only one day of my life. For the refugees, the fear and the uncertainty are constant companions. If anything, what happened to Daniel has made me more determined than ever to help Syrian refugees; because now I know, from experiencing this in my own family, what kind of cruelty it is that the refugees flee from. I have even more compassion for their situation, because now I understand why they are so willing to leave everything to just get away from ISIS terror.
Daniel agrees wholeheartedly and adds:
I think my stepdad’s work is absolutely fantastic and it is the only right thing to do. Unfortunately, it seems like the rest of Europe is going the opposite direction. We are building fences at the borders and we introduce limits for incoming refugees. I believe that we should tolerate anybody who does not hurt or suppress others. I do not think we should cooperate with extremists, but actually the Western countries (and in this case especially the US) are one of the main reasons behind the things that are going on in Syria, Iraq, and so on. We are not at all the ‘good guys!’ How can Muslim society learn to live in peace if we treat them like subhuman beings? Terrorism only exists where people are poor, isolated, misunderstood, or suppressed. We need to share our wealth and try to understand each other.
Daniel feels strongly that each of us can make a difference in our local communities. It is not only the sweeping actions of governments and NGOs that change our world, while the rest of us stand by and watch. He continues:
It’s the small things that make the world a better place. Children know how to do it—they don’t care whether their friends are black, white or to which God they pray: They don’t back away from people who seem different! If we show interest in other people’s culture, they will eventually want to understand ours. It is important that nobody feels left out because of where he or she was born, or how they look, or act. If you see a group of Muslim children, don’t tell yours to stay away from them. Encourage them to say “hi” and have fun with them. I feel it is more important than ever to not be afraid to stand up if people are being treated badly by so-called natives. After all, we are all descendants of refugees.
Daniel is living proof that ISIS’s attempts to destroy Western culture through fear, intimidation, and callous murder fails miserably when everyday people meet them with real human bravery. This bravery manifests itself in quiet ways: when people reach for healing connections rather than cower behind easy talking points, and when people display the willingness to understand those who think differently. This is the essence of what makes open, Western democracies so powerful.
Role models like Daniel and his family demonstrate that it is possible to act with courage, no matter what happens: to stay true to these self-evident democratic truths and values that we hold so dear. It does not in any way mean that we should not effectively root out terrorism where it manifests. Of course we need to do that. It means, however, that we don’t have to mistake diversity for danger, strangers for enemies, and reactionary mirages for safety.
Daniel reached out to thank Trout for writing the album that gave him the courage to live again. And Trout, in his tearful response, told him that because Daniel was able to use his music to heal, he had given him the most meaningful review of his life. Trout is now encouraging Daniel to pick up his guitar yet again and discover a new technique to play. He has invited Daniel to a near-future jam session—with Daniel playing right-handed or using a slide, since Daniel’s left hand has permanent injuries.
However Daniel reclaims his life, it will take lots of painstaking effort. But Daniel walks forward, determined to not be bitter. More than ever, he believes that democracy is strengthened when we refuse to let terrorists frighten us into forgetting who we are.