Paris, and Knoxville’s History of Violent Horrors

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The Bataclan is an unusual building. It stood out sharply even in Napoleon III’s Second Empire Paris.

Built in 1864, it was eight years older than Knoxville’s first theater, the Staub’s Opera House, which was badly run down for years before, 60 years ago, it was torn down.

Paris keeps things. The Bataclan was built in the exotic chinoiserie style, brightly colored, with a pagoda-style roof. That flourish was eventually simplified away, leaving a colorful, but very odd-looking building, the sort that caught my attention when I was wandering around Boulevard Voltaire, 35 years ago this week.

It’s not far from the Pere Lachaise, the fascinating old cemetery up the long hill from the Champs Elysee. I walked up there on a Sunday, amazed that after a week in Paris along the Left and Right banks, I’d discovered this whole other Paris so far from the famous museums and monuments along the river.

The Bataclan is about the size of the Tennessee Theatre. Buffalo Bill, who brought his Wild West Show to Knoxville at least three times, performed at the Bataclan. Edith Piaf performed there more often, and it was where singer Maurice Chevalier got his start, a century ago. Jeff Buckley, the unusual singer who had a cult following even before he drowned in Memphis, made a record there. John Cale and Lou Reed, who both later performed at the Tennessee, also made a record at the Bataclan. Now it will be remembered, forever, for something else.

I don’t bore my well-traveled friends with stories of my one Europe trip. It was half a lifetime ago, after all, and less relevant every day. So I write about it for publication.

I loved Paris more than I expected to, stayed twice as long as I expected to.

Most of the crepe vendors on the street in 1980 were Arabs. I lived mostly off street food, so most of the Parisians I encountered were Arabs. The Parisians who were friendly and spoke English tended to be Arabs.

The only unpleasant moment in the whole eight days I was there was one Friday evening at the Place St. Michel on the Left Bank. Suddenly, in the swirling crowd, a dark-haired young man jabbed a finger right at me and shouted, his eyes on fire with an anger he couldn’t contain: “American! I hate you! Zeeonist! Zeeonist pig!”

I stood there dumb and slack-jawed. Zionism was something that had been in the news a lot when I was a kid, but I’d never studied the doctrine, and didn’t  have strong feelings about it either way.

Why did he pick me out of an international crowd? It puzzled me for weeks, until I got to Rome, and asked my Italian cousins. “It is your clothing,” they said. “We do not wear that—” and they weren’t sure what to call the peculiar thing on my chest. I was wearing a blue down vest. The same one I was wearing in Paris. It was such a common thing in America, it hadn’t occurred to me that it seemed conspicuous in Europe.

Three days after that angry challenge at the Place St. Michel, while I was still in Paris, a stranger walked into a travel agency, shot two people to death, and left, presumably rejoining the same swirl of Everybody that is Paris. The two victims were Jewish and the attack was ascribed to terrorism.

It was long before the era of cell phones, and I couldn’t read French newspapers; I didn’t hear about it until weeks later. It was not the first incident of that nature. Things seemed bad then, and if you’d asked me in 1980, I would have assumed we’d be on to other problems by now.

***

Friday’s news from Paris can make us despair, wonder who the hell are these people. What kind of a civilization breeds cold-blooded killers.

But the most comparable horrors in Knoxville’s history involve more familiar figures.

From 1956 to 1958, Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and Clinton experienced a series of racist bombings that interrupted a Louis Armstrong show at Chilhowee Park and later destroyed Clinton High School. The chief suspect was a group called the White Citizens Council. Although led by out-of-state insurgents, all the known members were U.S. citizens, united by their opposition to the desegregation of Clinton High School, one of the South’s first high schools to be desegregated. No one was killed or seriously injured in the bombings. It wasn’t thanks to any special care on the part of the bombers.

The worst random killing in Knoxville history was when, in broad daylight, a man with a rifle shot five people on a Gay Street sidewalk in 1976. Three died. The individual behind it was a lonely man, a troubled Korean War veteran. He had no coherent agenda. But just as in Paris, innocent people died without knowing who shot them or why.

The Unitarian-Universalist Church shootings of seven years ago left two dead and several wounded. That guy did have an agenda; he didn’t like liberals. As another guy found out in Charleston more recently, there’s no softer target than innocent people sitting in a church.   

Throw in a few lynch mobs over the years, and it would appear that a disproportional majority of the terrorist attacks in Knoxville-area history, and in Southeastern history, have been perpetrated by people who look sort of like me: white native-born American males.

More than a few times in my life I’ve found myself in a situation of arguing with people who have concluded, citing evidence, that white Southern males are by nature violent, crazy, and dangerous. Maybe you’ve had that conversation, too. I don’t much like it.

All I can ever think to say is let’s not jump to conclusions based on some news stories.

There are a certain number of folks in every culture who can never get comfortable with the idea that there are other people who are different from them. Osama bin Laden’s final career began when he got upset about the presence of foreigners of other faiths contaminating his homeland.

He took his discomfort to extremes. But there are people like that in every country.

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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