Mort Report Extra: Our Lady in Pain

TUCSON, Arizona - I'm an ocean and a continent away, in a sunny place with cactus blooms beginning to color a hopeful new spring, and I can barely see my keyboard. Like everyone who has felt the power and glory of Nôtre-Dame de Paris, I am eviscerated with grief.

We have no reliable facts yet on what and why. But we already know what it means. The world has lost a vital underpinning, for eight centuries a symbol of humanity's best urges on a planet hardly short of the other kind.

Much of the damage will be repaired. Perhaps Quasimodo the hunchback is still up there in one of those stone towers where Victor Hugo imagined him. But this is not about a building. Even if the cause was a tragic accident, this is a sign of terrifying times.

I happened to catch the first CNN newsflash. As all reporters do, I ran through possibilities. It is Holy Week now in a world smoldering with religious hatreds and political opportunists in Washington fanning the embers. Could it be evil-inspired arson?

Chances are the fault lies with construction crews at work among tinder-dry timbers. Yet instant reaction across anti-social media shows the extremes across today's boobosphere, which allows anyone to weigh in with blame and condemnation.

Donald Trump quickly made it about him, tweeting that the French should use aircraft to douse the flames, as if French authorities who have preserved their splendid 2,000-year-old city remarkably well need any uninformed kibitzing.

The Securité Civile in Paris offered a more useful tweet: “The release of water by aircraft could, in fact, cause the collapse of the entire structure.”

During 52 years in Paris, I've developed a deep respect for its firemen. When flames once flared in my Ile-Saint-Louis apartment, wailing sirens were at the door almost before I put down the phone. Now I live on the Seine and see Nôtre-Dame from the bow of my boat. The river brigade responds at blinding speed, but its water cannons could not reach flames high atop an imposing cathedral set back on a broad esplanade.

Firetrucks were delayed by traffic, in near-paralysis at rush hour because the mayor has shut down main thoroughfares, narrowed lanes and changed one-way streets in a campaign to make way for pedestrians and bikes.

Those are details. What matters now is Our Lady in pain.

Paris grew from a village on that island, where a band of Gauls dug in to resist Teutonic hordes headed west and assorted other importuning visitors. Work began in 1160. A century later, Notre-Dame was a jewel of French Gothic architecture, with soaring ribs, flying buttresses and those fabulous rose windows damaged in the fire.

Nôtre-Dame is the heart of France. It is kilometer zero for roads across the country. Old traditions still apply in a place where history matters. Anyone with a solid claim to nobility can still ride a horse into its cavernous interior (although not many do).

Fat volumes describe its finer points, but any visitor to Paris picks up its grandeur at a glance. Even grumpy old habitués feel a jolt of electricity when it looms into view.

Now we wait to assess damage. When workmen ignited a devastating fire at the magnificent Chartres cathedral in 1836, cascading molten lead from the roof nearly ruined its stained-glass windows and relics. Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame, designed ledges in case that happened again. Notre-Dame may be more vulnerable. Or not.

The spire that collapsed was added in the 1860s. The old lore has it that faithful Catholics used to climb up it in hopes of sneaking into heaven. These days, Nôtre-Dame is about far more than Catholicism. Each year, 13 million people come to marvel.

In June, my sister and five of our clan would have been among them. She just bought tickets to avoid the endless lines. We'll stroll through my secret corners of the gardens out back. But Our-Lady in Pain will be closed for some time to come.

Now, at least, we can reflect on what Nôtre-Dame de Paris symbolizes to a hate-poisoned world that is destroying itself by ignoring climate calamity and igniting senseless violence with stupid foreign policy.

Whatever caused the fire, we need to realize what so many of us first suspected when the news broke. Today, when nothing is unthinkable, it is time to take stock of what matters.