Written by Andrew Rhee
I am upset. I am angry. I am sick to my stomach over this week’s events. I express my deepest sympathies and support for the families of those killed, the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and the brave people of France. I fervently hope that swift justice is delivered to those who perpetrated this attack.
We are currently in a developing situation; however, what we know is that on Wednesday, January 7th, three Islamic extremists stormed the offices of French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, massacring ten, as well as killing two more and injuring several in the ensuing chaos. One suspect, an 18-year-old who is alleged to have been involved in the shooting, has turned himself in. Currently, the remaining two, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, have holed up with a hostage in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele (update: the brothers are believed to have been killed and the hostage rescued). Another hostage situation has developed today, with a single individual taking multiple hostages at a grocery store in Porte de Vincennes. The suspect, Amedy Coulibaly, spent time in a French prison that overlapped with that of Cherif Kouachi, leading some authorities to suspect the crimes are related.
Charlie Hebdo is a left-of-center publication, known for its biting satire, which has garnered criticism from Muslims who were offended by the newspaper’s depictions of Islam and its prophet Muhammad. This is not the first time Charlie Hebdo has been attacked for anti-Islamic cartoons; in 2011, the newspaper was firebombed just before their publication of “Charia Hebdo”, a play on Islamic Sharia law, an issue that also featured the Prophet Muhammad as a guest editor. Later, Editor Stephane Charbonnier declared that such events would not deter their work, and that he, “would rather die standing than live on [his] knees”. The cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo are critical across the board, poking fun at everything from anti-Semitic fashion designers to the Pope. However, the response today to their cartoons, one of violence and bloodshed, was a despicable act of terrorism that threatens civilization everywhere.
Some have insinuated that they might have deserved it. Tony Barber of the Financial Times even suggested that they brought it upon themselves, arguing “some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.” How does “common sense” come into play when senseless violence has been perpetrated? Do Barber and the rest of Charlie Hebdo’s critics really think the attackers needed justification for their actions, that these cold-blooded killers would have acquiesced in the face of appeasement? To go so far as to call the publishers of Charlie Hebdo “stupid”, and then to quietly self-censor the statement when called out on your callous language, is a disgrace to the profession of journalism. Shame on Tony Barber. Shame on him for trying to blame the deaths of these men and women on the victims themselves rather than the murderers who executed them. To subscribe to the notion that the press should cater to the backwards ideals of religious fanaticism is to misunderstand the idea of free speech entirely.
The real anger, however, should be reserved for the extremists who felt the criticism of one was enough to justify the death of twelve, who felt that anyone should lose their life to preserve the “honor” of a man long dead. Their barbaric acts were filled with painful irony, irony that they attacked a newspaper who published a picture titled, “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists” depicting the Islamic prophet crying, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots”, statements made agonizingly true by this week’s events. Irony that they proclaimed, “the prophet Muhammad has been avenged” and “God is great” mere moments after they shot an unarmed Muslim, Ahmed Meramet. The 42-year-old policeman was killed at point-blank range while he lay bleeding on the street. The motives of these attackers are incomprehensible and their actions inexcusable.
While these terrorists may think they have won, the term “the pen is mightier than the sword” is clichéd for a reason: it’s true. Whether it be one hundred men, one thousand bombs, or one million bullets, their weapons will never quell the voice of free speech, because free speech is the cornerstone of democracy, of the modern world that affords us so many of the freedoms we enjoy. Because free speech is complicated; it’s ugly, it makes you roll your eyes and sigh with exasperation. It can anger or upset you, but it will make you think, and it will force you to take a critical look at why you believe what you do. And that is why we hold it so dear, why we cannot sacrifice it to the bloodstained hands of extremism.
Our response must be one of unilateral support. No matter your nationality, we must stand with the people of France as one, for this attack is not simply an attack on sovereign soil, but an attempt to silence all of us. In the words of Voltaire, the great French playwright and satirist, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. We should be as dedicated to protecting free press, expression, and speech as these terrorists were to destroying it. We will mourn those tragically lost, but we must vow that their deaths will not be in vain.
Je suis Charlie.