On its front page Jan. 9, France’s most prominent paper, “Le Monde,” mourned the most horrific terrorist attacks in France since the 1960s, calling it “the French 9/11” in white letters on dark background with a picture of a women holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign.
An editorial cartoon commemorating “Charlie Hebdo” by the paper’s most famous cartoonist, Plantu, is printed bottom left; the editorial “Free, Upright, Together” is a captivating cry for press freedom and a sad but captivating tribute to the dead.
Two men armed with assault rifles stormed the editorial offices of “Charlie Hebdo,” a French satirical magazine, at 11:30 a.m Jan. 7. Twelve people died, and several others were wounded.
National, European and international messages of solidarity poured in, condemning the senseless killings. It soon became clear that this shameful and barbarian act was perpetrated by radical Islamists as retaliation over the publication of cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed.
“We killed ‘Charlie Hebdo,’” the attackers shouted as they ran out of the building and into a car, executing another policeman on the street. The sequence was caught on video.
Though, in France, the understanding is that those “crazy men,” as President François Hollande called them, did not kill Charlie Hebdo; they made the dead martyrs for freedom of expression. Thousands took to the streets expressing their solidarity on the following days.
More than a million people marched in Paris on Sunday, joined by 40 world leaders and foreign representatives. The attackers did not kill “Charlie Hebdo,” but gave life to a symbol of freedom and national unity.
Journalists around the world expressed their solidarity as well, and major French media companies offered immediate support. On Friday, an editorial meeting of “the survivors,” as they call themselves, was held in the offices of the daily “Libération,” which had made its infrastructure available when “Charlie” was firebombed in 2011.
Indeed, the staff of “Charlie” knew it was a target. Al Qaida had put “Charlie” editor Stephane Charbonnier on a death list years ago. Police closely watched the editorial offices in Paris, and some of its editors and cartoonists had police escorts.
The attack on “Charlie Hebdo” struck France in the very heart of its national values of “liberé, égalité, fraternité” – liberty, equality and brotherhood. Though in recent months and years, a lack of “égalité” produced diminishing “fraternité,” especially against Arabs and Muslims.
The far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen came first during last year’s European elections. The Jan. 7 attacks can further strengthen anti-immigration ideas. In the nights following the attacks in Paris, several Muslim buildings were attacked with guns and grenades. Nobody was hurt.
The attack on “Charlie Hebdo” was an attack not only on France and a magazine, it was an attack on press freedom and the freedom of expression. “Charlie” not only mocked Islam, but religions in general. It took strong positions against racism and fundamentalism.
The divide between freedom of expression and not harming religious or personal feelings is very thin. Nearly no American paper published the controversial cartoons mocking prophet Mohammed. They cannot be blamed, as each media outlet has the right to pursue its own editorial policy.
The line between respect and self-censorship is very thin, too.
The media weren’t required to publish those controversial cartoons, but “Charlie Hebdo” had the right to do so and should be able to in the future. By killing six of its most prominent cartoonists, the terrorists did not kill “Charlie Hebdo” but created an unprecedented national movement for the freedom of expression.
Wednesday’s “Charlie Hebdo” front page carried the words “everything is forgiven” together with a cartoon of prophet Mohammed holding a sign reading “Je Suis Charlie”. They will print 3 million copies, instead of the usual 60,000. This figure has grown from the originally announced 1 million copies.
France’s “liberté” seems to have survived the senseless killing, for now. Let’s hope and work together to ensure “égalité” and “fraternité” survive, too. The French should not give themselves up to fear and hatred; instead, they should learn from the tragedy.
They should learn that, once and for all, today’s threats come from within; that immigration is a strong and powerful part of the French society; that terrorists do not act in the name of Muslims; and that “égalité” and “fraternité,” in order to facilitate integration and social peace, should not be restricted to citizenship.
“Je Suis Charlie” should remain a slogan for humanism, freedom and solidarity, not a shameful excuse for hatred and division.