Unexpected Lessons and the Charlie Hebdo Shooting

Early morning on January 7 a sombre tone took over the normally welcoming morning smiles of the France24 broadcast tv channel. The commonly sporadic international coverage shifted quickly and dramatically to a street in the 11th arrondissement, a neighbourhood in the southeast of Paris. While watching the news, I kept hearing the same word again and again: «fusillade, fusillade». What was this word? What was happening? They say experience is the best teacher. What I experienced that day, standing in my pyjamas, coffee in hand, was the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and a French lesson I will never forget.

Just before noon, Paris time, two masked gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs, later identified as brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, drove up to the front entrance of the offices of Charlie Hebdo–a French magazine which specializes in controversial satirical cartoons–and opened fire (Burke). First killing the guards stationed outside, they then entered the building and headed directly for Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor-in-chief, murdering him along with his bodyguard. As the attack progressed the shooters called out more names of other employees and rampaged their way through the building (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping). In the end, a total of 12 people were killed and 11 injured (Charlie). Those killed included Jean Cabut, one of France’s best-known cartoonists, Bernard Maris an economist and journalist, and Georges Wolinski another well-known illustrator, along with other employees and police officers (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping).

Charlie Hebdo has already seen its fair share of controversy and tragedy. In 2006 they were one of the few publications to run the infamous Danish satirical cartoon of Prophet Mohammed, which resulted in two Muslim organizations trying unsuccessfully to sue for “incitement of hatred” (Chrisafis). Then in 2011 their office was petrol bombed, resulting in severe property damage and a follow-up issue featuring a bearded Muslim passionately kissing a cartoonist with the caption, “l’amour plus forte que la haine” (Chrisafis). There have also been a string of death threats and other harassments against many at the magazine, however there was no particular threat on the day of the shooting (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping).

After fleeing the magazine’s offices by car, the attackers abandoned the vehicle in the 19th arrondissement, near the Porte de Pantin metro station and stole another vehicle. The hunt for the gunmen continued while the French President, François Hollande, made his way down to the scene to issue a strong and unambiguous statement condemning the events not only as a terrorist attack but also as an attack against,  “… expression of freedom – and against journalists who had always wanted to show that in France they could always work to uphold their ideas and to enjoy the very freedom the Republic protects.” He continued, “France is in shock– the shock of an attack, because it’s a terrorist attack, there’s no doubt about that” (Lynch).

As news spread of the terrible events many began to gather together in show of solidarity, leaning on one another as we so often do during times of tragedy. Under the towering statue of Marianne, the allegorical figure of the French revolution, a crowd of about 35,000 gathered on Wednesday night at the Place de la République, which echoed with “spontaneous cries of, Je suis Charlie! (Overton). The phrase, which was tweeted millions of times throughout the night, became the rallying cry of those deeply moved by what had happened (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping).

For many, such an attack is clearly an attempt to silence dissenting voices and an issue of free speech, of violence versus the pen. Charlie Hebdo and the journalists who lost their lives are being held up for the ideologies of secularism, democracy and freedom in general. For others, this is an issue of nationalism, of immigration, and of a lack of forceful political action against what is being called a “war against Islamic fundamentalism” (Mosque). Warnings now come from many sides about an impending civil war (Meyssan) and of a threat, which is no longer ‘out there’ but between one another, sparked by a deep and unacknowledged hypocrisy and a pervasive disenfranchisement.

While the world comes to grips with the significance of the events, the hunt continues for the brothers, who are without a confirmed sighting in 24 hours at the time of writing (Leitchfield). US President Barack Obama as well as other key heads-of-state such as Angela Merkel and David Cameron, have offered not only their condolences but also assistance to the French government to support finding the fugitives (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping).

It is hard to say at this still early stage what the ongoing implications will be. However it seems that many are already very aware that such occurrences pose a much greater threat, if allowed to spur hatred and incite further violence. It is certainly reasonable to expect that many will feel frustration, confusion, and helplessness in the face of such a heinous crime. There will also be some who will choose to react to those feelings violently and who will want to use the highly charged emotional tension to reinforce a position of division. But this is where the real threat of terrorism lies, not in the destruction of lives or property, however tragic, but in the dismantling of our faith in one another in the hopes of securitizing ourselves against fear. Fear is the real commodity of terrorism not bullets—or bombs, or blood.

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