Oubliez Charlie, qui sommes nous?

Updates and Responses to the Charlie Hebdo Shooting

“I just want to tell you that we are defenders of the Prophet. I, Chérif Kouachi, was sent by al-Qaeda in Yemen. I was over there.  I was financed by Imam Anwar al-Awlaki.”

These were the words spoken by one of the two Kouachi brothers responsible for the attacks at Charlie Hebdo on January 7th. Recordings of the telephone conversation between him and a BFMTV radio station host reveal him to have been calm, purposeful and clear in his justification for his actions (Lichfield).

“We are not killers. We are defenders of the Prophet. We are not like you . . .We can kill. But we don’t kill women. It is you that kill the children of Muslims in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria. That’s not us. We have a code of honour, us, in Islam.”

Some experts, however, argue that this direct connection with al-Qaeda may be bit of a stretch. Al-Awlaki, the man they claim financed the operation, was killed in September 2011, and despite a video by a top al-Qaeda commander claiming responsibility (Michael), Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, thinks the video may be more “aspirational” than anything else, explaining “ . . . terrorists groups do like taking credit for events that they may or may not have actually been responsible for” (Brennen).

It was shortly after that interview took place when in a small village north-east of Paris, Michel Catalano, the owner of CDT Printworks, saw the two men approaching dressed in combat clothing and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle and a rocket launcher (Gardiner, Evans). The Kouachi brothers would make their final stand against police from his warehouse, eventually allowing Catalano to go free, while unwittingly leaving his one employee hiding under a sink, texting pertinent details to the police (Gardiner, Evans).

Two days later on January 11th, one of France’s largest recorded demonstrations took place, with approximately 1.6 million people gathering around the Place de la République (Paris). Many carried flags or signs which bore the now ubiquitous phrase Je Suis Charlie, while others upheld the pen, symbolic of how these attacks are being more broadly seen as an attack on “republican values” (François). Global leaders have been unanimous in their condemnation and in their likening it to an attack on free speech and the fundamental principles of “freedom-loving nations” (Francois). In a “show of solidarity”, many joined together at the demonstration to walk arm-in-arm including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and EU President Donald Tusk (Paris).

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It isn’t difficult to understand the need for such profound and sweeping reactions. Frustration at not being able to solve the problem of extremism, while reckoning with the realities of a seemingly uncontrollable threat to safety in a nation generally distanced from prosaic violence, has reasonably shaken many people. Much of the dialogue that has followed, along with the mobilization of so many people, is a necessary response to tragedy, and an important and valuable one in a democratic society. It is precisely at such times that we need to be wary of the line between genuine discussion and grandiose sentimentality, and of using our value statements as shovels for trenching in ideological warfare.

The real threat to our society’s principles, I would argue, is not terrorism, but frantic allegiance–be it to country, flag, leader or value–anything that would be seen as so sacrosanct, so irreproachable that to be ‘done in it’s name’ is, by its own definition, intrinsically good. We cannot fight fundamentalism on one side, with fundamentalism on the other, and we cannot have a discussion about the values of the democracy, let alone use them as a rallying cry, without asking ourselves what those values mean to us today, what kind of actions they justify, and to whom these values serve. In short, what kind of society are we fighting for?

Many have pointed out some of the hypocrisy of holding up Charlie Hebdo as a bastion of free speech. The magazine’s attempts at satire often skirted a fine line between satire and racism, while unequally applying such criticism amongst its targets (Samuel). For example, after taking an anti-Semitic jab at Jean Sarkozy, the son of Nicolas Sarkozy, the cartoonist known as Sine was fired from the publication in 2009 and later charged with “inciting racial hatred” (Samuel). Satire, when done well, is meant to attack and undermine the powerful and shake up systemic complacency. When used to reproduce stereotypical images of the powerless, however, it can also be racism masquerading as satire. The world is made up of fallible people, drawing important yet still arbitrary distinctions between right and wrong, and often where the line is drawn, depends upon the artist. If we want to have freedoms then we must choose them, carefully and deliberately, and be wary of easy feel-good sentimentality and subtexts of segregation; and we must ensure that we use these values as principles of action, not privileges.

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.