Today in Paris, the weather – grey skies producing a steady patter of rain – is perfectly attuned to the grim feeling of horror and sadness and outrage that permeates the country after yesterday’s terrorist attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Well-known for its iconoclastic, far-out, sometimes totally tasteless and sometimes excruciatingly funny cartoons, the weekly poked fun at anything the its talented journalists deemed stupid – and the list was long.
Religious extremism, no matter what the religion, was one of Charlie’s favorite targets and its free-spirited journalists didn’t miss an opportunity to mock and make fun of Islam’s radical fundamentalists and the prophet Muhammed. Nothing stopped them, even when they were threatened, even after their offices were burned, even when some hinted they might be going too far. Freedom of the press was what mattered. As Charlie Hebdo’s director, Charb, told Le Monde: “What I’m going to say may be a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing up than live down on my knees.”
Yesterday Charb and eleven others were gunned down by two terrorists acting in the name of the Islam the newspaper had systematically mocked.
The attackers, dressed in black, masked, and armed with automatic weapons, were well-informed. They knew that Wednesday was the day of the story conference at which all the foremost journalists would be gathered. They are said to have called out the names of the journalists as they took aim. When they left the building, the two gunmen shot a police man in cold blood, then unhurriedly made their way to their getaway vehicle yelling “”Charlie Hebdo is dead”.
They were wrong. The French reaction, and the reaction of free people everywhere, was massive and basically this: We will be unified, we will not let ourselves be torn apart, we will defend the values that are central to our civilization, foremost among them, freedom of expression, the liberty to write and say what we want without fear of giving offense.
Yes, the attackers murdered Charlie Hebdo’s brightest, bravest and blasphemous journalists. But they did not kill their spirit or their values or their message and they did not kill Charlie Hebdo. On the contrary, yesterday millions around the world declared in every language: “Je suis Charlie”.