A barbarian attack
On the 7th January, in what should have been just another Wednesday morning, the editorial team of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo gathered in a room of their offices in Paris for a general meeting. Shortly after, two apparently well-informed and armed jihadists entered the room asking for the cartoonists who had drawn and published images of Prophet Mohamed and opened fire. Twelve people died, in what became France’s bloodiest terrorist attack in more than half a century.
As France gradually realised what had happened and people in France and everywhere across the world started gathering in solidarity, another jihadist – linked to the two other ones – opened fire on a policewomen in South Paris, who eventually died. The French government started gathering thousands of policemen and the GIGN and RAID Special Units across regions in the North of Paris to find the terrorists. The episode ended in even more blood, as one of the terrorists killed four people held as hostages before the three of them were eventually shot in a police assault.
An attack against freedom of speech is an attack against us all
This medieval and despicable act was not a blind attack against innocent civilians as sometimes happens, but a targeted enterprise against Freedom of speech. The fact that today, well into the 21st Century, one can be massacred for a few drawings in the heart of France – a country of tolerance and freedom – is outrageous. As US Secretary of State John Kerry stated it – in French – “No country knows better than France that freedom has a price.” These dramatic events should remind us of this price, and how freedom should be cherished above all. This happened in France but could have happened in any other country that believes in freedom. Hence, this attack should be considered an attack against any society that believes in freedom.
Some commentators have argued that Charlie Hebdo were excessively provocative, although they did not deserve what happened. But this is exactly what we need: if we have reached a point where provocation triggers a massacre, then we know something went horribly wrong in the evolution of society. Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The only limit against this freedom should be for when it is used for calls for hatred and violence – which is far from what Charlie Hebdo was doing, particularly as they were targeting everyone: Jews, Muslims, Christians. If we accept that certain things cannot be said, then what next? This would be the first step down the road of medieval obscurantism.
Europe: Unity in Diversity … and grief
Faced with such a despicable act, France rose up in the most laudable way: peacefully coming together in calls for solidarity, unity, tolerance, free speech and the refusal of violence and amalgams between Islam and terrorists. French people living abroad also gathered together, from London to New York, Hong Kong to Sao Paulo, along with people from everywhere in the world, in a wonderful show of solidarity, with a widely shared message: “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). Leaders from across the world have offered their support to French President François Hollande.
On Sunday 11 January, the heads of State and Government of at least five European countries (Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Matteo Renzi, Mariano Rajoy and Charles Michel) will take part in a march against terrorism in Paris, along with the current and former French Presidents, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. In a strong show of unity, they will show that Europeans are not only united in diversity, but also and more fundamentally united in adversity and grief. As a Frenchman, I feel extremely grateful about all the demonstrations of solidarity and sympathy across the world. As Europeans, it is in such moments of hardship that we need to remember the importance of our shared values of tolerance, freedom and respect.