JANUARY 8, 2015 — Most Americans never encountered the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. But they know today that the magazine was fearless in the face of threats. Fearless to the death.
On Wednesday, two masked gunmen stormed into the magazine’s Paris headquarters near the Bastille monument and shot a dozen staffers, including the magazine’s editor. Gunmen allegedly shouting “Allahu akbar!” — God is great — also killed two police officers before escaping by car. It was Europe’s worst terror attack since the London bombings of July 7, 2005 — the notorious “7/7” explosions aboard three Underground trains and a double-decker bus that left 52 civilians and four suicide bombers dead.
Wednesday’s assault had a more intimate feel: Those of us in journalism know newsrooms, so it’s easy to imagine the setting, with a staff meeting in progress. There would have been discussions of coverage, some debate perhaps, a few jokes. And underpinning the work an extraordinary dedication to the magazine’s mission: challenging authority, convention, taste.
Charlie Hebdo’s editors, writers and cartoonists took this principle to a brave extreme. The magazine made so many enemies through its provocative, often obnoxious take on politics, culture and especially religion that its offices were firebombed in 2011 after it published an edition supposedly edited by the Prophet Muhammad. That issue of the magazine threatened “a hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing.” And so when we imagine those offices on a typical Wednesday we’d forget to include the presence of the police bodyguard for the editor, Stephane Charbonnier.
Then came an unimaginable moment. The gunmen burst in, shooting a bodyguard and Charbonnier first, and then the others — the cartoonists, the writers, the editors — the people like us who trade in ideas and opinions and facts, who typically fear an occasional lapse of judgment, or a misspelled word, not being slaughtered. This murderous interjection of gunplay into the life of the mind is why so many journalists and others around the world, even those who don’t know Charlie Hebdo or who think it’s often needlessly irreverent, took to Twitter on Wednesday to write “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).
Yes, the magazine’s editor had received death threats, thus the police protection. Still, the magazine gleefully — and crudely — kept pushing the boundaries. Hours before the latest attack, the magazine apparently tweeted a cartoon mocking the leader of the Islamic State.
In its stubborn defiance, the magazine’s response to the attempts at intimidation was to ratchet up the irreverence and outrageousness, even as French authorities pleaded for restraint. “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour fuel on the fire?” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a few years ago after the magazine published a cartoon of the prophet being pushed in a wheelchair by an Orthodox Jew.
Sensible? Intelligent? Probably not. But that’s not the point. Free expression is.
France shudders today, just as Canada, Australia and Pakistan have in recent weeks, all scenes of vicious terror attacks in the name of Islam. The killers meant to silence the magazine, to stifle expression of opinions that they apparently deemed repugnant.
They cannot succeed. That is, the rest of us cannot allow them to succeed. Each of us, when we vigorously defend the rights of others to speak their minds as freely as we speak our own, reaffirms that commitment.