I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Those are the words of French philosopher, Voltaire, spoken centuries ago but resonating all over France and the world today, and never have they been as powerful or as poignant or meant as much as they do right at this moment. Words that speak for all of us, as we mourn the deaths of 10 people at the Paris based satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, as well as the two policemen who were sent to guard them. Charlie Hebdo was at war. They knew it. But they were fighting for something all of us should be prepared to stand up for. It’s called freedom of expression. Charlie Hebdo had armed itself with pens and paper and ideas. These weapons can be powerful but they were never going to be a match for fanatics and their Kalishnikovs. These religious fanatics tried to silence Charlie Hebdo, once before in 2011, when the magazine offices were firebombed. But that only made the magazine more determined and more resolute. But unfortunately for them so were the forces out to harm and silence them. And yes, today those forces of darkness achieved a small, bloody and brutal victory but don’t be fooled into thinking they have won the war. They have not. Not by any stretch, in fact au contraire is how I would describe it. What happened in Paris in the last 24 hours has changed the game. Charlie Hebdo’s fight has now become our battle as well, or it should be, against those who want to kill us not for anything other than the way we think and the way we choose to live. The people of Paris know this. That’s why thousands took to the streets chanting or holding signs that read: Je suis Charlie, I am Charlie.
It was the deadliest terrorist attack on French soil in decades. Three attackers, all wearing balaclavas, who later fled, like the cowards they are. French media identified two of them as Parisian born Algerian brothers who grew up in the same neighbourhood where Charlie Hebdo is located. One of them had returned to France after fighting in Syria. Clearly battle hardened and ready to reek havoc. The third man is said to be an 18-year-old student. A huge anti terrorist operation is going on, as we speak, as French authorities try to find them.
French President Francois Hollande called the massacre “an act of exceptional barbarity” and “undoubtedly a terrorist attack.” Charlie Hebdo gained notoriety in February 2006 when it reprinted satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, causing fury across the Muslim world. Yes they were offensive cartoons but they meant to be. There will be those who say that the Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists, brought this on themselves by being too provocative. But I say, to hell with that idea. It’s what living in a democracy is all about. That is why wars have been fought and won and lost for our collective right to say what we think. You don’t have to agree but you must respect everyone’s right to be able to say it.
However, there are people living in our world who clearly have no respect for that right. They want to use violence to take it away and permanently silence us. As the killers went about their deadly business in Paris they screamed “we have avenged the prophet, we have killed Charlie Hebdo”, according to prosecutors. One eyewitness told French media: “I hid under my desk … they spoke French perfectly … they said they were al-Qaeda.” Another reportedly said: “Tell the media that this is al-Qaeda in Yemen.” Quite frankly I don’t care who it was. They are not welcome in Paris. They are not welcome anywhere. And that message needs to be delivered loud and clear.
The drama started in broad daylight in a quiet Paris street when the gunmen entered the weekly magazine’s offices as journalists were in an editorial meeting. They began by shooting a receptionist and then picked off eight journalists, including some of France’s best-known cartoonists, a security guard and a visitor. One staff member survived, by hiding under a table.
Chilling amateur video footage filmed after the carnage then showed them outside of the building, running toward a wounded policeman as he lay on the pavement.
One attacker was heard to say “you wanted to kill me?” before shooting the officer, execution style. Large numbers of police and ambulances rushed to the scene with shocked residents spilling into the streets. Reporters saw bullet-riddled windows and people being carried away on stretchers. Prosecutors said 11 people were also injured in the attack, with four in critical condition.
As you would expect, the attack has been condemned around the world.
US President Barack Obama led the global condemnation of what he called the “cowardly, evil” assault. British Prime Minister David Cameron called it “sickening”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the attack was “despicable” and Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as the Arab League condemned the violence. Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites, condemned “this cowardly terrorist attack which is incompatible with Islam”. The imam of Drancy mosque in the northern suburbs of Paris, Hassen Chalghoumi, visited the scene, calling the shooters “barbarians, they lost their soul, sold their soul to hell”. The Charlie Hebdo website went down after the attack before coming back online with the single image of the words “I am Charlie”.
Like I said earlier. There are signs already that this is a game changer. I truly hope it is. Paris will bury and mourn its dead. Parisians will show them the respect they deserve. And we will mourn with them in solidarity. But nothing changes or must change in thoughts, words or cartoons, in Paris or anywhere else. We cannot live in fear or be intimidated into silence. We must continue to do and say the things we have always said even if, and especially if, some of us don’t like it. We must draw a line in the sand and take this on, head on.
The words of Voltaire are worth more than just paying lip service. They are fighting words and words worth fighting for. And if that is what needs to happen then let all of us join the battle.