Extremism Cannot Silence France: Attacks on “Charlie Hebdo,” Civilians, and Freedom of Speech

By Emma Buchman

Opinion Editor


On Wednesday, Jan. 7 in Paris, two masked gunmen stormed the building that housed the French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” at approximately 11:30 a.m. Parisian time. The gunmen found a group of employees having an editorial meeting and opened fire. They targeted editor Stéphane Charbonnier and his police bodyguard, killing both of them and 10 other members of the staff. The gunmen proceeded to exit the building and escape in a car before wounding a policeman and then shooting him point-blank in the head. This attack began three days of terror throughout France as police searched diligently for the gunmen. During this manhunt, two different terrorists connected to the first attack shot and killed a 25-year-old policewoman in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge and held hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris. As a result of the attacks, 17 people total were killed in those three days. Four of them were hostages taken in the supermarket.

Professor Katherine Maynard, a Washington College French professor, said that the attacks affected her on a couple different levels. She said, “It was really upsetting to see a city that I love and where I spend a lot of time under attack and to see people going about their business being threatened.”

Another WC French professor Dr. Pamela Pears had similar sentiments: “My initial reaction was, I think, fear… because I do have lots of connections to people in France; and then just extreme, profound sadness because of what I teach. I’m often talking about issues of minorities in France and Islam in France, and the link that was made to radical Islam scared me again.”

WC international student Timothée Fayard was walking in is his hometown of Lyons, France when a friend texted him about the attacks. “…I looked on the internet and I saw that 12 [people had] been killed. And it was really a shock because not that [many] people have been killed in Paris since WWII… We didn’t expect it at all.”

Fayard also stated that the attacks not only killed 17 people, but were a blatant attack on freedom of speech. This freedom, while enjoyed in the US, has an entirely unique meaning in France. Fayard said, “It was a threat to the liberty of expression, the freedom of speech… in France… we are really committed to the freedom of speech. Even if you are provocative you are still put into this freedom. And suddenly people get killed because of their ideas. And for that it was a shock because for us it was an attack on what really define[s] us as a country.” This sentiment was reiterated by both Professors Maynard and Pears.

There is a belief that “Charlie Hebdo” was, in a way, asking to be attacked due to their sometimes offensive material. Yes, “Charlie Hebdo” is responsible for publishing cartoons that offend politicians, religions, and basically everyone. More specifically, they are responsible for publishing a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammed… naked. Depicting any religious figure goes against the Quran. Depicting the most important religious figure in Islam save for God himself is probably even more sacrilegious. Drawing him naked will quickly eliminate any measure of decency that the drawing could have.

However, I only have one thing to say to that: so what? Publishing offensive material does not mean that anyone is asking to be killed. Fayard makes the point that most Muslims would never react in the way that the attackers did. “The great, great majority of Muslim[s] in France… are tolerant and even though they will disagree with the drawing they will not use violence… For me it didn’t change anything of how I see Islam because I have an Islamic friend and I know that it’s not what Islam teach[es].”

free speech final 1Perhaps the only good thing to come from this event is the solidarity that France showed following the attacks. On Sunday, Jan. 10, the streets of Paris flooded with over two million people to show solidarity against terrorism, and to honor the dead. Sophomore G.T. Svanikier attended the march while visiting his mother, who had recently been appointed as Ghana’s ambassador to France. “There was basically no march because they were expecting, let’s say, 300,000, 200,000 people to turn up; it was 10 times that… It was slightly scary having so much police around and just thinking ‘Wow, this would be the perfect target for… any follow-up attack…’ but then after a while and you see the police are so organized and you realize that, ‘Wow, they’ve really got this.’” The local Parisians, Svanikier said, were just as determined. “The reason the numbers were so poorly estimated is that they thought that people would be too afraid to come out and people came out to show that, no, we’re not really afraid at all.”

Fayard said, “That was a powerful sign of unity, even though we don’t know how long it is going to last…the French are very divided, they are always criticizing their country. But suddenly we had something to fight for and we get along better.”

I lived in France. I’m a French major. I have a lot of friends who live in France. To top it all off, I’m also a journalist. So, maybe I’m a little biased. However, this event, regardless of who suffered at the hands of terrorists, should be able to pull people together to share the feeling of loss, and the determination to defend a right that is so dear to so many people. Seventeen innocent people being killed in the name of extremism is not a political view. It is an atrocity, plain and simple. Everyone in this world has the right to live, and everyone has the right to speak their mind in a constructive way.

That is what is essential to remember in light of this horrific event. It is our duty as people to remember the risk that those journalists took and not insult their memory by saying that they shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. Those men and women who were killed in that meeting room died doing what they love and embracing a freedom that we as Americans should hold dear.

As the saying goes, let us not let them have died in vain. Continue to write, to draw, to read. Continue to speak without fear and let your voice be heard.

Nous n‘ oublions pas. Je suis Charlie.



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