Act II: Charlie Takes His Solemn Place Next To 9/11
'Je suis Charlie' is a defense of neither blasphemy nor free speech. It is a stark and collective reminder that we know our enemy, and the stakes.
PARIS —Je suis flic, Je suis Ahmed, Je suis Juif ... Je suis Charlie. After the latest vile acts of jihadist terrorism, the homemade placards at Sunday's massive rally in Paris featured what could grimly be characterized as a perfect cast of martyrs: the cop, the Muslim (cop), the Jew, the public face of free speech.
It now seems inevitable, too, that France was bound to provide the stage, with its colonial past and Voltairian spirit, fractured politics and entrenched unemployment, home to Europe's largest population of Muslims, Jews ... and rude cartoonists. It's a place of clashing cultures and social disaffection stirred by wine-swilling artists pushing the bounds of good conduct.
But as George Packer promptly reminded us, the worst mistake in the wake of such an attack is to look for contributing causes or alibis. It would be grotesque to attach such heinous crimes to the living situation of France's Muslim community, or to the Palestinian cause. Not in their name! Meanwhile, the criticism — including from inside the publishing business — about the tastefulness of Charlie Hebdo"s cartoons is not only in notably bad taste (it's certainly bad timing), it's also wrong.
That the cartoonists were hunted down and killed is the tragic proof of the relevancy, though not necessarily the decency, of their work.
France and much of the world reacted Sunday with the kind of unity, clarity and dignity such barbaric acts warrant. When I joined the spontaneous chants of Char-lie, Char-lie, Char-lie, I had no interest then, nor have I ever, in mocking anyone's religion. Indeed, Je suis Charlie is ultimately not about free speech per se, as those lines and laws can be drawn in different places. That name instead represents nothing more and nothing less than the man of good intentions (whether right or wrong, ally or antagonist) murdered by the man of bad faith.
That's what Le Monde's editor Jean-Marie Colombani meant 13 years ago when he wrote "Nous sommes tous Américains" (We are all Americans) the day after the 9/11 attack. And so, too, Je suis Charlie revives the collective condemnation of the nihilistic violence of our time, festering as it is in a dark corner of Islam, as incomprehensible as it is seemingly unstoppable, first and foremost for Muslims of good faith.
Of course, religious-driven violence has never really gone away, and we see how vast it can be, especially these past few days in Nigeria. We also now have nearly two decades' worth of mistakes the West has made in failing to combat it, and sometimes feeding it, even as it grows ever clearer that it ultimately will be a struggle inside Islam.
In Paris, this violence reared its head again in a way that has captured the world's attention — hunting down cartoonists as they shared jokes around their morning croissants, finishing off Ahmed Merabet as he lay helpless on the sidewalk, executing Jews who'd gone shopping for Sabbath groceries.
The proximity of being here can prompt comparison to other attacks in recent years, on trains or in markets. Is a terrorist hunting down a specific target more chilling than an indiscriminate attack? Well, says the Jewish satirist in me, that all depends on whether you're the target. The more serious answer, of course, is that they are two sides of the same coin — 2,800 faceless people in a famous New York skyscraper or a handful of people called out by name in a faceless office in Paris. We are all Charlie.
Back in 2001, the target was the United States, and the perpetrators were 19 natives of the Middle East sent over by evil masterminds huddled away in Afghanistan hatching a plot that not even Hollywood could have dreamed up. This time the killers were French born and raised who, most likely with the help of other evil masterminds far away and the frothing of the Internet, carried out an assault that sounds disturbingly like a bad video game.
More relevant now is how we react. It is a chance for France to lead, which it has done quite admirably in the past five days. But the hard work is ahead. That domestic mix of factors cited above, and the geographic proximity to war zones in the Middle East, remind us in a different way than 9/11 that the world is a small place.
Thirteen years ago, I was a correspondent in Rome, and was spending much of my time in Milan, where investigators were tracking Italy's most active Islamic terror cell. When news broke one Friday in April that a plane had crashed into Milan's tallest building, I hopped on the first flight to cover it. Information was scarce at first, and only seven months after 9/11, I would describe that feeling as wondering if the other shoe had dropped.
The pilot turned out to be a depressed 67-year-old named Luigi-Gino Fasulo, and I returned to Rome with a sigh of relief. In the years that followed, there would be Madrid and London, Bali and Boston, Daniel Pearl and James Foley, Theo van Gogh and Danish cartoonists. Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza and Syria, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram. It is a sad continuum in a world that can't seem to heal itself.
Last Wednesday's attack took place just around the corner from our office, no doubt adding to its urgency for our little global news outfit. But it was finally the presence of world leaders Sunday at Place de la Republique that confirmed our shared sense that, for the nature and timing of the Paris attacks, the other shoe has now dropped.
So as Act II begins, the good people of the city and world may now bow our heads to pray for the future. You can be rest assured that Charlie will watch us all and laugh.
*Jeff Israely is the editor of Worldcrunch.