Three gunmen shouting Al Qaeda slogans murdered 12 journalists Wednesday at the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French newspaper. They asked for the journalists, including the editor and four of France’s top cartoonists, by name, then shot them.
Why this sudden display of violence? The terrorists were offended by the publications’s art.
Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, among those killed in the terrorist attack, was not afraid to stand up for freedom. After Charlie Hebdo was bombed in 2011, Charbonnier said, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”
Charlie Hebdo had been threatened previously and was destroyed with petrol bombs in 2011. Following that attack, Charbonnier pointed out that Islam is not exempt from freedom of the press.
“If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying,” Charbonnier said.
He called the bombing the work of “idiot extremists” and vowed to continue his work regardless. “This is the first time we have been physically attacked, but we won’t let it get to us,” he said of the 2011 bombing. “When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it.”
Fast forward three years and, though Charbonnier was killed, freedom lives on. Over 5.7 million Twitter messages using the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #CharlieHebdo have been posted in support of the French people and Charlie Hebdo since the attack.
Hundreds of thousands have gathered in peaceful protests around the world and millions have shown support through social media. During gatherings, supporters held signs reading “Je Suis Charlie” and “Not Afraid.” Those without signs held up their phones with “Je Suis Charlie” displayed or raise pens, symbolizing the freedoms of speech and press. Some held copies of Charlie Hebdo to the sky in defiance.
French police said approximately 50,000 turned out in France alone; more than 10,000 went to the Place de la Republique in central Paris. “This can help rebirth a spirit of unity,” said Olivier Migda, 38, one of the marchers. “Rather than seeking refuge in nationalism, let’s hope that this will create cohesion.” Protesters at the Place de la Republique spelled out “Not Afraid” with flashlights.
Thousands of others have shown support all over the world. Caroline Meziere, 36, was among hundreds gathered in New York City’s Union Square. “Charlie was a symbol of French expression,” said Meziere, who grew up in France. “It’s shocking that they killed an entire newspaper over [its] sense of humor.”
New York City mayor held a moment of silence during a ceremony to swear in 891 Police Academy recruits. “This was an attack on those who speak freely; it was an attack on the news media; it was an attack on freedom of expression,” he said. “It was an attack on the values we hold dear and that you’re preparing to defend.”
Several hundred gathered in Trafalgar Square. One held a sign reading, “If God exists he does not kill for a drawing.” Others put symbols of the “Je Suis Charlie” movement on the ground in an act of defiance.
“I’m just sad, I’m just shocked, I just don’t understand,” said Marie Humbert, 25. “I never expected to feel as French as I am now.”
Another protester, Dean Stoker, 38, said, “I am just here out of solidarity. I was really sickened by what I saw today. It is an incredibly important thing, freedom of the press and tolerance of others.”
French President Francois Hollande said, “No barbaric act will never extinguish the freedom of the press. We are a united country.”
Hollande met with French religious leaders at Elysee Palace. “We feel today the need to do all that is possible within our communities or religious families to mobilize the believers to feel a sense of living together as well as prevention because God is our witness that we are seeing a degradation of the situation in our society,” said Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and head of the French Council of Muslim Faith.
“We are all French,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said after meeting with the French Ambassador in Rome.
Madrid, Spain suburb Rivas Vaciamadrid said it plans to name a street, plaza or public space “Charlie Hebdo” in memory of those killed and in honor of the freedom of expression. Mayor Pedro del Cura said regarding the tragedy, “a society without satire and criticism is a society in a vegetative state.”
“The only thing we can do against this is to live fearlessly,” Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann said. “Our colleagues in Paris have paid the ultimate price for freedom. We bow before them.” The major German daily put “Cowardly Murderers!” on its front page and “Je Suis Charlie” on the back.
“These people were executed at point-blank range just because of drawings — drawings that didn’t please everyone and provoked anger and controversy but still were just drawings,” said Tunisian Marouen Achouri.
The U.S. Embassy in Paris is using the Je Suis Charlie picture as its Twitter avatar and has declared, “there are no plans to close the U.S. Embassy in Paris or other diplomatic facilities in France.”
Charlie Hebdo plans to publish a million copies next Wednesday, a major increase from the typical 60,000. Patrick Pelloux, a column author for the newspaper, said of the victims, “They were extraordinary men and women. They were killed during a meeting discussing a conference on the fight against racism. Voila. The magazine will continue.”
Other French media have promised help. “Confronted with horror, Radio France, Le Monde and France Televisions will provide Charlie Hebdo and its staff the human and material means it needs to continue,” they said in a joint statement.
It seems the terrorists failed in their objective. They may have won the battle, but they have lost the war. Millions of freedom-loving people around the world who had never heard of the French satire newspaper until yesterday are now standing with France and declaring, “We are not afraid. Je Suis Charlie.”