"I would rather die standing up than live on my knees," so presciently declared Stéphane Charbonnier in response to "friendly" suggestions that he tone down his provocative commentary satirizing religious fanaticism.
Yesterday in Paris, at the marches following the attack that left twelve employees of the publication Charlie Hebdo dead in their office, protestors stood up, carrying signs with the slogan, “Je suis Charlie.” That phrase, as readers well know by now, refers to the newspaper that was attacked. It strikes a somber chord: All of France mourns for the murdered Charlie Hebdo employees, and all feel simultaneously vulnerable. Not lost in a crowd of apathetic people, the protestors are instead standing up, boldly, standing by Charlie Hebdo and its often-controversial publications. The crowd is no longer quietly supporting the publisher of the Mohammed cartoons, but instead staunchly defending the journal’s right to publish them. Francois Hollande and other politicians were quick to condemn the attacks and to stand by Charlie Hebdo.
News outlets are pointing out the release of this eerily prophetic cartoon drawn by Charbonnier, also known as Charb, one of the magazine’s most active cartoonists, who was also its managing editor:
(Under the headline, STILL NO ATTACKS IN FRANCE…, a man carrying an AK-47 shouts, “Wait! We still have until the end of January to present our New Year’s greetings.”)
Perhaps more eerie is another cartoonist’s premonition of his death at the hands of religious extremists. One of the magazine’s most active and renowned cartoonists, Cabu, sat for an interview with TV5MONDE in 2012, and spoke about the rise of fanaticism among the religious in France, and declared: “What we cannot accept, in France, is to have our lives threatened over a cartoon.” In the United States, there is a blurry separation of Church and State. In France, the line is dark, bold, and thick. Cabu spoke to the threat that religious zeal posed to a “secular” France: his cartoons were meant to criticize the notion that religious laws should influence secular, republican ones.
The staff of Charlie Hebdo knew that they were targeted, and that their cartoons caused a stir. In 2006, the magazine reprinted cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed that were originally published in a Danish publication. The cartoons enraged Muslim groups the world over, leading to riots that left over 50 people dead across the Middle East and protests across Europe. Charlie Hebdo was brought to court in an attempt to prevent publication, but ultimately acquitted of charges to incite hatred and allowed to publish the cartoons. Some of the magazine’s staff were placed under police protection after the cartoon controversy. As of 2011, after another issue that further fanned the flames of controversy, additional security had been ordered to protect the office.
When Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons in 2006, then-President Jacques Chirac lambasted the magazine, calling the printing of the cartoons a “provocation.” Charlie Hebdo stood by its decision, calling the publishing of an image criticizing religion a defense of democratic ideals. Charlie Hebdo had been sued nearly twenty times by the start of 2015, and its leadership was well acquainted with the laws of expression in France, even outwardly supporting laws against defamation, inciting anti-Semitism or racial hatred. But some, mostly religious groups, criticized the magazine, arguing that it always just narrowly avoided the line of illegality, abusing its platform to publish harmful, anti-religious messages.
If politicians defended the magazine’s right to publish controversial cartoons, it was only weakly, all while simultaneously insisting that were they in charge of a publication, they would never publish such material. On the eve of releasing a provocative cover in September 2012, the Paris police called the editors, urging them to reconsider the layout. Charlie Hebdo faced obstacles from government, law enforcement, religious groups, and more. Indeed, Charlie Hebdo was born out of an earlier publication, L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri, which was banned by the French government.
Now, only after tragedy, government officials and ordinary citizens alike join in their shock and outrage at the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. Protestors stand together, as one, as “Charlie.” And yet, those who were targeted wouldn’t be shocked: they predicted this in articles, through art, and in interviews. They knew this day could come. They understood the unjust price they might pay for exercising their most fundamental of freedoms.
I can’t help but note something that has been irking me since the attack: the gunmen fled the scene, along with a third person. Given that the assault was seemingly carried out in the name of religious fundamentalism, it says something that the perpetrators so swiftly departed. The fact makes the attack all the more horrific: those at Charlie Hebdo were willing to die for their freedoms, for their art, while those who killed them, so righteous in their indignation, were not. (One of the suspects seemingly was willing to confront the authorities eventually, as he reportedly turned himself in, voluntarily, to French police; his fate remains to be seen.)
On the ground, all seem to agree that it was too professional a job; these people were trained. There were no bullets sprayed across the office, and very few bullets missed their intended targets. That certainly doesn't suggest the work of amateur young jihadists who came home after a few weeks or months of training in Syria, or of three simply troubled individuals---two gunmen and their getaway driver. Witnesses who saw the attackers go into the office thought that they were there on legitimate business. We also know that France has especially strong domestic surveillance and counterterrorism programs. Those programs were caught completely off guard. What’s scary about the perpetrators’ escape is not just cowardice, but also that the success (so far) of the escape suggests not only that the attack was premeditated and well-organized, but that someone (individual, group, or even government) may have the “back” of those who carried it out.