By William C. Below Jr.
At 10:30 on Wednesday morning, January 7, I was slogging through my routine at the gym on a small side street off the Place de la Bastille in Paris’ eleventh arrondissement. About a block from there, across a broad and curving tree-lined strip that covers a navigable canal leading out of Paris to the north—the Boulevard Richard Lenoir— is a patchwork enclave of industrial spaces and bland apartment buildings from the 19th century mixing with even blander social housing from the 1970’s and 80’s. On a short street within that enclave—rue Nicolas Appert—are the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Charlie Hebdo (which translates to “Charlie Weekly”) occupies a unique place in French consciousness. It’s a mix between National Lampoon, Mad Magazine, The Onion and Fritz the Cat. Add to that a healthy portion of Voltaire’s anti-clericalism and what might be called “radical cheekiness” and one begins to get some sense of the magazine. Its main contributors that were gunned down Wednesday, the cartoonists Cabu, Wolinksi, Honoré and Tinous, all took up their pens during the events of May 1968, the apogee of student and civil unrest that rocked France. They choose satire as their weapon of choice at a time when French society was in the midst of massive upheavals. The status quo and the errors associated with it, notably the atrocities committed by the French forces during the Algerian War, inspired numerous forms of rebellion, but theirs was with the pen; it was about societal change through derision and satire—and constantly testing the limits of tolerance of institutions that espoused liberty but just as often sought to squelch it. In another time and context, they might have been heroes to the very individuals who gunned them down. But while its humor can be scathing, Charlie Hebdo is not mean-spirited. It does not spread hate. It is a slayer of sacred cows. Its tone is cynico-humanism. But the role of national gadfly is not without risk. It has been criticized by the Christian right and by Muslim and Jewish associations. The previous offices were firebombed in 2011. Stéphane Charbonnier, the magazine’s unrelenting editorial director, among the victims Wednesday, was on Al Qaeda’s hit list and had constant police protection. The officer protecting him, a muslim, was summarily executed in the rue Nicolas Appert Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, as I was leaving the gym, two brothers were making their way to the offices of Charlie Hebdo a block away. Within an hour the self-described jihadists had forced their way into the offices and, calling out Charbonnier by name, executed him. Within minutes, twelve people were dead, most of them shot in the head. I learned about the massacre from the LA Times. I was crossing the Seine by bus, picking up my daughter on the Left Bank when I received the push notification. The shock was compounded by the news of who the victims were. These were cartoonists that were well known by the French public. Each contributed to the press through outlets other than Charlie Hebdo. Each had a reputation beyond the magazine. It’s as though the most recognizable names in US political cartooning were summarily executed. Cartoonists? Really? The effect was ghastly and hugely disturbing, a reaction that would be shared by the country and the world.
Everyone in our circle took to Facebook. Ahmed, who works in the building next to the Charlie Hebdo offices was on the phone with a client when he thought he heard firecrackers—the mind doesn’t immediately turn to thoughts of Kalashnikovs, or doesn’t want to. Later, as he evacuated the building he saw the bodies, an image he can’t get out of his mind. Later, we went to meet with him. The area was cordoned off. Flowers had begun to accumulate at the foot of the barricades. The global press corps had gathered with its equipment and transformed an otherwise quiet street that I go down twice a week. A familiar and unremarkable neighborhood corner had been transformed into a scene of death and horror the world was now gazing on. We hugged and Ahmed bravely went back to work.
News the next morning that a policewoman had been shot just south of Paris introduced a small voice of dread that gradually grew louder over the day. Paris had had a string of terrorist attacks in the summer and fall of 1995 and all of us wondered if Wednesday’s massacre was the start of another awful series. Over the next two days, as the manhunt for the two terrorists played out, sirens and emergency vehicles were constantly present throughout the city. This came to a head on Friday morning. Walking to an appointment, my wife Amy and I encountered a huge convoy of police vehicles speeding eastward on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, sirens blaring. As police surrounded the brothers in Dammartin outside of Paris, a hostage situation had broken out less than two miles from us on the eastern edge of the city. That afternoon, the world watched in real time as four more victims died, this time singled out for being Jewish.
Three nights of spontaneous gatherings followed the carnage, at the Place de la République, a ten-minute walk from the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and throughout France and the world. President Hollande announced a Unity Marche set for Sunday to pass directly under our windows. Before the end of Friday, some 60 world leaders had chosen to attend in solidarity.
Saturday night was a sleepless one, punctured by the sounds of barricades going up and sirens. And then there was the doubt: How could 60 heads of state, let alone the rest of us, march safely through the streets of a city on high alert? By 9 am Sunday, the street beneath our flat was blocked by dozens of riot vehicles. The synagogue down the street was cordoned off with military personnel standing guard with automatic rifles. This is the new status quo for synagogues and Jewish establishments throughout the city. By 4 pm, a huge crowd had gathered in the square downstairs, the mid-point in the symbolic route from Place de la République to Place de la Nation. Soon, the leaders of 60 countries would appear before our building, accompanied by the families of the victims of the massacres. We joined the crowds marching towards Place de la Nation, a crowd subdued, dignified and resolute. It was the largest gathering since the liberation of Paris. The takeaway: when you mess with cartoonists, you mess with the very foundations of a free society.
The protest brought some comfort and sense to an otherwise tragic and extremely disturbing week, where the ugliest violence hailed down on a neighborhood then set a city, a country and the world into movement. As the throngs poured into the place de la Nation just blocks from the supermarket where 4 Jewish individuals were gunned down 48 hours previously, there were no speeches, no one to bring the week to a proper end… if such a thing were possible. It wasn’t a destination, it was a process; a demonstration, not a conclusion. In the end, the million and more people disbanded and went home, each to deal with horrors of the week privately.
Paradoxically, one advantage of a reasonably functional democracy is the luxury of apathy. We expect the great ship of state to continue its course as we go about our busy lives. But, as France and the world learned, it is a fragile luxury, even a dangerous one. Charlie Hebdo was a weekly test case of one of the founding principles of the French Republic, and indeed of all modern democracies. With the massacre of its staff and the murder of three policemen and four individuals because they were Jewish, the luxury of apathy has been suspended. For how long, only time will tell.
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