Charlie and Me: An American in France, or—’It’s like France’s 9/11’

| Staff Writer

On the morning of Jan. 7 in Paris, two armed men killed 12 people and injured 11 more during an attack on the office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. By the end of the week, a French police officer, four hostages at a kosher supermarket and three suspects in the shootings were also killed.

I am currently studying abroad in France and was in Toulouse during the massacre. At the time, I didn’t take the shootings very seriously—yes, it was a terrible thing, but six people would die in St. Louis over the course of 12 hours just a week later. I think I was (and still am) desensitized to gun violence on television. It wasn’t until my hostess came home that I realized the weight of what had happened.

“It’s like France’s 9/11,” she explained to me. “It is the worst terror attack France has seen in two decades.”

The comparison to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 annoyed me. First, almost 3,000 people died on 9/11. Second, to me, the victims of 9/11 were innocent—they were just people going to work. On the other hand, the animators at Charlie had been giving a cartoon middle finger to Islam for years. I am now shamefully exposing my knee-jerk reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks: that the cartoonists somehow had it coming.

For some background, let me explain that Charlie’s brand of political satire was, as a young Frenchman later said to me, of “a particular taste.” The publication regularly mocked Muslims, Christians and Jews in undeniably offensive ways. Some particularly objectionable cartoons included the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit engaged in a threesome; a “Shoah” (Holocaust) edition of the paper starring a wild-eyed rabbi; and the prophet Muhammad in pornographic poses. In America, we are given freedom of religion; in France, you get freedom from religion. To my very American bleeding heart, Charlie was a vehicle for hate speech against a religious freedom I held dear.

I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t quite swallow the publication’s brand of humor. The magazine’s offices were firebombed in 2011 after running cartoons of Muhammad, and in 2012 the French government shuttered its embassies in 20 countries in preparation for the backlash against “Charlie’s” porn-star prophet.

Charlie Hebdo was by no means a popular paper in France, either. In 2012, it printed about 45,000 copies a week; for comparison, Mad Magazine’s circulation figures were over three times that in 2014.

And yet, after stewing on news about “Charlie” for two weeks, talking to friends and family in the U.S. and France, and allowing my journalist self to slap some sense into my bleeding-heart liberal-self, I feel like a total and complete idiot for ever thinking that the cartoonists were in any way less innocent than the victims of 9/11.

They were political satirists. It was their job to be incendiary, dirty and outlandish. It was not their job to be politically correct, humane or even nice. France and America give their citizens freedom of speech for a reason. Victims of hate speech have every right to protest its incendiary existence, but people should not live in fear that hateful words will result in hateful actions.

And here is where I begin to struggle again, suspended between peaceful protests on the streets of my new home and fatal ones abroad; my desire to say both “Je suis Charlie” to my hostess and “I’m sorry” to the Muslims hurt by Islamophobia; and the knowledge that free speech may depend on what you’re saying. In France, 54 people—including a cartoonist— have been arrested for hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism since the attacks.

As an American, I feel the need to publicly defend this tiny, dumb French paper’s right to exist in exactly the way it does—as strongly as I also desire to clean up the media and turn it into the beautiful, humanitarian vessel that I dream of it becoming.

I’m pretty tired of the violence I’ve seen in St. Louis and abroad. I’m tired of letting my brain run on binaries all day long. Thankfully, because of the time difference, I get to go to bed. As I dream sweetly of a world free from terrorism and sectarianism, the Social Justice Center will host a discussion on the intersection of religion and race at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Though I slumber, I hope Washington University stays woke.