It’s safe to guess that by now you’ve heard the news of the mass shooting yesterday in France. To say the attack was horrific, reprehensible, abhorrent and brutal is true, but those words still fail to capture how this feels for us — not to mention what it means to the people of France. In any case, it feels like a rehearsal in the litany of words we use when trying to describe events like this that leave us utterly dejected.
It has happened again.
In case you’ve only seen the ticker-tape version of the news, here are the details of the shooting: Yesterday morning, two heavily armed men stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine, and murdered 12 people. Among the dead are members of the magazine’s editorial staff and celebrated cartoonists. It is all but confirmed the attack was carried out in retaliation for the magazine’s history of publishing irreverent caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Charlie Hebdo has long been regarded as one of the most dedicated publications to free speech and resistance to censorship. The irreverent weekly is notorious for inciting the resentment of people of all political and religious affiliations through its bitter satire. In the face of every kind of adversity, Charlie Hebdo has resisted any outside pressure for self-censorship by ramping up the offending actions with mischievous glee.
The magazine began to provoke the ire of radical Islamists in 2006 when it published the now-infamous Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Negative reactions from extremists, the press and French government served only to encourage Charlie Hebdo’s staff. Even when its office was firebombed in 2011 in response to an edition of the magazine that featured Muhammad as a “guest editor,” Charlie Hebdo continued to taunt violent extremists the best way it knew how. Undaunted by the firebombing and to the chagrin of the French government, it published more caricatures of Muhammad a year later.
We can only hope that Charlie Hebdo and its satire — which must exist if a liberal, democratic tradition is to continue — are not defeated by this attack.
But it’s every bit as important that we do not allow this attack to color our perceptions of people. By the time this is published, pundits and hatemongers will have surely crawled out of their bunkers and begun to spew their pathetic rhetoric at anyone willing to listen.
The predictable backlash against Islam at large is not only misguided and simplistic but incredibly disrespectful. Western civilization wasn’t blamed for the actions of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man so disgusted by what he saw as the erosion of Western values that he murdered 77 of his own countrymen. Christianity isn’t maligned when anti-abortion extremists gun down OB-GYNs for performing abortions. These things stand alone for what they are: despicable crimes. The attack against Charlie Hebdo should be treated the same. Pretending otherwise is to prey on ignorance and frustration as well as politically benefit from a tragedy.
[A version of this story ran on page 6 on 1/8/2015 under the headline ""]