Democracy and Freedom of Speech: Attack at 'Charlie Hebdo', Paris; 'Je suis Charlie' Speeding around the World
You are in your office. You’re working on the next edition of your magazine, at your desk, deciding which of your ideas is the most dramatic, the most meaningful. It’s a mild, windy day, the window-panes are rattling. Then you hear a noise that doesn’t blend into the usual background. You start to feel uneasy. Before you can work it out, the door bursts open and so do the machine guns. For you and nine other colleagues, that’s the end of the story, the brutal finale to your life. Bodies wrenched from existence, left staring in disbelief at the ceiling, arms and legs flung, limp and bloodied, across the desks, to the floor, cut down in the split second of a thought of fleeing. Family and friends who are absent from that scene are not spared the brutality.
Wednesday 7th January 2015
Shock waves sent huge ripples from Rue Nicolas Appert, Paris, across Europe and beyond. It was in that road in central Paris, specifically in the offices of the satyrical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’, that three terrorists entered with automatic weapons, shot 10 journalists and later 2 policemen. Other killings and injuries at different times and in other areas of the country took place, attributed to the same organisation.
Those who had entered the office then proceeded to travel North of Paris, only to back-track and eventually hole-up in a printing office of a small industrial town called Dan Martin. This action, apparently, was not planned; they were intercepted, had to run and chose those offices to end their days. It seems that they were prepared to die, were calm and injured no one in that building. The inevitable happened; they died and will be regarded as martyrs by their own supporters.
The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo had created and published a cartoon making fun of Mohammad. They make fun of all religions, all persuasions, all walks of life, for their living. Attacks had been perpetrated before; they knew the risks. They continued to exercise their freedom of speech, putting forward views which make people think, which make people question their own and others’ values. Many satyrical magazines in Britain and in other countries throughout the world do the same. It is their democratic right, freedom of speech is fundamental to our society. Both these values are respected throughout the Western World. They are not designed to harm anyone; their words do not discriminate.
I find it sad, not to mention incredible, that people cannot discuss, persuade, influence and aid understanding, by talking, by writing, by explaining, by informing themselves of different beliefs, different philosophies and different walks of life. It is also sad that humour cannot be accepted as part of that discussion.
It is even more important than ever that education offer an umbrella of information and understanding.
Words not War
Those shock waves are still pulsing through the ether. They are powerful and so is the reaction. Why? Because everyone has rallied together in support, in indignation, in determination that the power of words should overcome violence.
The first gathering took place in the evening of 7th January, in Place de la Republique, Paris, not far from the Charlie Hebdo offices. The crowd was silent and the Eiffel Tower switched off its lights for 5 minutes.
There have been rallies in many capitals and other cities of the world. One nation is being supported by other nations, unreservedly and whole-heartedly. As with many such events in the past and when natural disasters cause destruction, nations rally, people unite and the power of that unification has the ability to move, to change the world.
Solidarity in Paris
Why Such Solidarity?
Why is it that we unite so solidly in the face of such things, even if we are far from where a tragedy happens?
There are two main reasons, I believe.
Firstly, we think, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' It could have been one of us or one of our family. Though the employees at the magazine's office knew they were at risk, those who lived at Dan Martin had no idea on one day that they would be involved in a hostage situation on the next. They lived in an ordinary place in a small country town.
It's the fact that we can indentify so well with what's happened that we feel outraged. It becomes an attack on us, a personal issue.
Secondly, the values of democracy and freedom of speech are at the core of our being. Threaten that and you are threatening our existence, our day-to-day lives, our beliefs.
However, we don't generally go out and kill someone because he or she doesn't have the same philosophy. We try to enter into reasoned discussion. We try to understand each other, try to listen and exchange views.
There is comfort in sharing grief, sharing problems, sharing reactions. There is strength in a group of like-minded people. There is power in that comfort, in that strength and in putting forward a common message - peacefully.
Friends in France
Friends, in a central village of France where we used to have a house, sent me the ‘Je suis Charlie’ message and asked me to pass it on by text. I did so, not only by text but also by email. I want to pass it on to you and maybe you will pass it on to others. The idea is to support the French, to show that solidarity works and to get the message back to Paris to show those affected that support is there, that we care, that they are not alone.
The underlying message, of course, is that we support all those around the world who have suffered and are still suffering from similar events and atrocities, at the same time uniting in our belief of freedom of speech.
I have French friends who live in a small village close to Dan Martin. Their daughter knew someone who was hiding in an outbuilding at those offices. He was not found by the gunmen but it brought the whole issue much closer to home. Imagine lying low, your heart pounding in your head, your nerves tingling, your breath short, thinking that the door could burst open at any time, followed by gunfire and eternal blackness. For him, the ending was life. Some were not so lucky.
All these friends are taking part in rallies on 11th January 2015, in Paris, in Bourges and others will be attending similar gatherings around the globe.
Tools of the Trade
Mightier than the Gun
Ok, it’s a cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. However, if you now look at the cartoons that have emerged from those offices and others, you will see the power of the pencil, the cartoonist’s ‘weapon’ of choice. Just like the pen, or the keyboard, it hits home with much more meaning and it harms none.
We, as writers, cartoonists, painters and artists in whatever form, have to use this power to make a difference. We have to show support for those who have been deprived of family members, friends, clever and devoted professionals, those who knew men and women who were doing their jobs.
We have to use our talent as writers to spread a message of peace, of co-operation, of understanding and well-being. That is the most important thing that we can do.
I would like to see more writers advocating a unified approach for tackling terrorism, for finding ways to take a peaceful path through this anger, hatred and futility.
Grasp the Baton
If you are willing, if you agree, please pass on this message to as many of your friends and associates as you can. It’s not just for the French. It’s for the world.
‘Je suis Charlie. Solidarity’. I am Charlie. Ich bin Charlie....... It works in whatever language you choose.
There is a danger that there will be a backlash against Muslims. Unfortunately this is always the case. We must remember that Islam is a peaceful religion, that it is only the fanatics who advocate such violence.
When it is they who receive the limelight, the headlines and have a seemingly regular, commonplace image in our society, it is easy to forget that they do not represent the religion they claim to fight for.
It is for that reason that education, discussion and understanding should remain paramount for fear of reprisals. Tolerance, peace and an exchange of words can do so much more.
Let's use the pen, the pencil, our thoughts, our words and our humanity to try to eliminate violence from our world. It might seem an impossible ideal but if we don't have ideals where do we go?
I Urge you to Look at these:
Further information, Reactions & Links:
Please have a look at these amazing cartoons created in response:
Information on the shooting and on those who died: