PARIS — It is always hard to write in the midst of dramatic events. In the days following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, it felt impossible to report on the tragic attack or the ensuing manhunt for gunmen Chérif and Saïd Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly. Though I did not feel particularly affected by the attack, I found myself engrossed in the manhunt. As events unfolded across live news feeds, relentless images and details threatened to drive me crazy.
I was present at the first demonstration, held the very evening of the attacks. This spontaneous gathering seemed reassuring. Thousands congregated at the Place de la République, as if our people’s only response to such news was to regroup and unite in order to forget our individual pain. But even at this early gathering, members of the crowd voiced political concerns. Some feared that events would spur unjustified associations between extremists and the French Muslim community at large. While many politicians condemn this juxtaposition, called the “amalgam,” constant political discussion may serve only to reenforce the subconscious association.
For 48 hours, France held its breath, as details emerged from the police, including some mistakes made in the pursuit of justice. A young man was briefly implicated by a misinformed journalist as the accomplice of the Kouachi brothers, before several schoolmates reported the accused teenager was in class at that time. Finally, at the end of the second day following the attacks, the police assaulted a hangar where the brothers sought refuge, as well as a kosher grocery store, where Coulibaly had taken several hostages. All three suspects were killed in the assaults.
My initial reaction to this news was a mixture of relief and disappointment: relief that the manhunt was over; disappointment in this predictable conclusion. This violent end excused the attackers from their day in court, and the French people would receive no justice for this tragedy. To vanquish enemy combatants, the Republic essentially declared a state of war, and the Kouachi brothers could be seen as martyrs. My sense of disappointment was not shared by many. The police had indeed done fantastic work and suffered losses in action. The press would have been irresponsible to imply that the police victory was incomplete.
At this point, my story benefits from my distance to events. A long-planned trip to Portugal drew me away from the Republican March and I decided to cut myself off from the news for three days. Getting out of the country made me realize how oppressive the tension had been following the attacks. I returned with a clearer mind.
Tales and images of the Republican March were impressive. Over 2 million people gathered in the streets of Paris, the largest crowd since the US Army chased out the Nazis, and even greater crowds assembled in other cities. At the head of the cortege, victims’ families were followed by Heads of State and a variety of political leaders. For a day, it seemed that political divisions were abolished.
They were not. Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right party Front National (FN), refused to attend. Le Pen claimed her party was unwanted at this march. Of course members of the FN were wanted. Admittedly, the FN’s stance on Islam and on immigration may be partly responsible for the current tension among French Muslims. But Le Pen failed to see the greater point: that rather than parties, the Republican March was meant to represent the entire French body, and all citizens were invited to participate. The FN clearly made a mistake in opting for an alternative gathering in Beaucaire (in the Southeast of the country), which made the party a dissonant voice in our national chorus.
The French people and leadership responded appropriately to the attacks, and the nation stood mostly unified until the March. But after this brilliant demonstration of democracy, cracks began to appear. The first sign of conflict came from the Muslim community when anti-Zionist humorist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, known simply as Dieudonné, was charged with “defending terrorism,” an offense for which French legislation warrants up to 5 years in prison. Critics denounced a double standard, which punished Dieudonné for utilizing the very right to free speech that the Republican March established. Some even began to parody the popular #JeSuisCharlie hashtag with #JeSuisKouachi.
Further controversy revealed the national union to be superficial, especially in the poor French suburbs known as banlieues. These neighborhoods house most of the Muslim immigrant population, see the highest unemployment rates, and suffer the highest poverty rates. Representatives from the banlieues were noticeably absent from the Republican March, and many religious residents condemned the caricatures of Charlie Hebdo as acts of Islamophobia.
The first cover of Charlie Hebdo following the attacks portrayed the Prophet Muhammad saying, “All is forgiven.” The cover fueled more debate over whether the magazine staff intended it as homage to the fallen victims or as provocation.
France is still reeling in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. While the government has already denied any interest in a “French Patriot Act,” the courts have already opened over 50 cases against vocal supporters of the attackers for condoning terrorism. Though the legislature may not enact specific measures, such exceptionally harsh court actions leave me wondering if the government might be overreacting. Despite the controversial comments of Prime Minister Manuel Valls to the contrary, France is not at war with terrorism. There can be no war against such an enemy. There can only be everlasting vigilance. Greater police protection is an easy solution, but an imperfect one. Absolute security is an illusion.
Meanwhile, poverty still devastates those banlieues, fostering despair and anger among many young Muslims, paving the way for extremist rhetoric. Only through social, economic, and territorial diversity, as well as religious tolerance, can we prevent further attacks. This diversity can be attained by longterm, expensive policies, but the effort will be strengthened by individual citizens.
Although I consider myself an atheist, I personally disagree with Charlie Hebdo’s vilification of religion. I believe we must work to be more accepting of differences, especially religious differences, and more respectful of those we disagree with. But one of the hardest things to do in a debate is to avoid taking sides. My personal beliefs have no priority over the freedoms of expression, press, and blasphemy. These rights are absolute, and no attempt should be made to limit them.
Still, every citizen acting upon these rights should reflect on the proper and socially beneficial use of such freedoms. A famous quote is often attributed to Voltaire, “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll fight for your right to say it.” I would agree, though after the attack on Charlie Hebdo I might add, “… as long as you have weighed the consequences of what you say.”