While we were in Paris on my study abroad trip, 12 journalists at the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed in their offices, mere minutes from our hotel. Actually, we flew in on that day, into a city full of chaos, intense security, and a strange, eerie calm. Later, we would be exploring the Eiffel Tower area when hostages would be taken at a deli on the western end of Paris, in Porte de Vincennes. And I would speak to a waitress at the cafe we hunkered down in, and she would tell me, very seriously, “Today is a day where Parisians stay home.”
I love Paris. I loved it more than I expected, and I had held it to a high standard before I even arrived at Charles De Gaulle. So to enter the city during a period of high emotions and tension was…off-putting. One of our lecturers at SciencesPo discussed the history of Charlie Hebdo’s publication. He was right in telling us that Charlie Hebdo doesn’t just mock Islam, but Christianity, Judaism, and political figures as well. That doesn’t mean, though, Charlie Hebdo has a free pass on the content it produced.
What is so unique to me about the existence of Charlie Hebdo is that I firmly believe nothing of its kind could exist in America. It is so offensive, so vulgar, so absolutely unacceptable that I can’t fathom anyone taking the time to print what would undoubtedly be condemned. That’s why it was so interesting to me that the majority of Paris came together to proclaim “Je suis Charlie.” I am Charlie. Are you?
I don’t regret using that hashtag. I believe in free speech, I believe in a world where journalists do not have to fear that their criticisms and sharp observations will be paid back to them in bullets. I believe, also, in a world of tolerance.
Did Charlie Hebdo have every right to publish the cartoons that they did? Yes.
Should they have published the cartoons that they did?
I believe a fair and free press has a responsibility to only print what it believes will enrich the conversation about whatever it decides to write. Do I think Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons did that? No. But, I’m also not French. And the French attitude toward Charlie Hebdo was much different than I expected. I think, to be completely honest, it was the idea that one could be shot for publishing something that someone else didn’t agree with that scared the French readership collectively.
Charlie Hebdo, before this shooting, was nothing special, from the way I heard it spoken about. It was another voice in a chorus of voices that make up French media. It carved its niche and created within it; it existed in the very French idea that some of our lecturers talked about, that a multitude of voices is better than only a few, even if none of those voices agree.
We were gathered at a publicly owned television network when the news broke of the manhunt across Paris. I asked the high-ranking official showing us around if he was scared. And this Frenchman, with a lot of gray hair, in a navy blue blazer with bags under his eyes, looked at me in the elevator for a second kindly, blinked, and said simply,
“It is an earthquake.”
That is a good comparison for how the French saw this situation. Earthquakes, at first, seem unpredictable and terrifying. But they occur on fault lines, in areas of tension, where the Earth viciously pushes and pulls at itself until something, anything, gives.
To better understand the French attitude (or one of the French attitudes) toward Charlie Hebdo, I think that’s the best quote for it. However…there are other journalists around the world we should be up in arms about as well.
Raif Badawi supposedly insulted Islam on his blog, according to Saudi Arabian officials. He was sentenced last May to 1000 lashes and 10 years of imprisonment. He’s only had fifty so far, and doctors are concerned he may not be able to handle any more, reports The Guardian.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, 79 journalists have been killed there. The article I linked to is an in-depth report on the state of journalists reporting in dangerous areas.
I’ll tell anyone who listens that we take the price of news for granted. To tell you about what’s happening in the Congo, in Russia, in Syria or Lebanon or Israel, Pakistan or Iraq, a journalist has to go there. Not only that, they need be prepared to be targeted for asking too many questions, making enemies, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We assume, in an age of Internet and social media, where we can break news on Twitter, that news is free.
It is not. It never has been, and it never will be.
Now, what Charlie Hebdo published wasn’t news. It wasn’t, one could argue, vital to the national interest or essential to have an informed populace. I would like to imagine that when millions of people gathered in Place de la Republique, they gathered not to support the ideals that Charlie Hebdo expressed, but rather to show solidarity for people who were killed because they worked at a controversial publication.
We left the morning of that rally and boarded a TGV train headed toward Brussels. After days of seeing newscasters doing stand-up shots in front of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, the non-stop blaring of emergency sirens, and breaking news, it was quiet. Peaceful.
Paris was exactly as I had hoped it would be: magical, surreal, and utterly gorgeous. But just because Paris existed in my dreams didn’t mean it was exempt from turmoil. It’s a real city with real issues. I was only a visitor in a place where some people spend their lives. I loved it. I’ll always love it. But I do feel like I have a lot of unfinished business here. So I’ll have to come back.