The immediate reaction to the murder of 12 people at a French magazine can only be horror at the savagery, revulsion at the inhumanity and sympathy for the victims and their families. The world has united in defiance of the attempt to silence those journalists. It must remain equally vigilant against over-reaction to the killings. We must not become a shadow of that we despise.
Two men, alleged to be brothers, entered the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical magazine that has skewered all things sacred in France since 1970, on Wednesday, wearing black military fatigues and carrying Kalashnikovs. They killed a security guard working at the entrance to the office, and then separated men from women, called out the names of individuals they were seeking.
Their first target was chief editor Stephane Charbonnier, who was among al-Qaida’s “most wanted” Westerners for publishing cartoons that made fun of the Prophet Muhammad. They then shot the victims, shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” and “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We have killed Charlie Hebdo!”
Retreating from the scene, they exchanged gunfire with police, murdering at point-blank range a policeman lying wounded on the ground and then killing one other.
The two men have been identified as brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, ages 34 and 32. Cherif has been on the radar of French security services for over a decade. He was featured in a 2005 TV documentary about Islamic radicalism in France. He was detained that year as he readied to go to Syria — apparently he missed the flight — where he would train to fight Americans. He was subsequently arrested in 2008 and sentenced to three years in prison for helping recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq. An 18-month prison term reportedly radicalized him further. Since then, he has continued his radical activities while working as a pizza delivery man.
Less is known about his older brother, a convert to Islam, although he is alleged to have gone to Yemen for several months in 2011 to train with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The attack itself indicates that the brothers received training somewhere. Both are reported to have been on the “no-fly list” of the United States.
As France launched a manhunt for the two men and increased security across the country, the government has been trying to calm a jittery nation: It has announced several arrests and revealed that it has thwarted at least five terrorist attacks over the last 1½ years. But revelations that the brothers had been known to security forces undermine those reassurances.
Officials acknowledged that Cherif Kouachi had been under surveillance after his prison term, but it was determined that he represented no serious threat. It is reckoned that as many as 2,000 French citizens have gone to Iraq or Syria to fight and several hundred have returned. The manpower required to monitor and surveil that many people is staggering. French deficiencies are shared by other governments.
The global response to the murders has been clear and defiant. Crowds have gathered across the world to declare “Je suis Charlie” — “I am Charlie,” a reference to the magazine — and to show support for the victims and freedom of speech. Significantly Islamic leaders across France and the world denounced the killing for the barbarities that they were.
As the world unites to condemn these atrocities, there is the danger of three over-reactions. The first is a very real risk of a rise in intolerance and reprisals against Muslim communities. There have already been explosions at or near two mosques in France, and conservative activists in France and elsewhere are using the attack to push pet political projects.
Marine Le Pen, head of the ultra-right National Front party, said that “the Islamists have declared war against France.” This extreme rhetoric and the inevitable violence that will follow must also be denounced. Individuals who commit crime must be caught and punished; that is not license to slander or attack entire groups.
The second danger is the flip side of that first risk: an attempt to demonstrate solidarity and a refusal to be silenced makes us insensitive to the offenses we do provoke. In many cases, we as individuals or institutions (especially in the media) refrain from saying something even though we are free to do so. Freedom of speech is about a choice to speak — or to remain silent. Pressure works both ways and we must not be bullied in either direction.
There is the very real danger that fear of future violence will oblige us to give up some of the other freedoms we enjoy. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the U.S. and many of its allies recalibrated the balance between the right of privacy and security.
Freedom of speech means nothing if speech merely creates a record that can be used to later circumscribe individual freedom. In such a world, silence is the only sensible option. In such a world, the terrorists have won.