The events that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday 7th need not be recounted here – their reverberations so emphatic, their sorrow so implicit, the world sits contemplative of what it all means for France, for Liberty, for us all. We turn our attention then to the question not what, but why? Are we to believe that the sole aim of this attack was to seek retribution on a group of journalists and cartoonists who had made a joke about the prophet Mohammed? It appears to me there was another unspoken goal, asking a direct question of us all: the question of our collective response to this story.
The question turns to how, or rather, whether we should respond. Terrorism seems a modern phenomenon to us, but just over a hundred years ago an act of terrorism began a war, which is today as much engraved in our collective consciousness as it is in the fields of Northern France. Then, terrorism was intended to trigger conflict among Europe’s Kings and Kingmakers, and so it did. This week, an act of terrorism is intended to make the people of the world sit up and speak, through pictures, videos and incendiary remarks encapsulated in 140 characters. In a cruel irony, the very freedom of speech, for which the brave men and women inside 10 rue Nicolas-Appert died, is intended to provoke an outpouring of feeling that can be moulded into a narrative of division and escalating violence. The perpetrators seek to divide West from East in acts of terror, justified by a form of quasi-religious loathing.
Given that this is their aim, should we not respond in a way that rejects this narrative? Terrorists feed on never-ending news channels; on instant text alert updates, on global ripples being forged by the tips of our fingers, and ultimately on the ink that will doubtless flow, as news organizations look to cash in on the public’s apparent interest. Our freedom, in the form of a technologically equipped society, obsessed by the moment, provides nectar for any terrorist with a Kalashnikov and a detachment from humanity.
The 24-hour running news footage that has followed those fatal gunshots last Wednesday, yes, will tell of a sympathetic people united against terror, against violence, against an attack on the most cherished cornerstone of their collective modern polity; liberté, égalité, fraternité. But elsewhere, that image will tell the tale of a Western world united against Muslims, and in doing so will hasten the terrorists’ eventual goal: division and conflict.
Silhouetted against the horizon stands the figure of Marine Le Pen and ultra-nationalists who will, as I write, be forcefully making the case for a hegemonic French culture, disdainful of its five million Muslims and more opposed than ever to immigrants and its ever-denigrated colonial diaspora. Every word spat out about Muslims this week should be met with the response ‘Crusades, Empire, Iraq’. In moments like these, when media generated hysteria can unite people before attempting to nail them to a cross, moderation must not be lost to bigotry. Between the words we type on the internet, and the pages our fingers turn, a silent war wages slowly onwards. A war not only for the nature of French society, but for our collective European identity.
Georgie Orwell once wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This maxim was tested on Wednesday morning. Today it stands as it will tomorrow, maimed, yet ever more resilient.