Slaughtered For Satire

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 7 2015 @ 12:07pm

The Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has in the past been condemned and firebombed for its satirical depictions of the prophet Muhammad, were ambushed this morning by two gunmen, who killed 12 people before fleeing the scene. A massive manhunt is now underway throughout the French capital:

Visiting the scene of the country’s worst atrocity in decades, the French president, François Hollande, described it as “a terrorist attack, without a doubt”. Hollande said the assault, which happened at about 11.30am on Wednesday after the magazine’s staff had gathered for their weekly editorial meeting, was “an act of exceptional barbarism”. Warning that several other attacks had been foiled in recent weeks, the president called for national unity and convened an emergency cabinet meeting. The French government raised the terror alert level in the greater Paris region to the highest level possible. …

A spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office, Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, confirmed that 12 people had been killed in the attack. Police said three attackers were involved, two who entered the building and a third who drove a car to the scene, in rue Nicolas Appert in the 11th arrondissement in eastern Paris. The gunmen escaped in the car before abandoning it in the 19th arrondissement, where they hijacked another car, ordering the motorist out.

The Guardian is live-blogging. As of this writing, the gunmen have not been identified or apprehended, and no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, though ISIS had previously threatened to target France. Katie Zavadski speaks with a terrorism expert on what made this attack unusual:

That the attackers sped away instead of fighting to the death, however, means that Wednesday’s attack is different in style from the suicide attacks often deployed by terror organizations. Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, tells Daily Intelligencer that the highly-trained gunmen may have been too valuable to waste on such a mission — especially given that a suicide attack would have only required one bomber. “This is a far more dangerous kind of attacker because the terrorist group invests heavily in their training and preparation, and will be able to have a second or even a third strike if they want to really spread terror and panic beyond the magazine and the 11th arrondissement,” she said, referring to the area of Paris where the attack occurred.

Max Fisher stands up for Charlie Hebdo’s dedication to pushing Islamists’ buttons:

The magazine was not just criticized by Islamist extremists. At different points, even France’s devoutly secular politicians have questioned whether the magazine went too far; French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius once asked of its cartoons, “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”

It is, actually. Part of Charlie Hebdo’s point was that respecting the taboos strengthens their censorial power. Worse, allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists’ premises: that free speech and religion are inherently at odds (they are not), and that there is some civilizational conflict between Islam and the West (there isn’t). These are also arguments, by the way, made by Islamophobes and racists, particularly in France, where hatred of Muslim immigrants from north and west Africa is a serious problem.

Michael Rubin comes to a similar conclusion:

Satire and ridicule are like carnival caricatures. They may exaggerate, but they strike a chord because their basis in fact resonates with a wide audience. Such is the case also with satire. Islamists cannot handle free thinking at the best of times, but ridicule is their kryptonite, for it shows that the would-be caliphs have no clothes.

Free speech can be a powerful tool, and so Western liberals should rally around Charlie Hebdo. To suggest that the satirical outlet brought violence upon itself is to suggest women wearing bikinis invite rape. Do not blame the victims, but rather the perpetrators. Recognize that free speech is under assault, and that it is a value worth protecting. Let us hope that no government or publisher responds to today’s violence with self-censorship, as some commentators and journalists have counseled under similar circumstances. If they do, the Islamists have won and all man’s progress since the Enlightenment is at peril.

But Massie despairs of the aftermath of this attack:

Doubtless some will still, even now, find a way to blame the victims. Doubtless some will do anything they can to avoid looking reality squarely in the face. Doubtless some will pretend that reality can be wished away or that responsibility can be transferred to someone, anyone, other than the perpetrators. Shame on those people. Shame. 

Doubtless, too, there will be the usual calls on all Muslims everywhere to condemn these attacks as though they bear some inchoate communal responsibility for the barbarous actions of their co-religionists. This too will be drearily predictable and familiar and, most of all, desperately unfair. Their Islam has nothing to do with this even if it is also true that other subscribers to the faith do not share their views. The platitudinous suggestion Islam is a religion of peace is evidently, abundantly, true for the vast majority of Muslims while being utterly untrue for some. And so what? Where does that leave us? Only in a state of dread that’s matched only by its inadequacy.