What ‘Je Suis Charlie’ Should Mean to Us


Not long after 9/11, the leading figures in France’s Champagne industry decided that they would hold their 2002 annual awards gala in New York rather than Paris. At no small expense, they displayed solidarity with New Yorkers — and America — at a time of sorrow and fury, like so many of their compatriots. It was one more instance when the French renewed the bond that has existed since this country’s founding.

And not too long after that, disagreement between the French government and the Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq led to a breach between us and our oldest allies. The French tried in vain to save us from a tragic mistake or worse and were rewarded with vilification from Fox News to the floor of Congress.

By now, of course, we know that the French never disagreed with us about the danger posed by Islamist jihad, only about the means and priorities in combating that adversary. Today the French military is supporting the U.S. and other allies by conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq. That continuing alliance requires us all to repeat “Je suis Charlie” in the aftermath of the atrocious terror attack on Parisian satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Yet while we owe that gesture to our old friends, we still owe them, ourselves and the world much more.

As an assault on liberty and security, the barbaric shootings that killed five cartoonists, including the magazine’s editor, two police officers, and five more innocents, cannot be excused or explained. The victims had every right to do what they were doing and what they had done, regardless of the violent anger they stirred among the perpetrators and their sponsors. It is criminal warfare by an implacable enemy that will not desist until it is destroyed.

To understand what is at stake in this struggle, it is important to look closely at what we are defending.

There is no equivalent to Charlie Hebdo in the United States, nor is there a tradition of the kind of anti-religious satire that has been among its specialties. Those killed had the kind of cultural stature of Dr. Seuss, Garry Trudeau, the editors of Mad magazine and the producers of “The Daily Show” — except that their style was far more offensive and challenging than most Americans can imagine, not only in insulting Islam but in insulting Christianity, Judaism and every other congregation of believers in France. Rightists who regard the defense of Charlie Hebdo as merely another opportunity to bash Muslims ought to glance back at the magazine’s equally savage assaults on institutions they hold dear, because its anarchic sense of humor has spared no one. Nobody needs to approve of anything that the editors published, including the mocking cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, to reject the use of violence to suppress them.

Indeed, it is possible to reject the content of those drawings and still stand firmly with the Charlie Hebdo staff. In free societies, there will always be writers and artists who use their freedom in ways that the rest of us find obnoxious, ugly or even dangerous. The French imam who denounced the killings clearly and called the victims “martyrs” surely doesn’t care for those cartoons. But he knows the price of living under constitutional freedom that protects his right to worship — and to protest, without violence, words and pictures that offend. If only the would-be persecutors of Islam in the West adequately comprehended that same principle.

Effective opposition to violent Islamists means neither denying that this grave challenge exists nor demonizing Muslims. It means seeking to make ordinary Muslims — by far the most common victims of Islamist terrorism — our allies, as well. And in the aftermath of the Iraq War, the Senate torture report and every other mistake and crime supposedly committed to defend liberty since 9/11, it means restoring and preserving everything decent that distinguishes us from our enemies.


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