Reflecting on Tragedy: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

DSC_0010Today I had intended to publish posts on a much-loved new winter coat and the first in my 52 Books Challenge, but what with the shocking news from Paris over the last 24 hours, I felt that these were just a bit too frivolous a topic for what has been declared a national day of mourning in France. With their terror alert level ramped up to the max, it seems that Paris has evolved overnight into a place of fear and tension, a world away from the beautiful, calm city I visited nearly a year ago.

For anyone who may not have heard the story by now, yesterday morning two gunmen stormed the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and shot dead 12 people. Four of those were cartoonists. Two were police officers. Since then there has been another shooting in the south of Paris, where a female police officer has reportedly died from her injuries. It is a grey and rainy day in both London and Paris – it seems as though the skies are mourning and shedding tears of sorrow with us today too.

I heard about these tragic events whilst at work yesterday. One of my colleagues, Dave, had seen an article on his phone, and he told me that a satirical magazine office had been stormed and that 11 people had been shot dead. We sat in stunned silence while the news sank in. I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before yesterday, but have since found out that they are a little like the French version of Private Eye, and had been subject to threats and attacks before. In November 2011 the office was firebombed after it published a cartoon of Muhammad under the title “Charia Hebdo”. The magazine’s editor, Stephen Charbonnier, had been under police protection having received death threats. He is one of the four artists who have been named among the dead from the shooting. I have since seen some of their previous magazine covers and it is no doubt that they are controversial. Pope Benedict XVI is shown, post-resignation, kissing a (male) Swiss guard and shouting “Free at last!” Following the firebombing the cover was a Muslim man kissing a male Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, with the title “Love is stronger than hate”. This magazine was clearly keen to court controversy. But this is a world where such freedom of speech should be tolerated and accepted, not obliterated under gunfire.

Later on that day at work whilst out and about, I read updates out to Dave from the BBC News app on my phone, and then back at the office for lunch we sat, sickened, watching the video of the gunmen shooting the male police officer in the head. Perhaps the shock factor felt in the aftermath of this tragedy is higher because France is closer proximity to the UK than the Middle East or America, where such horrific events are more commonplace. Perhaps it was due to the brutality of the gunmen and the number of those killed. Perhaps it was due to the sheer farce of it: because these men didn’t attack the military, or the government, or businesses, or rail stations or airports. They attacked cartoonists. Artists. People who draw pictures for a living. It smacks of such childishness, the inability to take a joke, for want of a better phrase. How can someone who draws pictures really incur an insult justifiable enough to warrant taking their lives? What self-restraint were these murderers lacking when they took matters into their own hands to exact a bitter and brutal revenge?

Their reaction shows a bitter irony that, in the end, their victims won. Rather than take the high ground and ignore the magazine’s work, the two men involved in yesterday’s attack chose to escalate their response to the highest possible level. They entered an office full of unarmed people with Kalashnikovs and, if the reports are true, a grenade launcher. Such cowardice should be met with the utter contempt it deserves.

It has since emerged that one of the police officers killed yesterday was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim man. Anyone who is narrow-minded enough to claim that all Muslims are anti-west, that Islam is clearly out to get us all, and that their religion is an evil one, can surely not claim this now. The beliefs of Islamic terrorists are foul misrepresentations of the Qur’an and of Islamic creed, warped to fit the ideals of men (and women) who refuse to accept the modern world. I know that the vast majority of Muslims in the western world today abhor these attacks and ideologies as much as the next person, and I feel so sorry for them, and the slur on their characters received by association.

The two men named as the gunmen are French Algerian brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, who at this time are still on the run. They are very well-armed, and their ability to get hold of such vicious weapons is a subject for debate in France in later months. But right now the priority is to capture and contain them, and to mourn the tragedy of so many lives wasted, taken for daring to demonstrate freedom of expression.

The photo at the top of this post was actually taken in Oslo last summer, at the start of mine and Ben’s trip to California. I think that they may be portaloos, but please overlook those two facts for a moment to consider the words themselves. ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’, or ‘Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood’, is the motto of the French Republic. Add to that the colour-coding of these cabins in the French Tricolour, and I thought it fitting to remind ourselves of the principles of a nation who has come under fire for just those values. The names of those who died in yesterday’s massacre have been named as follows by the BBC:

  • Charlie Hebdo editor and cartoonist Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, 47
  • Cartoonist Jean “Cabu” Cabut, 76
  • Cartoonist Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac, 57
  • Cartoonist Georges Wolinski, 80
  • Cartoonist Philippe Honore, 73
  • Economist and regular magazine columnist Bernard Maris, 68
  • Mustapha Ourrad, proof-reader
  • Elsa Cayat, psychoanalyst and columnist, the only woman killed
  • Michel Renaud, visiting from the city of Clermont-Ferrand
  • Frederic Boisseau, 42, caretaker, who was in the reception area at the time of the attack
  • Police officer Franck Brinsolaro (Charb’s bodyguard)
  • Police officer Ahmed Merabet, 42

You can read the full article here 

There have been some heartbreaking cartoon tributes to the victims of this terrible attack circulating the BBC News Channel today, which have reduced me to tears once already. They say a picture speaks a thousand words, and the sheer range of emotion displayed in each expresses far more than words ever could. It is a truly fitting tribute to the men whose life centred around drawing, and who died for producing works of this ilk. You can see the montage of cartoonists’ dedications here

I read a BBC News article this morning which states that Charlie Hebdo was named such because it originally re-printed the Charlie Brown cartoon from the United States. It seems ultimately fitting, therefore, to end these post with the following image, posted on Magnus Shaw’s Twitter account. (I hope he won’t mind me posting his photo on here. Please visit his Twitter account or website for more of his work). To those in France and particularly Paris, my heart goes out to you. We stand with you all in this time of grief, and I pray you find the strength to stand firm and rebuild following this utter tragedy. #JeSuisCharlie

Magnus Shaw Je Suis Charlie

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