If I sound incoherent, it’s because I am shaken. The reasons will be obvious.
I had no intention of reporting on this from the scene of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I was walking up Boulevard Richard Lenoir to meet a friend who lives in the neighborhood. But the moment I saw what I did, I knew for sure what had happened. A decade in Turkey teaches you that. That many ambulances, that many cops, that many journalists, and those kinds of faces can mean only one thing: a massive terrorist attack.
I also knew from the location just who’d been attacked: Charlie Hebdo, the magazine known for many things, but, above all, for its fearlessness in publishing caricatures of Mohamed. They’d been firebombed for this in 2011, but their response — in effect — was the only one free men would ever consider: “As long as we’re alive, you’ll never shut us up.”
They are no longer alive. They managed to shut them up.
The only thing I didn’t immediately know was how many of them had died.
All of them, it seems, or close enough. So did two police officers who had been assigned to protect their offices. Twelve are dead for sure; I assume that number will rise; seven are seriously injured. It was at the time I was there unclear how many were wounded.
And the attackers are still at large.
Given that two police officers are dead, now doesn’t seem the time to say what comes to mind about the fact that the assailants escaped. It will say this much though: if they’re not dead before nightfall, I’ll say exactly what comes to mind, respect for the dead be damned.
I did what I could as a journalist but — since it wasn’t my plan to be one — I was there with neither a camera nor even a notebook. And it didn’t seem the time to ask the police to prioritize me. There were more than enough journalists on the scene and I doubt I’d have done better than they will.
What we know is this: at least two masked attackers. Kalashnikovs. Gunmen who shouted, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” Rumors of a rocket launcher, but I suspect we should wait for confirmation on that; eyewitnesses tend to get confused about these things, especially when unused to seeing them.
The latest tweet on Charlie Hebdo’s Twitter account was a cartoon of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:
Meilleurs vœux, au fait. pic.twitter.com/a2JOhqJZJM
— Charlie Hebdo (@Charlie_Hebdo_) January 7, 2015
This was the worst Islamic terrorist attack in Europe since the London tube bombings of 2005, and the worst of any kind since Anders Breivik.* If I’m correct — I have not checked carefully — it was also the worst in France since the Nazis were running the place.
I was there only by luck: I had no desire to see this. Luck is probably not the right word. I wish I hadn’t seen it. But lucky, certainly is the right word to use in noting that I was running late, and thus there a few minutes after the fact. Had I not been running late, it’s fairly obvious what might have happened. They weren’t discriminate in their targets.
There wasn’t much for me to do. I didn’t even have a pen on me. I spoke to a cameraman from France 3, to make sure I understood the facts. I didn’t ask if I could quote him, so I won’t use his name. But his comment summed up the sentiment. “This is the kind of thing you expect in Pakistan. And now it’s coming here.”
While I didn’t get any photos, Buzzfeed is running a few. They are warning that the images are “disturbing.” I’m so sorry if you find them disturbing, readers, but take a good long look at them anyway: they’re nothing compared to what I saw, and what I saw wasn’t “disturbing images”; they were “people who until this morning were alive, but this afternoon are dead.”
They included figures not apt to be household names in America, but certainly household names here: Charbonnier, Cabu, Wolinski, Verlhac; all alive this morning, and all of them now dead.
President François Hollande said the trivial: “No barbaric act will ever extinguish the freedom of the press.” That the statement is self-falsifying seemed to bother him little: That barbaric act literally extinguished the press. Literally. They are dead. Their freedom is thus of little relevance.
That I’m shaken is of concern to no one; my emotions are not the point. The entire city is shaken. So much that even my cab driver — I had to catch one to get home; the streets were otherwise blocked off — didn’t even ask me to pay the fare. When I said I was a journalist, and in a rush to say what little I knew, his response was, “Forget about the money. Just hurry.”
The assailants are as yet at liberty. I hope they’ll be dead by the time you read this. But if not: You want me too? Come get me. Because nothing short of killing me — and many more of my kind — will ever shut us up.
And if you don’t believe that now, you’ll believe it very soon. Because there are more of us willing to die for that freedom than those of you eager to take it from us. And soon you will find out that those of us willing to die for that freedom are also much better at killing than you.
So come and get me. Je suis Charlie.
And have a good long look at the cartoon below. Because you may have been able to kill its authors, but you sure didn’t kill what they created. And nor will we ever let you.
There are things I’m not allowed to say on Ricochet. But if I were allowed to say them, this is what I’d say—though I’d add a few other words.
Go ahead. Make my day. Because you’ve got no idea what we’re capable of when we are pushed too far. And you are more than pushing your luck.
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* Editor’s note: The original version of the post neglected mention of Anders Breivik; the correction was provided and requested by the author.