In 2011, just six days after the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine under threat for having run cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, was gutted by a firebomb, the staff put out a new issue with a cover drawing of a bearded, presumably Muslim man kissing a cartoonist. The caption was “L’amour: Plus fort que la haine,” which translates to “Love: Stronger than hate.” The cartoon was a properly irreverent combination—an affirmation of the most universal truth, a commitment to the magazine’s own very particular identity. To be brave, one needn’t ever be saccharine. The magazine and its artists, editors, and staff believed in all of that and lived those values, in a way that few of us are ever asked to. At midday this Wednesday, ten of them were killed, along with two Paris policemen who rushed to their aid when what were reportedly two or three hooded men, armed with AK-47s—some of the details are not yet clear—went into the office, in Paris’s Eleventh Arrondissement, and started firing, apparently at anyone they could find. In addition to the dead, twenty people were injured, according to French police statements. There is a video in which the gunmen can be heard shouting “Allahu Akbar”—God is great. This was, as President François Hollande said after rushing to the scene, “undoubtedly an act of terrorism.” And, though the exact identity of the shooters will need to be determined, in these first hours there are strong signs that it is an act of Islamist terrorism.
The dead include Stéphane Charbonnier, who used the pen name Charb and was the very brave editor of Charlie Hebdo, and at least three cartoonists: Jean Cabut, who signed his work Cabu; Bernard Verlhac, or Tignous; and Georges Wolinski. (Other names have not been released; I’ll add them as they become available.) They were assassinated. The gunmen were not on a suicide mission; they fled and stole a car, which the latest reports suggest has been located in the Twentieth Arrondissement. (The Guardian and others have live updates; these include video clips of a shoot-out.) The gunmen were still at large in Paris, as of the early afternoon there, and presumably armed. Children were evacuated from schools near the Charlie Hebdo office, which was in the same building as at least one other media organization. Some workers in the building managed to hide from the shooters, but it was, reportedly, a production day at the magazine, busy and crowded. This was an attack on a publication and a neighborhood, a country and its press, and on any journalist, in any city. The magazine made fun of people—of many faiths, for many follies, which we all need to be reminded that we have. Some of the cartoons were blatantly, roughly sexual, and not designed to endear them to Jews or Christians. Satire was Charlie Hebdo’s mission, and a necessary one. There were times when the French government asked the magazine to hold back, but the magazine kept being itself, which is what one wishes for in a free press. Wednesday’s crime should not cause anyone to second-guess Charlie Hebdo’s editorial decisions. Silence is not where the answers to an incident like this lie.