Some thoughts on Charlie Hebdo
When I returned to France last Friday night, it was not the same country I knew before winter break. Like many Americans, I had watched from home in horror as the story of the Charlie Hebdo assault unfolded on the news. I kept tabs on the ongoing manhunt between my connecting flights back, and my host mom picked me up from the Marseille airport just minutes after the gunmen were killed. Everywhere I look today—in shop windows, scrawled on walls, on social media—I find the words “Je suis Charlie”. And each time I greet a friend or a professor from the fall semester, we find ourselves talking about the events of the past week.
I’m going to be honest here; aside from my shock and sadness upon learning about the attack, I also felt a sense of weary familiarity. I lived twenty minutes outside of Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. My father watched the Twin Towers fall from his office window and went to six funerals that week. At seven years old, I was too young to understand the magnitude of what was happening, but my parents’ fear—and a nation’s collective grief—are burned into my memory. My family lost friends, and my friends lost family.
When terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, I again found myself living only twenty minutes from the attack. This time, however, I was glued to my phone, trying desperately to reach all of the people I knew near the finish line. Just like twelve years before, cell service buckled under the overload, and several hours passed before I learned that all my loved ones were safe. I will never forget that sense of relief, but neither can I erase my panic, anger, and anguish. These were not easy times to be an American.
The aftermaths of both attacks showed me the best and worst sides of my country. Never before have I witnessed such incredible acts of kindness and sacrifice, seen total strangers come together, or felt prouder passing American flags in front of every home. But anti-Muslim rants and limitations on our freedoms have also become more common. Therefore, it is this double response that I kept in mind as I watched the marche républicaine in Paris on Sunday, and that I recall every time I hear French citizens defending their slogan “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. And while there are dangers, a lot of unity and positive change can come from what happened at Charlie Hebdo,.
I don’t know where France is going to go from here. There has been less racist backlash than I’d feared towards the Muslim community. There have been fewer words of violence and hate than I’d expected. When I discuss the situation with French friends, they are quick to assert the difference between jihadists and most Muslims and to assure me that they will not react hastily. Nonetheless, it is early. Everyone is concerned that the underlying issues, from religious extremism to anti-Semitism, still lurk beneath the surface. I can’t predict how the future will play out. But I can hope that the French learn from America’s example without following it. That they, like us, solidify as a nation, but that they protect their civil liberties instead of creating another Patriot Act. That they react with compassion, not bigotry. A long time has passed and a lot of lessons learned since 2001, and France is not the United States; it wouldn’t be fair to directly compare the two. I’ll continue to keep my eye on events and engage in conversation with my French family and friends. All I can do is offer my empathy to a country I’ve grown to love since September and repeat that Nous sommes tous Charlie.