Yesterday, I returned from a weeklong visit to the Cote d’Azur Province in France. I was based mostly in Nice, and will write another post in a couple of days about what a beautiful and fun area it is. I want to address a pressing issue that I accidentally became a part of.
On January 7th, 2015, 12 people were killed in Paris at the offices of a magazine called Charlie Hebdo. These people were targeted in a terrorist attack because of the content of their cartoons and articles–most of them wrote political and religious satires. It’s been reported that moments before firing shots, the shooters yelled “Allah is great” in Arabic. The last time there was a massacre of this severity in France was in 1964. The entire event is still unfolding, and is heartbreaking.
I first heard of the tragedy when I accidentally stumbled into a demonstration the night of the attack that was taking place in Place Garibaldi in Nice. I was on my way to find dinner and walk along the beach, and hadn’t been connected to wifi the entire day. Every person I passed by held 8×11″ paper printouts of a black background with white block letters spelling out “JE SUIS CHARLIE” (I am Charlie in English). Police officers, who during the day would laugh and joke with civilians, held guns close to their hips and visible to everyone. This is the first time I had seen a gun since I crossed the Atlantic in early September. The crowd was eerily silent, no yelling or rioting was going on. This was a peaceful wave of citizens that filled every public space with a form of grief I had not understood at the time.
Having no cell phone, I had no way of knowing what these signs meant and why these people gathered together. Especially since the area’s population spoke limited English, I wasn’t confident that my intermediate level of French would allow me to convey whatever emotion I might need. So I had dinner and went on with my original night’s plan, knowing that for now, I was another ignorant tourist.
If I had known the details of the attack, I would have seen a nation’s people coming together in a time of fear, anger and unity. Everyone shared a common conviction to bring these terrorists, who had fled the area, to the “ultimate justice”. If I had known what these signs meant, I would have recalled the same outrage and fear that I’d felt as an American after the massacres at the Boston Marathon and 9/11.
After reading the articles, reports and accounts later that night, I had this raw feeling in my stomach like bleach stripping away grime from a kitchen counter. I felt guilty. I was in a country, walking alongside the people who had only hours early faced the revulsion of being victims of a nation facing a terrorist attack, the same that I had faced, at age 9 and again at age 20. What should I have said? What do I say? Do I console? Do I discuss? Do I play dumb? How did this nation deal with a tragedy? Would they wave their flags higher and with greater pride than the previous days?
The French people (and many others across the world) will remember for the remainder of their lives this day in history. And here I was, a clueless tourist speaking poor French and probably adding to whatever misery they were already feeling.
A few days have passed and the process of acceptance has swept through Europe and the keen observers elsewhere. First came horror, then grief, then anger. Following the emotions came a string of -tions. Actions of speculation, investigation and persecution (by weapon rather than sentencing in this case). In a few weeks time the victimless communities may look forward to the future. Some may question why it all happened, most will not. This will separate those who never forget and those who remember.
I hope the French people, and all people around the world using #Je Suis Charlie and recently, #Je Suis Ahmed question why these terrorist actions continue to occur. By asking “Why?”, we can hinder horrific revenge attacks on mosques and prevent future threats and planned attacks by terrorist groups. If the leaders and people of democracies worldwide investigated the culture, religions, politicians and policies that these troubled terrorist groups align with, we would all have a more complete answer of why. Because at the foundation of every attack and counter attack, we are all Charlie, we are all Ahmed, and We Are ____ (every person affected by terror).