On the Edge of Something - Pacific Standard

On the Edge of Something

Caught in Paris during the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, an American searches for free speech in France.
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A memorial outside the Charlie Hebdo building on Rue Nicolas-Appert. (Photo: Ross Ufberg)

A memorial outside the Charlie Hebdo building on Rue Nicolas-Appert. (Photo: Ross Ufberg)

My plane from New York City touched down in Paris on January 7 at approximately noon. By the time I had picked up my luggage, took the train, and reached the apartment I was renting, a lot had changed. I learned this when my host reached me in the courtyard a few minutes late with the keys. “Sorry, it’s been a little hectic here. Have you heard? There was just a terrorist attack at the office of a magazine. It’s crazy. Sort of like your 9/11.”

I was in Paris to interview Anatoly Gladilin, a novelist who fled Soviet Russia in the 1970s. He was leaving behind a legacy of writers, artists, satirists, novelists, musicians, journalists, and many others who’d been silenced by the state; in cases where they would not be cowed, they were dealt with in other ways: bullets, labor camp, even, for a time, forced stays in insane asylums, or psikhushkas. Coming from New York—a city that has its own history of terrorism—the irony wasn’t lost on me.

Finally, I turned on the television in my apartment and discovered what had happened. Here I was, in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and the last thing I wanted to do was roam the streets. The coverage was terrifying. As a journalist I met at the memorial outside the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices said: “This was so cold-blooded. The images are imprinted upon your brain.”

"Sorry, it’s been a little hectic here. Have you heard? There was just a terrorist attack at the office of a magazine. It’s crazy. Sort of like your 9/11."

For those unfamiliar with the history of Charlie Hebdo, here’s a primer: This is not the first time Muslim extremists sought to punish the publication for its work. In 2006, the magazine reproduced some of the now-famous Danish cartoons that had incited rallies by angry Muslims around the globe. Then-President Jacques Chirac, leader of the nation whose national motto begins with Liberté, condemned the cartoonists: “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.”

It seems now, after this recent attack and a prior firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2011, the new French leader’s attitude is different. A notably shaken Francois Hollande said, "An act of exceptional barbarism has just been committed here in Paris against a newspaper, meaning against the expression of liberty." Does it take carnage for us to realize just how precious is our belief in the freedom of expression? In the right to disrespect?

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This all brings to mind another recent news cycle in the United States: Sony’s initial plan to cancel the theatrical release of The Interview, in response to threats of retribution from North Korea. Kim Jong-un is a figure who allows for no mockery at his expense. Sony caved to a very real fear: that somebody would be hurt or killed, all over a juvenile movie. President Obama defended freedom of expression—even when the expressers are James Franco and Seth Rogen. “We cannot have a society,” Obama said, “in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”

A French protestor. (Photo: Ross Ufberg)

A French protestor. (Photo: Ross Ufberg)

Kim Jong-un might be a sacred figure in North Korea; Mohammed may be a sacred figure in some societies. We—democracies all over the world—however, are a society built on a different principle: Nothing is sacred. Neither those held as prophets, nor those held as gods.

This is my fourth time traveling to Paris, and I shiver to think about how much different it is now. I wonder if this is what it felt like to be a tourist arriving in New York on 9/11: another city famous for its life on the streets, oddly subdued, dealing with a collective tragedy that dealt a blow to one of its core ideals. But it is heartening to see so many signs in storefront windows all over town proclaiming Je suis Charlie. Paris may not be rejoicing but it is not cowering either.

By chance, I met Brenda Goleburn, a New Yorker who owns a flower shop called Cameleon where she does psychoanalysis. She moved to Paris six years ago, but had been coming here as a tourist for the past 40. In 1986, she was playing tennis in the Luxembourg Garden when a bomb went off outside the Tati clothing store, killing seven and injuring dozens more. She heard the explosion. The Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Fractions was responsible for that bombing. But even that, Goleburn says, didn’t affect her the way this attack has. Yesterday, she hung up a "Je suis Charlie" sign in her shop window. “I would like that people of all kinds would support each other and not mix up and confuse Muslim people with all these terrorist fundamentalists,” she says. What happened Wednesday, she stresses, was a crime “against humanity.”

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Some tourists were less phased. Joao Correia and Giselda Prado arrived in Paris from Brazil on January 5. On Thursday evening they were at the Place de la République, where a large crowd had gathered around a monument in the center of the square. Aloft a giant pedestal stands Marianne, the female symbol of the French republic. Marianne’s right hand holds an olive branch; her left, a tablet engraved with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The assembled crowd followed Marianne’s lead, clutching signs marked with words of solidarity and sympathy. “Je suis Charlie,” one poster read. Another simply depicted a giant cardboard pencil.

The assembled crowd followed Marianne’s lead, clutching signs marked with words of solidarity and sympathy. "Je suis Charlie," one poster read. Another simply depicted a giant cardboard pencil.

I asked whether Correia and Prado were fearful being in Paris while the two gunmen were still on the loose, whether they were shocked by what had occurred. “We sympathize with the families,” Prado says. “But we live in Rio,” Correia added. “Bullets flying around is nothing new. I have seen many men with big guns on the street. Je suis Charlie every day.” Perhaps their geographical distance from Europe also gives them a different perspective.

“Yesterday we were at the Roue de Paris [a giant Ferris wheel] and we saw the big Luxor Obelisk that the French stole from Egypt. And I imagined if somebody came to Brazil and took the Christ the Redeemer from us, or if somebody stole the Arc de Triomphe from France,” Correia says. “Europe has done a lot of things in the past. It’s not a reason to kill people but it’s a reason for tension.”

Paul Voillemin is more full of hope. He had been standing in the cold for three hours on Thursday afternoon outside of Charlie Hebdo, holding up a sign that said “We are all united for Liberty. The French are not afraid.” He lives on the same street as the Hebdo offices, and he heard the shots on Wednesday. He thought it was a robbery at the nearby shopping mall. Then a friend called and told him to turn on the news. On Wednesday night he stood at the mass rally at Place de la République alongside victims and a few French Arabs. “I want to bring all French people together in the future,” he says. It’s a big statement, and I’m not sure even he knows quite what it means.

"I don’t understand how a French guy could have made this act. Sometimes the drawings were funny, sometimes not, but you don’t kill people over cartoons."

The most troubling part, for Voillemin, is that the gunmen were French. “I don’t understand how a French guy could have made this act,” he says. “Sometimes the drawings were funny, sometimes not, but you don’t kill people over cartoons.”

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For my part, I can’t help thinking about something the journalist I met at the memorial outside of Charlie Hebdo’s offices told me. I think back to when 9/11 happened, there was a feeling in the air that everything had changed. Given the course of American, and world history over the past decade, that sentiment proved sadly prescient. “In France, we are used to nothing happening. But lately we have been on the edge of something,” he said. “And yesterday, someone pushed us in. We don’t know when it will end.”

I am an American in Paris at a difficult time, hoping the end will come soon. My meeting with Gladilin, who left behind his language, his living, his life, so that he could freely express himself in an open society, will hit closer to home. And floating around in my mind will be the words of those who hope for unity and peace, and who deeply believe that in order for a society to prosper, we must allow ourselves the risk of offending others: You don’t kill people over cartoons. Je suis Charlie.

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