Qui Est Charlie?: An American’s Take on the Charlie Hebdo Shooting

As these things do, it started out a day as ordinary as any other.


Wednesdays are my long days as an au pair, because my girls don’t have school, so I spend the whole day with them, often 12+ hours. This day is a particularly busy one, between dance classes, haircuts, and passport photos for my little one. I drop my 5 year old off at dance and then wander towards a nearby department store to browse with my 9 year old for the hour, one of our favorite pastimes. She is excitedly wishing out loud for many of the items in the Urban Outfitters section when my phone buzzes. I glance at it absently- it’s my BBC News app. Twelve people have been killed in a shooting at the headquarters of a satirical magazine in Paris called Charlie Hebdo. They’re calling it a terrorist attack. I glance at my 9 year old and swallow the lump in my throat. We’re not in any danger here, surely; we would have heard or seen the police and media rushing to the scene. It’s probably somewhere else in the city. Dance class is almost over anyways, so I usher her out of the store to go pick up her sister. That’s when I start to hear the sirens. They come and go, but they don’t stop.


In between dance classes, I go on the magazine’s website to look up the address of its office. I am shocked to discover it’s a 15 minute walk away. The sirens continue to wail outside our window. The girls don’t know, and how am I supposed to explain it? I send my mother a text telling her that I’m okay, and post a Facebook status. Mom responds, thankful that I’m okay and telling me that she’s received numerous calls and texts from people who know I’m in Paris, asking about the attack. Even her barre yoga instructor has called. The magnitude of the situation has begun to take hold. She’s concerned that I’m running around with the girls in a neighborhood in such close proximity to the site of the shooting, but we can’t stop our day just because the shooters are still at large. One of my best au pair friends is holed up at her journalist boyfriend’s apartment and she’s also concerned about us being out. She tells me to stay safe. I assure her we will, but I’m still hearing sirens.


That night, my host dad explains to me just how huge this is in France, that the people who were killed are some of France’s most well-known cartoonists. I feel a little lost; I’ve never even heard of Charlie Hebdo before today. But I also feel the fear that settles into the far-emptier-than-usual streets of Paris and the emptier-still metros. We all know the metros could be a major target if there is another attack, but I have no other practical way to get around. The next day, Thursday, one of my metro lines is randomly terminated at a station a few stops from my own. No one explains why, and I am forced to take a different metro and re-coordinate my lunch plans with my friend.

Probably the funniest sign I saw- “Ils ont déja dessiné des bites partout” (“They’ve already drawn dicks everywhere”)
He and I meet at a drizzly Place de la Concorde, nearly devoid of people, sirens still frequently filling the air. The tension is palpable, but we try to ignore it. It becomes more obvious when we arrive at the restaurant I had been wanting to try and find the owner and her interns sharing a meal at a large communal table in the middle of the small dining room; they are the only people there. The owner’s name is Laurel, and I am instantly taken with her; she’s from Charleston and has a warm, open demeanor. She reminds me of home, and it is nice to have such a reminder on such a dreary day. She explains to us that normally there is a line out the door, but no one is willing to venture out given the circumstances. Fortunately for us, she also bakes when bad things happen, so our dessert choices are plentiful. We eat ourselves silly and call the afternoon a success, but as soon as we emerge onto the streets by the river, the emptiness of the sidewalks reminds me that this is not a normal day, or a normal week. Two more cop cars pass us, and I wince. The cop who has been killed today was shot less than a ten minute walk from the home of one of my other close au pair friend’s host family. People are trying not to stop their lives, but the city is afraid.
So much admiration for all the courageous Muslims who came out to join the march.
Left: “I am Muslim, I am French, and I love freedom of expression that respects all the values of all its children”
Right: “No to barbarity, Yes to freedom of expression with respect”
Friday dawns a bit more normally, but I later learn that my friend with a journalist boyfriend is a more reliable source than my late-to-update BBC News app when I discover, long after the fact, that there are two hostage situations happening, one in the east of the city right near one of my friends, and one in the north, far enough from Paris that it’s not a cause for concern. My host mom contacts me and tells me that she’s already home and I don’t have to pick up the girls tonight. I swing by their apartment to pick up my paycheck and find her speaking quickly and angrily into her iPhone while watching the news play about the hostage situations. She tells me to stay away from places that may be future targets, including the metros, and sends me home for the evening. I spend the night watching Netflix, finally out of earshot of the sirens.
“To believe is to resist”
The weather for Sunday’s march is clear, crisp and cold. I underestimate the number of people who will be using the metro to get to the march, so I take a different line and walk down to the Canal Saint Martin, where I position myself on a sidewalk next to Avenue de la Republique and start snapping photos of the signs held by passing marchers. I’m alone, thanks to a clogging of the mobile networks that drops every call I try to make and keeps me disconnected from mobile data, but it’s better this way. I feel the swell of being a tiny piece of something so huge. I stay there for over an hour before fighting my way against the crowd to get up to Place de la Republique. There are people all over the monument in the center, holding flags from many countries and signs, proclaiming their solidarity with the people of France and freedom of expression. I am particularly impressed by those holding signs declaring themselves as French Muslims who condemn this act of violence. It’s fascinating to be in Paris at such an important moment, and to know that I can consider myself part of the counted total of the largest march in French history.
“Je pense donc je suis Charlie” : “I think therefore I am Charlie”
It’s around the time of the march that the dissenters to the #JeSuisCharlie movement began making themselves known, through both news and social media. Some looked at the more specific picture, questioning why the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo felt the need to publish intentionally inflammatory content and arguing that just because someone has the right to say something doesn’t mean they should say it. Some looked at the bigger picture, that such a big deal was being made over this attack when there are injustices much more severe and much grander in scale that are occurring right now, like the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria. Both are valid points, as is the #JeSuisCharlie movement as a whole. But who is right?
I was sitting here pondering how to put this when I decided to check out more recent media coverage of the issues, and there is no possible way I could have put it better than Charlotte Alter did in this piece for TIME. The concerned Facebook messages and texts from my family and friends in the US are coming because it shakes people to realize that someone they know was so close to the attacks. However, I don’t think that if I had been in Nigeria at the time, or anywhere experiencing problems of large-scale violence, that their concern would have been any more fundamentally different. Sure, there may have been a greater sense of urgency, as in “GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE”, but being in that situation as a whole is nearly impossible for most of us to imagine. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine being in a city like Paris, especially as many people I know have visited here in the past, and thus easier for my loved ones to put themselves in my shoes. Major massacres and suicide bombings are things that belong in a world far away from our own idealistic existences. They’re things that we hear about on the news or read about online and we are sad for a brief moment on behalf of those affected, but then we move on because it has no direct psychological impact on us. Whereas when your friend is in Paris and you hear that there was a shooting, it’s no longer part of the “other”, it’s part of the “us”, and by default “me”. When it’s the office of a publication, you think of all of the media you read or see on a regular basis, or think of your journalist friends, and realize that it could just as easily have been them if their publication had decided to publish something controversial.
While it was a tragedy on a different scale than those currently befalling the people of Nigeria, or Pakistan, or Gaza, it was a tragedy nonetheless, just one that’s easier for most of the Western world to relate to.So that begs the question: qui est Charlie? Are we all really Charlie as the movement says, or is #JeSuisCharlie just another way to put more importance on Western values and push the problems of the rest of the world out of the forefront of media coverage?

Personally, I am Charlie. Je suis Charlie because I have the ability to write this piece and take these photos and post them on a social network without worrying about the ramifications of doing so. Je suis Charlie because those who I know who don’t agree with the movement have said as much on Facebook or Twitter and have not been tracked down for their words. Je suis Charlie because no matter whether or not something offends you, you don’t have the right to kill the person from whom it originated. Je suis Charlie because all lives are important, from the scores brutally murdered in Nigeria to the Syrian refugees still running from brutality to the 12 Parisian journalists who dared to share their sometimes dark humor with a world that might not accept it. Je suis Charlie because I may not have agreed with their humor, but I respect their right to publish it. Je suis Charlie because there is evil in the world that wishes to silence the voices of all those who believe something different, and malice like that is not to be tolerated. Je suis Charlie because, through the display here in Paris last weekend, the city showed the world that we can stand together against this evil, that it cannot break us that easily, and that freedom of expression is a right that cannot and will not be compromised.

However, things have calmed down in Paris. The tension is no longer there, the streets no longer feel emptier than usual, and with any luck the families of the fallen are being left to grieve in peace. So perhaps now it’s time to turn our attention back to the problems that are harder for us to understand and therefore even more important for us to try to understand. In the words of the great Dr. King on his memorial day, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, so if we really are Charlie, we must fight for those without a voice in the memory of those whose voices were unjustly silenced.


My favorite marcher 🙂 Her friend (sister?) was holding a sign that read “Moi aussi j’aime dessiner” (“I love to draw too”)


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