Still ‘Je suis Charlie’ Two Years On
[Editors (Zach) note: This was originally posted on Sarah’s facebook page and she thankfully allowed me to share it with you. Sarah is a human rights lawyer based in Paris and London. You can read her piece on Erik Prince’s plan for the refugee crisis in Europe here.]
Those who knew and/or followed me then remember how difficult that day was for me; some have ended friendships over it, some have started one, some have disagreed but respected my grief. I was present on the scene and I have lost friends. I have lost journalists. I have peered across the street at the Libération offices that would then house, for the second time, the surviving Charlie Hebdo staff in the immediate aftermath of what would change Europe as we had known it since the late 1990s.
This is neither a dramatic nor a controversial statement. Western Europe had known terrorism before; it had known islamic terrorism; it had known the fear of random attacks in public spaces, of feeling targeted for the simple reason it existed. It was a different era, before emergencies, before ideology, before “you are with us or against us”, before the world became a battlefield; but Europe had always been a battlefield, from the wars of independence to the struggles for self-determination. And then, it sort of became quieter, and politicians thought they had achieved something, that they called “peace”, that they called “justice”, but which was neither. It was about reaching agreements, about other nations transitioning away from violence, it was the role of the courts, it was also a stroke of luck.
We associate terrorism with loss of life, but when it signals a new era, it is also a loss of innocence. It wasn’t mine, of course, but it was that of a certain generation of Paris that had not lived through the state of emergency under De Gaulle (for the record, I didn’t either!) and had obliterated somehow the 1993-1996 wave of attacks by the GIA. But it’s also because Charlie Hebdo was of a different nature: it wasn’t indiscriminate, which is usually one way to describe the nature of a terror attack. It was targeted, and it was targeted at journalists. Whatever you think of Charlie Hebdo’s work, which I won’t address here, they were journalists, cartoonists, and writers; they are, by their very profession, protected as holders of a very specific civil right. Attacking journalists is an attack of a severe nature. It is attacking expression, information, and criticism. It is attacking what western societies consider to be the cornerstone of their democracy, whether or not they do implement it and reflect it in their governments’ policies.
For me, it also changed the scope of the French counter terrorism apparatus; it modified the way that intelligence services work, coordinate, research, communicate, and act. It has also changed the way lawyers performed their work in the country, because lawyers know they are usually next, and they became afraid, too. Their reaction, that to then refuse to defend terror suspects, was unbecoming of their role and a violation of their professional ethics. But France was scared, and France has never ceased to be scared since. It would be 10 months until it would be hit again at the heart of its usually care-free, hedonistic, sometimes oblivious attitude. Paris not only lost its sense of isolation from the horrors in the rest of the world; it lost its feeling of safety, its sense of security. It lost its ability to live beyond those fault lines. Once a society as a whole is afraid, the fabric of its stability is slowly ripped away, and the ugliness shows under the bright, harsh, unforgiving neon lights of an autopsy room.
I saw a close friend being carried away on a stretcher, not knowing whether he was alive or dead at that point. It was raining, and very overcast; it was one of those drizzles of ice, and the scene quickly became eerily silent. I don’t know how long I stayed until I ran, and the hunt lasted for four days, four days during which people around me, people accustomed to terror response, felt personally, intimately, unsafe, attacked, trapped, cornered. After November, emergency became justified in the eyes of many because it was the only concept they could think of that could rise to the challenge of understanding their trauma, one that communicated itself to the UK, to Germany, to Belgium of course but also Italy, the Netherlands, far from the distant shores of Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, where those are commonplace, daily, in an endless splotch of blood. The exceptionalism was over.
But what does one do when journalists are targeted? The response is not to try to re-define journalism, or consider journalism a fair target. It has never been, still isn’t, never should be. Joe Sacco drew a very fragile, very personal line in the sand talking about responsibility, and he was absolutely correct. Protecting journalism and freedom of the press requires one thing that France was never good at and has never managed to complete since: understand that human rights aren’t more human or more righteous because it applies to it, or that their universality can be questioned. If Charlie Hebdo was an attack of horrifying proportions, then so are attacks on journalists and writers just about everywhere, whether or not I loved them, whether or not I have spent six months crying long past I understood why.
Human rights defenders, workers, activists, and lawyers working or based in France have also stopped compartmentalizing, a process that is difficult to engage in and sometimes impossible to recover from. The violence we have come to know elsewhere – including, in my case, my own hometown, my own childhood – was no longer normalized, it was no longer taken in stride. It attacked where we regrouped, where we recuperated, where we had drinks and came home late at night. It killed those who we long thought were invincible, and they were killed by citizens of that very country. The external threat was never much external since 2011; there had always been a much bigger risk of being attacked after a domestic radicalization process, that we were all too arrogant and self-sufficient to consider at the time. It’s a painful assessment, and perhaps flawed by hindsight. Threat assessments issued by overworked and under-resourced intelligence agencies had been overlooked because Europe was way too busy criminalizing migration and waging war just about everywhere else.
We are 15 months into a state of emergency, and 2 years after Charlie Hebdo. Since then, indiscriminate attacks have increased in numbers in crucial parts of Europe; the racist, ignorant, populist and crass backlash has been emboldened and empowered because of the symbolism that Charlie Hebdo then signified. The street, now, deserted, quiet, dark, protected by dwindling special forces, bears only a plaque and a few bouquets. That is what Stéphane would have liked: for the attention to be directed elsewhere, to where it mattered most. Young kids with no prospects, permanent police presence, military footprints, identity repression, you name it. But Charlie Hebdo did birth symbolism to the point it became counter terrorism policy, and it’s been, I can say it now, failure after failure after failure. The fear doesn’t abate, though, because fear long outlasts the violence itself, and once it becomes an entire identity, everything else becomes secondary, minimal. It pales in comparison to everyone else’s fear. It forces a retreat.
Charlie Hebdo changed me not just because I suddenly had a much broader mandate to act as an international human rights lawyer, but it changed me because it made me reflect on how I perceive a violence that I have always experienced, but detached myself from. A few weeks later, I would tell a close journalist friend I had had a nightmare of that body carried on a stretcher, and Stéphane’s face had morphed into his; I did not want anyone around me to be more of a target. They had always been, and I had been guilty, just as well, of lulling myself into a false sense of safety solely on the basis of my location. The November attacks, although I was present, this time on a personal matter, although they have killed more of my friends and injured even more, felt like a continuity.
The surveillance law France fast-tracked was voted way before November, way before emergency power we now blame for its enforcement. Targeted killing against ISIS HVTs had started for France before Charlie Hebdo – the first notes are dated March 7, 2014. Emergency is the visible part of the iceberg, enacted after three simultaneous attacks that were, again, indiscriminate. Charlie Hebdo, because it was targeted at a very specific aspect and fragment of French society, unraveled something entirely different. It unveiled the arrogance of believing that terrorism can be waged just like any war, except a bloodier one; that it escaped scrutiny, except with more arrogance; that it works in parallel to the rest of state duties, this time creating an actual shadow cabinet. It feels easier to mourn those who have died for no reason other than their misfortune; it is harder to accept that a specific protection has failed. In trying to protect who Europe represents, it endangered the whole of the continent, with abuse, with militarism, with human rights violations. It is a cycle we know too well.
France lost the innocence that lies in thinking it is any different. Same goes for any of us. No one has been immune, no one has been spared. And positions had to be taken.
So I have mourned, perhaps too publicly, in a very chaotic way, because those were unchartered waters for me. But we must work as we have always worked: with determination and commitment. As for our fear and our pain, we must learn to fight with empathy, with solidarity, and with respect for those who work in spite of everything they survive every day. When journalists are targeted, specifically, we must renew our commitment to truth and transparency. Those are definitely, absolutely not mutually exclusive to security, and never, never confined to one continent.
As Baudelaire said, sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi tranquille.