Originally Published: January 14, 2015 6 a.m.
Last week I wrote about fear. About the movie from Sony being temporarily canceled, and polls that showed partial support for torture. Another story about fear and courage, though, was about to unfold.
You've heard about the killings in France, but have you followed it enough to know just how courageous the editors of the targeted newspaper were? To know of the French Muslims here and there who tried to protect their fellow citizens? To know of the 3.7 million French demonstrating, and their determination to distinguish between their religious citizens versus violence in the name of Islam?
If you have, these are stories worth savoring to encourage our souls. If you haven't, let me give you the brief version. (Links are with this column online.)
The headline story, of course, was the killing of 12 people, mostly staff, of a newspaper that is dedicated to satire, to humorous articles and editorial cartoons poking fun at just about every kind of authority figure or serious topic in the culture. It's part of a wonderful tradition of not letting any cow get too sacred, of not taking ourselves too seriously, of keeping the boundaries of self-censorship pushed as far back as satire can reach.
Some years back the paper published cartoons at the expense of terrorists, which some took as offensive to Muhammad. The French government started providing security, though apparently not enough. In 2011 their office was fire bombed. The staff was defiant, the editor saying, "I'd rather die standing" than relent to the threats.
They still had police on hand when the recent attack happened but they were overwhelmed.
It is a terrible tragedy, but some of the aftermath is positive. On Sunday, the French came out en masse to defy and protest the violence, and to support continued freedom of speech, but also to draw a distinction between terrorists and others. As their Prime Minister put it, "We're at war, but not at war against a religion" but rather, "against terrorism and radical Islam." "Citizens who are Muslim ... are also the victims of terrorism." He said their message is "the refusal of this confusion. Jihadism tries to create that confusion."
The demonstration drew one and one-half million people in Paris alone. I can't imagine what it's like to be in the middle of one and one-half million people. Across France 3.7 million came out. Their government says it was the largest demonstration in French history. There have been a few bigger in human history, but not many.
In Germany, a group had been having weekly protests against Muslims that drew up to 18,000, but after the killings a counter-demonstration was held that drew 35,000.
There are stories of French Muslims defying the terrorists. While the details vary between news reports, apparently one of the police officers trying to protect the staff was Muslim, and died defending their right of free speech. And a hero exists in the companion attack, the attack on a Jewish grocery, which was apparently in sympathy with the attack on the newspaper. A Muslim employee escaped, but first took the time to hide patrons in the walk-in cooler until it was safe.
Major Muslims leaders and organizations and majority-Muslim countries have condemned the attacks. Leading American Muslim scholar Reza Aslan said, "The voice of condemnation is deafening and if you don't hear it you're not listening." And the media aren't doing a very good job of covering it. "Every single major Muslim organization throughout the world ... has condemned, not just this attack, but every attack that occurs in the name of Islam. Anyone who keeps saying that we need to hear the moderate voice of Islam ... doesn't own Google." Doing my own quick search I find that the leading Muslim organizations in France, Britain, the U.S. and Egypt condemned the attacks, as have leaders of Bahrain, Iran, Jordon, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey and Qatar.
The staff of the newspaper has not flinched, as happened with the Sony movie. After the firebombing in 2011 they kept printing. After these murders, the remaining staff has vowed to have their next weekly issue out on schedule.
The French Prime Minister has it right. We have to refuse to accept the confusion that the violent want to create.
Tom Cantlon is a local business owner and writer and can be reached at comments at tomcantlon.com.