The slaughter by Islamic fanatics of nearly a dozen French journalists, several of whom I have known for decades, is a bitter, heavy price for that nation to pay for being what it is: a haven of free expression and intellectual combat; a country that has taken in the foreign-born more easily than most and worked, if imperfectly, to assimilate them; and a military power willing to fight enemies abroad in the name of universal values.
The gunmen who staged the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper will have acted to punish France for one or all of those traits. To have such enemies is to France’s profound honor. To ensure that such bestial behavior is not repeated or seen as anything other than what it is becomes France’s most urgent national mission.
“This is a mini-9/11 for us,” Philippe Labro, a leading French author of fiction and journalism, told me Wednesday by phone as he mourned a number of friends who perished in the attack. “It has that same sense of initial horror and then of the determination to overcome what has been done to us. We are at war.”
Other Europeans may not welcome even this appropriately limited comparison to America’s day of horror and the call to take strong preventive action. The United States has proved that pitfalls of overreaction await on such a path.
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But even if it comes in the form of smaller attacks against the “soft targets” of defenseless artists in France or subway commuters in Spain and England, the war of terror that jihadists have declared on Western ways of life will make security as much a preoccupation for Europeans as it has been for Americans since 9/11.
That concern has, of course, been growing in European chanceries. When I asked French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in September if he feared that a European 9/11 could be mounted by Europeans returning from fighting with jidadists in Syria and Iraq, I expected that even the straight-talking Valls might duck the question. Instead, he immediately said yes and outlined his reasons.
“We have to be vigilant every day against the development of an enemy within,” he said, noting that he had just steered through Parliament a law restricting travel to conflict zones by French terrorism suspects. He estimated that 1,000 French citizens were fighting in Syria, along with about “3,000 British citizens, some Germans, Italians and others.”
But it is not clear that the Middle East conflicts were directly related to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. It is more likely that this bloodshed was payback of a particularly brutal kind for the magazine’s repeated mockery of the thugs and quacks who have taken over some Islamic movements and leveled death sentences against any who disagree with their perverted interpretations of Islam.
In one sense, the brilliant cartoonists who died Wednesday were indirect victims of globalization and the communication revolution, of the electronic rubbing up against each other of societies at different levels of development and of the backlash this has created from narrow-minded and brutal men who prefer to kill than to lose any control. The struggle is broader, and more civilizational, than even Valls, a tough-minded political leader, may have foreseen only a few months ago.
France has, in some ways, a tougher task in reacting to this day of calculated terror and destruction. Americans immediately understood 9/11 as a foreign attack against the homeland. We did not have to – and still do not – worry about “an enemy within.” It will require great care, and great skill, to prevent the Charlie Hebdo attack from becoming a point of division. Brilliant individually, French politicians will need to develop an unfamiliar unity of purpose in the months ahead. And they will need the help of their European neighbors.
The killers were no doubt ignorant, or uncaring, of the fact that Charlie Hebdo meted out the same satire to France’s own leaders and self-important citizens. I came to know some of the artists killed this week when I did an article in 1965 about Hara-Kiri, the satirical publication that changed its name to Charlie Hebdo after a distinctly unsympathetic obituary of Charles de Gaulle touched off a national uproar.
They changed the name but not the spirit, the wit and the very Frenchness of their magazine. For that they should be remembered as intellectual heroes.
Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Washington Post.
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