In this modern age of instant news flashes and analyses, the Jan. 7 attack in Paris on the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo is very old news and seems like a long time ago. The gunmen, who were Islamic fundamentalist terrorists connected with an al-Qaida Yemeni branch, killed 11, injured 11 more, and then executed a wounded French National Police officer lying in the street.
The attack may have finally awakened in Western Europe the philosophically painful realization that there’s a difference between religious tolerance and the hoisting of one’s own petard, as it were, by acceptance of the religiously intolerant.
An eyewitness account of the mood in Paris that day is provided by a retired, Charleston friend — we’ll call him “Sam”— who is spending a year abroad with his family. He submitted a “dispatch” with his thoughts on the matter, and what it felt like to be an American in Paris in January 2015. What follows is edited for brevity:
“The celebration of the New Year quickly turned to anger, agitation, and fear as the terrorist attack on Paris unfolded. In spite of the deadly, monthly, small-scale domestic attacks, and the presence of 1,000 jihadists recently back from the battlefields of Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, the French people seemed content to ignore this threat in hopes that it would just go away. What has finally ignited some passion is the location and brazenness of the attack in Paris and the assault on French free speech. But what remains truly amazing is the reluctance to link this attack with radical Islam.
“I hope that they finally wake up to the threat that these radicals pose, but I fear that they still lack the will to fight back and save their culture and country.
“We are all safe and sound. One of our children’s schools was canceled for a day due to ‘security reasons.’ A ‘terrorism day off’ is now the local version of an American snow day. Our local church, the American Church in Paris, was on lockdown as a high-risk target.
“With ongoing tight security, we were all searched and frisked before entering the sanctuary for Sunday service. Initially the Metro was nearly deserted while these nuts were on the loose, but things have now returned to normal.”
“Sam’s” wife, on a Facebook posting, says there were 5,000 armed guards in maroon berets patrolling major sites such as the Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde and the iconically beautiful government buildings. She says they were glad to have such well-armed security, but it was a visual shock and a reminder that France is currently fighting a war against religious zealots.
“This is the creepy part,” she writes (edited). “These killers have been taken in by France, have gone to school here; they understand the language and the culture and the logistics of how things work, and now they are using all this inside information to murder and terrorize.
“Everyone is on edge. Everyone feels vulnerable, but what is the best way to respond? Numerous anti-Muslim incidents have erupted since the attack. We are seeing that sectarian violence inspires senseless retaliation. Hate inspires hate. How do you protect everyone — the law-abiding Jews, Christians, Muslims, and non-religious types — while finding and stopping the jihadists before their next move?”
That, of course, is the big problem, as evidenced by similar crimes that have already taken place in this country. The current administration is reluctant to link such activity with Islamic extremism (even though the connections seem obvious), possibly to avoid the type of random sectarian retaliation referred to above.
What we can all agree on is that these people are terrorists, people who, as President Barack Obama suggests, need to be isolated, degraded and destroyed before it’s too late.
This has become a global problem that won’t improve until people rationally juxtapose and defend peaceful religious freedom against violent and freedomless theocratic suppression.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at email@example.com.