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A tragedy shows what we share

The terrorist attack in Paris brings to mind a first year in France, and one friend in particular.

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    Participants held candles and placards at a Paris memorial for victims on Jan. 7.
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Je suis Charlie.

I echoed the social media meme in an e-mail to a French friend in Paris within hours of the news that masked gunmen had killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The dead included 10 journalists – some of whom the shooters had called for by name and then executed – and two police officers also at the scene. 

Having lived more than eight years in France, first as a student and then as a correspondent for this newspaper, I have many friends and people I consider family in France. My thoughts turned to them as I learned more of the terrible events and the fear that had gripped Paris.

But then I also saw how quickly the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) was blossoming on Parisian streets and on social media everywhere into a call for solidarity and defiance before the dark shadows of hate and barbarity. One friend in particular came to thought.

In September, he had e-mailed me to express his horror and sadness over the murder of Steven Sotloff, one of the American journalists whose grisly death was videoed by the Islamic State group in Syria.

My friend said he’d thought of me after he read that Mr. Sotloff had done some freelance writing for The Christian Science Monitor. But whether I knew Sotloff or not – and my friend certainly had not known him – did not matter, he said. 

“In a situation like this and before such absurdity,” he wrote, “to paraphrase J.F. Kennedy all people from democratic countries must say, ‘We are all American.’ ” 

Recalling that message, I wrote to him: “And today we are all Parisians – and Je suis Charlie.”

I was first introduced to Charlie Hebdo as a 17-year-old exchange student living a dream-come-true year in the south of France. With its gross and irreverent cartoons that often skewered the Roman Catholic Church, and its over-the-top headlines and commentary, Charlie Hebdo was nothing like the publications that came into the French family’s home where I lived for a year. Nor was it like anything I’d known back home in California.

But this was the early 1970s, and my French friends at the high school I attended explained how important Charlie Hebdo had been to the 1968 social movement that had turned France upside down and thrown off the limits on speech and expression. Sure, Charlie Hebdo is offensive and exaggerated, I still remember one friend saying, but that’s the point. If you start to limit offensive speech, where do you stop? 

During my time in France, I never took much interest in Charlie Hebdo. Its founders said they intended their magazine to be “bête et méchant” (“stupid and vicious”), a very different concept of journalism from the one espoused by my employer today: “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”

Americans wondering what is meant by “satirical magazine,” the quickly adopted shorthand used to describe Charlie Hebdo, might imagine what a news-minded Larry Flynt (editor of Hustler) and the creators of “South Park” might concoct if they got together to publish a magazine. Think “Book of Mormon” – only way, way less respectful and sentimental.

Charlie Hebdo cartoons have forever had an odd fixation with male genitalia – some critics blast the publication as homophobic – and in recent years the objective of being “stupid and vicious,” once focused particularly on the pope, has shifted with ferocity to Islam and the prophet Muhammad.

But even in that offensiveness an incisive poignancy would sometimes shine through, as when the prophet, apparently contemplating the rise of barbaric extremists such as Islamic State, was depicted lamenting what a pain it is “to be loved by so many idiots.” 

One can argue about the appropriateness of skewering and mocking others’ symbols of faith; one could even condemn Charlie Hebdo for crossing the line from vicious ridicule to disdain and racism. But remember that among Charlie’s dead were a Mustapha and an Ahmed. 

And isn’t that the point? That we have the right to argue and condemn, in words and speech? That to protect that freedom, we must even defend the right to be “stupid and vicious” with the pen? 

In that sense, nous sommes tous – we are all – Charlie.

Howard LaFranchi is the Monitor’s diplomatic correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He was the Monitor’s Paris bureau chief from 1989 to 1994.

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