On January 7, I happened to be driving through the 11th arrondisement of Paris when I saw a police van jolt to a stop and a half dozen officers jump out and throw on bulletproof vests. My friend and I turned to each other and agreed that something unusual was afoot. That evening we found ourselves gathered with some friends in Le Marais, raising a glass to the 11 lost that day, and to the free expression they strove to embody, as droves of Parisians in the streets below made their way to the Place de la République, in a spontaneous public outpouring of grief. The crowd's mood foreshadowed the demonstration that would take place five days later in the same square, a remarkable show of unity in the face of an assault that took aim at the very heart of the meaning of the French Republic. In a country where the concept of la liberté has a legacy of some depth, there was an awakening, a re-setting of the political-cultural climate as it were.
Among the chatter of the self-identified progressive left class in France, like in much of the rest of the Western world, there can be found a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt rhetoric of empathy with Islamists, a strange coupling of extreme right and secular left. To many European, American and Canadian liberals, Islamism is either dismissed as a problem much lesser than Zionism, or seen as a justified response to the crimes of western Imperialism and capitalist exploitation, however violent Islamist political manifestations might be. These views have typically gone hand-in-hand with a leaning towards cultural relativism, idolization of figures like Hugo Chavez, anti-intervention, and other fashions in vogue with the Western left that see the crimes of western powers, most notably of America, as preeminent, far more worthy of outcry than any crimes committed by any non-western actor, who are cast strictly and reliably as victims.
After 9/11 and in every attack thereafter, one could detect in the responses of intellectuals like Chomsky and not a small caravan of fellow travellers in Europe and America alike, an undercurrent of smugness; a shrug that 'they had it coming'. Oppressed peoples will ultimately revolt, and out of desperation for their cause, they may target innocents. Who can blame them? Even when the editors and translators of Salman Rushdie were beginning to be murdered, people like novelist John Lecarré said there was "no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity," and years later, after much time for reflection on such comments, added, "should we also be surprised when the believers we have offended respond in fury?" Lecarré and many other literati opted to side with the emotionally wounded turned blindly violent, tacitly endorsing censorship. It was an ironic position for men who made their careers exercising their right to free expression. They were not alone. It was a popular sentiment, too.
But after Charlie Hebdo, things are different. Many fence sitters picked a side. People who might otherwise have observed acts of violence and searched in vain for a rationalization that found empathy with terrorists, wafted through the grey matter and came out firmly on the side of liberty, including the liberty to offend. The fury and the solidarity was palpable, literally visible in the masses who gathered in cities all over France, and in the seven million copies sold of the first Charlie Hebdo issue printed after the attack. Language became clearer. People said we must have freedom of expression, at any cost. The apologism, the calls for tolerance for the grievances of killers, the excuse making, all receded. Over and over again, I listened to Parisians interviewed on the radio who had lined up early in the morning to buy a copy of Charlie Hebdo, saying they didn't care for the magazine normally, and some didn't agree with its editorial positions, but this time, it counted.
I'm not sure what it was about this act of violence, over others before it, that shifted the conversation and did away with at least some of the absurdities of sympathizing with those who would expunge human life over insults to personal beliefs. Perhaps it was the combination of seeing carnage in the heart of a city known for both its literal and figurative luminosity, a beloved epicentre of the Enlightenment, a site where the modern idea of liberty was partly forged. Perhaps it was the undeniable symbolism of an attack that left no confusion as to the motivation. No longer could the euphemistically inclined say, in the heat of the moment the impassioned faithful may lash out; we cannot blame the shamelessly provoked. This was not a case where we could easily say the victims were antagonized to a point where they could not be considered responsible for their actions. No, this act of terror demonstrated an unequivocal institutionalization of violence, an acting out of the notion that an offended party had a sacred right, even an obligation, to kill in response to blasphemy. It was not a crime of passion, but a meticulously, conscientiously, planned retaliation. Put so starkly, it became harder to defend for even the most ardent liberal apologists of militant Islam, and the values at stake were brought into sharper relief.
Now, in the moment after the collective anguish, the question remains, will liberals hang on to that clarity of perception when the next attack hits, as it did in Copenhagen on Saturday? And what of the more numerous victims of Islamic terrorism, the citizens of Muslim countries? Can we harness this clarity and feel grief and fury for the girls enslaved by Boko Haram? For the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded in Egypt? Can we condemn, without qualifications, the thinking that inspired these crimes, and not search for an alien villain that indirectly caused it? Hussain Haqqani noted, after the slaughter of 132 school children and 13 teachers in Peshawar, the long list of earlier massacres of Pakistani children, men and women in mosques, churches, temples and over 1000 previous attacks on schools, and asked, "If the breadth of attrition has not cured Pakistan's jihadi addiction, would the death of innocent children and the burning alive of their teachers in a Peshawar school result in a fundamental change of heart?"
The only solace of the tragedy in Paris is the potential elucidation we might gain in what we're facing in the ideology behind such attacks. It is only that at this point -- potential -- because we still risk falling back into the abyss of muddy morality, of trying to squeeze the ludicrous and the heinous into logical terms. We must move the mood of epiphany from shock into an intelligent ongoing discourse in peace time, that keeps asking "why?" but never answers: because the perpetrators were offended - because of pictures, because of Israel, because of American soldiers, because of past grievances of the colonized. Nick Cohen, long immersed in the topic of the dangers of censorship, has said, "Challenge involves offence. Stop offending and the world stands still." We cannot afford the intellectual debilitation that comes with making some ideas inviolable: let nothing be sacred, and let us be clear that our societies, diverse as they are, are homogenous in this: that they value and protect pluralism, liberty, and free expression.
For a moment, emanating from a beautifully defiant Paris, we recognized evil and we responded accordingly. That moment gave us an opportunity to adjust the way the liberal left has rationalized the spilling of blood, to move beyond western self-hatred and endemic guilt, and to create a space where any and all ideas can be openly and safely discussed and yes, where we can even poke fun at ideas, including those held sacred by many. It is but an opportunity only at this point. But as seeds for a shift in the political culture of progressive left discourse on the terrorist threat, and the ideology behind it, this is all we have right now, and we musn't squander it.