Skip to main content

White House Response To Charlie Hebdo Attack Is Noticeably Different Three Years Later

What a difference a little bit of time and context can make.

"Je suis Charlie," their website says, a message of solidarity that sprang up in the hours after the attack that claimed so many of their lives. On Wednesday morning, the headquarters of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by three gunmen who killed 12 people, including two police officers, in an apparent act of revenge for the magazine's publication of material they found offensive to the Prophet Muhammad. A variation on the popular "We Are All..." solidarity construct, the phrase literally translates to "I am Charlie." (They've added translated banners here.)

The gunmen are still at large as of this writing, and among the dead are the cartoonists whose work has made the magazine a target of violence for years. The White House released a statement by President Obama Wednesday morning, condemning the attack (via email from The White House):

I strongly condemn the horrific shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris that has reportedly killed 12 people. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this terrorist attack and the people of France at this difficult time. France is America’s oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world. Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended. France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers. We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my Administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice.

The president reiterated those sentiments Wednesday afternoon, following a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry:

"One thing I'm very confident about is that the values that we share with the French people, a belief, a universal belief in freedom of expression, is something that can't be silenced because of the senseless violence of the few."

The magazine was targeted before over its satirical treatment of the Prophet Muhammad when, in November of 2011, its headquarters was firebombed. They had just put out an issue re-titled "Charia Hebdo," featuring Muhammad as the magazine's "guest editor." About a year later, when Innocence of Muslims was causing unrest around the world that culminated in the attacks in Benghazi, the magazine decided to publish an issue featuring cartoons of the prophet. At the time, in only his second White House briefing following the Benghazi attacks, Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about the cartoons, and offered qualified support for the magazine, as well as criticism of their judgment:

"We are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad, and obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory. But we’ve spoken repeatedly about the importance of upholding the freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution. In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it."

Three years later, President Obama spent part of his last press conference of 2014 questioning Sony's judgment over its decision not to release material under threat of violence, a decision that Sony reversed. They released the film The Interview, without incident, in 300 theaters on Christmas Day.

Je suis Charlie. It's the very least we can do to stand with them at a time like this, but when you really think about it, who among us actually is Charlie? Collectively, we seethe at being told what to say or think, or not to say or think, but most people don't have a thought worth censoring to begin with. Of those that do, how many would continue to put them out after they got firebombed over it, and after similar material had led to real violence against many others?

Here at The Banter, we take more than our fair share of shots at sacred cows, and we've got a defiant streak that's wider than Chris Christie's orange sweater, and we're even proudly publishing the very cartoons that ignited this terrorissy fit, and I'm sure we all hope we'd be brave enough to stick our thumbs in danger's eye no matter how close or real it got to us.

And if that danger did strike us, I wonder if we would have the grace that the cartoonist known as "Charb," Stéphane Charbonnier, displayed following that 2011 firebombing. He told an Associated Press reporter that Muslims, and Islam itself, shouldn't be judged by the actions of a deranged few:

The newspaper director, who goes by the name Charb, said the fire was triggered by a Molotov cocktail. He blamed "radical stupid people who don't know what Islam is," for the apparent attack.

"I think that they are themselves unbelievers ... idiots who betray their own religion," Charb said in an interview with Associated Press Television News.

Charb was among the 12 people killed in Wednesday's attack. After the firebombing, the magazine responded with this defiant cover, declaring, "Love is stronger than hate," but today, it doesn't feel that way.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 8.28.59 AM