You know the Rue Serpollet, it’s on the east side near Bagnolet, in the 20th arrondissement, last refuge, practically, of the old Parisian working class, almost gone now from the capital. But to be more precise, in terms of urban geography, it is getting close to Montreuil and Vincennes, more mixed, economically integrated, as once, though no one remembers, almost all the city was.
Most Parisians do not know the Rue Serpollet, a little street ending in a dead-end on the city line, a quiet little street, felt more like being in a provincial town than the capital of France. You can walk around, smell the fresh baked bread early in the morning, stop in a café and stand at the bar for an espresse and a shot of brandy, think about how swell it is here, this quiet neighborhood in this swell city.
You know it because you play tennis on the public courts nearby, they are not bad courts, trees and foliage around them. You prefer the ones down the street at the Stade Leo Lagrange, named for a Socialist leader of the last century who encouraged sports, physical education, colonies de vacances, subsidized vacation camps for kids from such neighborhoods. Natalia, my little friend from Lodz, used to meet here, we paid a few euros, hit for a few hours. There are few places more peaceful than the east side of the city, guarded by the old fort at Vincennes, Foreign Legion headquarters, in whose park there are, what else, more tennis courts and everything else, including one of the nicest children’s playgrounds.
Charlie-Hebdo’s offices, in a plain fairly newfangled building on the Rue Serpollet, were bombed two or three years ago, something about making fun of Islam or its prophet. The paper moved to offices nearby, toward the Place de la République. Nearby may be stretch if you do not like to walk. If you do not mind, it is near enough, you stay on the long Rue du Chemin Vert and find Boulevard Richard-Lenoir and work your way through little streets until you find the Rue Nicolas-Appert, which is hardly more than a block, and this seems to matter now because the killers were, we learned, not sure where they were. But they found it. The guess would be that someone else had cased the place, because they went to the wrong office first. The editors were next door. These were the men they were looking for, who had insulted their prophet and thereby merited death. The killers, the police think, are French, French-born anyway. The Republic accepted them. They did not accept the Republic. They are Muslims.
So what? There are Muslims in France. The Muslim world, through its major institutions and governments, immediately reacted by sending messages to France this was not what Muslims do. (The U.S. government expressed solid solidarity in the fight against barbarism.) But still. The names of these killers are foreign, Algerian. That is a sad and pathetic thing to take note of, yet to not take note of it would be untruthful, even more sad and more pathetic. That is where we are now, and it is not the fault of the victims, but of the men with Kalashnikov assault rifles who forced a young mother to let them in by putting their guns to the head of her child. They did that, and their names are not Pierre or Jean but Said and Cherif. A Pierre or a Jean might have done it. But did not. A Said and a Cherif might not have done it. But did. And if the Muslim leadership in France immediately condemned the killings, it remains fair and valid to ask what they will do tomorrow.
As to the editors, who decidedly were not Muslims, they had changed offices because their office was firebombed but they did not hide. There was a one-man police detail, but it was easy to get in, at the building on Nicolas-Appert, and the Muslims shot him, killed him. The editors did not hide from anything. They would not let anyone hide from them. They had wicked pens and pencils. Charlie-Hebdo (“Weekly Charlie”) specialized in satire aimed at everything, everybody. It was like Henry Louis Mencken, mean and bigoted without discrimination. Jews and Catholics and Muslims and pols and big shots of all stripes and kinds. Their covers were outrageous, bordering on obscene but never getting there because too funny. To be funny you have to be real. You have be true. You can be outlandish and outrageous but somewhere in there you are true or it is not funny.
They were funny as hell and then some, even if something in you said, sometimes, this time they are overdoing it, but — of course they are not, this is still a free country, no? Land of Voltaire? Home of the Rights of Man? Freedom and Fraternity, with Equality thrown in for show, never in practice but you cannot have everything. No, Charlie-Hebdo, like its direct linear predecessor Hara-Kiri and its brother in arms Le Canard Enchainé (“The Shackled Rag”), glories of French journalism, week after week.
Lawsuit after lawsuit. Threat after threat.
Bomb after bomb.
But this time they had their number and except for the office mixup the plan went down just right. The whole leadership was there, including Cabu, Wolinski, two of the three best-known political cartoonists in France, Chard (pen name of Stéphane Charbonnier, editor in chief and also a cartoonist). This is a little like saying that Garry Trudeau or in another age Thomas Nast, were in the room, plus Abe Rosenthal or Ben Bradlee (no comparison whatsoever to the style or sensibility, but to fame), and the killers knew them. Which was easy: they are well known, have been for years, even decades, their faces are recognizable, they did not hide. They did not run. Week after week, year after year.
Fire bombs did not do it last time, that was three years ago.
This time they came with AK-47s.
Perspective: twelve persons killed, of whom two policemen, no gunmen apprehended yet, French police on national alert for the getaway car (carjacked after the shooting). Sixty-one journalists killed on the job in 2014, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. To be sure, in this case it is not a stray bullet or a mine, but a targeted murder, which is to say a warning as well as an act of war, to tell the rest of the profession: cross this line and you die. Say this and die. Think before you report.
The signs went up almost immediately in Paris and all over France where people from all walks of life gathered to show — to show what? Well, the signs said “Je suis Charlie,” I am Charlie. We are all Ahmed, the name of the cop killed during the jihad men’s getaway. Might as well mention that, too, because Cabu and Wolinski and Chard and the rest of the team surely would. An Ahmed who in answer to the screams of Allah Akbar said, one can believe, Vive la République. And died in its defense.
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