Make no mistake, the terrorist massacre of at least 12 French journalists, editors, and cartoonists - writers and satirists - working at Charlie Hebdo in Paris (think a socio-political combination of Mad Magazine, The Onion and Private Eye, with some of the cruder elements of Hustler), on the 7th day of the new year, is a seismic event.
As one cartoon had it, the twin towers were now two towering pencils, about to be destroyed. Of course, the deaths in themselves are sad and tragic. But the symbolic (as well as practical) impact of this attack is far greater than a count of the bodies, high as that is. For, unlike the Brevik massacre, which was horrifying and cruel, but ultimately proved to be the work of an isolated madman without wider social connections, this was the work of a terror cell that may be linked to ISIS.
The massacre was timed with the precision of a military exercise - it occurred in broad daylight in the heart of one of the world's busiest, greatest cities - and was a calm piece of wet-work we might associate with the world's elite commando units. Three men clad in black, armed with machine-guns, strode into a busy newsmagazine office at the worst time (was this an inside job?) - exactly when all the key editors and artists were there - and proceeded to execute them.
They also killed two armed police men, and then fled, without being caught, in a small car, later abandoned. At time of writing, tonight, they have not been caught. Forget amateur hour, or suicide strikes - this was chillingly planned, executed, and was, from the perspective of this most evil of operations, a total success.
Or was it? Charlie Hebdo may close (for a time), or not. Tens of thousands of Parisians are gathering in the city tonight, and many French people are, in solidarity, changing their Facebooks to say Je Suis Charlie. Charlie Hebdo, a relatively poor-selling weekly, is now the most famous magazine in the world, just as, in a lesser way, the attacks on Sony made The Interview, a mediocre film, an instant classic.
Charlie Hebdo is not to everyone's tastes. Let us be clear, it is often joyously tasteless, a shit-pie in the face of any and all powers that be. In fact, as a Catholic with great respect for all religious traditions (at their best), including Islam, I have been personally disgusted by some of their incendiary cartoons of the past, which have been vulgar, atheistic, and boldly confrontational. They took no prisoners.
Okay, but, here is where we must draw what I call the Western line. I would never kill a cartoonist or editor for publishing such things as appear in Charlie Hebdo. I would fight to the death, in fact, to protect their liberty, their freedom, to publish such work. This is because the tradition that Charlie Hebdo is part of (the tradition that led to the French revolution and modern democracy) is also the tradition of Swift, Bentham, and all great satirists, and pamphleteers. For all the West's brutal faults, it is now commonly understood that we do not kill people for blasphemy, or for expressing ideas or opinions which question our own views.
But this is not a debating team wet-dream, only. This is not a hypothetical. This is a terrible, very frightening game changer for all writers, artists, satirists, publishers, and journalists, everywhere. What these extremists have demonstrated, in a way so clear and chilling it equals the horror of 9/11 - is that no one who thinks differently from them is safe, not even at home, in their own cities. If you publish something they don't like, they can rub you out. This is a kill fee with no fee, just the kill. It is the radical and extreme and final riposte to gonzo journalism and its obsession with radical protest and guns - this is gonzo anti-journalism.
It is, in fact, the death of a free press in France, today - and hopefully, there will be a rebirth soon. But for now, we are facing a very bleak moment - for how do we protect other newspapers, magazines, blogs, and writers? How do we protect anyone who dares to question these maniacs? They live among us, they are well-trained, well-armed, and more deadly than any foe we have known before. SPECTRE and all fictional enemies now appear quaint, even aliens and asteroids and viruses and crop failure and global warming - we have madmen in our midst, and this is a fast-acting toxin.
As writers, and readers, we must stand up for Charlie Hebdo, for freedom, and somehow carry on, though we know we face terrible risks ahead. And, while this will play into the hands of fanatics who will seek to portray whole communities as dangerous, we must resist our own extremist reactions, while also being unafraid to hold firm, and take the hard decisions that need to be taken, to defeat the enemies of education for women, freedom of the press, and the Western way of life.