Once again a dramatic terror attack gruesomely highlights the world’s political and cultural fault lines — and acts as a vector that can transform a nation by threatening to convert public shock into sharpened identities, strained social ties and (likely) a hardened state. The brutal massacre in Paris of the editor and journalists of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by well-armed terrorists is an epochal and unspeakably sad moment for France and for the world at large.
The world is still grappling with aspects of the incident. One, its compelling imagery: The cold-efficiency of the killers, the picking out of the victims, the execution of an injured police officer on the road, the loud chant, the triumphant raised pointed finger and the calm escape. And beneath that is the anger and befuddlement over the motivation to kill cartoonists who were drawing pictures poking fun at Islamic figures, besides those of other religions. Is this what religious reflection has come to? There was a time when terrorism was linked to historical grievances and specific political objectives, problematic as violence is as an instrument of politics. But extremist ideology and terrorism are now about grandiose notions of social domination and thought control. Which is why the trending hashtag on Twitter #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) is so appropriate: Extremist worldviews are about us, they target us, and they seek to determine what we think through force and intimidation.
France will deal with the attack’s aftermath, the problem of French jihadis returning from Islamic State’s war in Syria and Iraq and the problem of increasing Islamophobia. A majority of citizens will resolutely back the ideals of liberty and free speech that have made France a global cultural icon, since the age of Enlightenment. France’s struggles are universal with strong resonances in India. Journalists and activists who criticise the government or Right-wing ideologies are aggressively abused and vilified on a daily basis on social media. A well-known journalist’s photographs were publicly burned just because he contested the official version on the Pakistani ‘terror boat’. A society that appears somewhat indifferent to the celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin is unmindful of the toxicity it is already living with. The Paris attack is a reminder of the consequences of intolerant worldviews. We do not have to wait for such worldviews to manifest themselves in greater violence to take them seriously, as the poison they spread is bad enough. Empathy for France must translate into vigilance within.