An estimated crowd of 1.6 million people gathered in Paris on January 11 to stand in solidarity and in condemnation of the violent attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo by Islamic Jihadists just four days earlier. Another two million rallied in other cities around Paris on January 10 and 11, including 300,000 in Lyons alone, one quarter of the city’s population. In addition to the many notable political, cultural, and religious personalities in attendance at the Paris march, more than 45 heads of state from around the world participated. Italy was even represented by their current and two former prime ministers. Notably and noticeably absent was the leader of the free world.
In the brief statement released by the White House following the January 7 attack, the President affirmed, “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.”
And in a speech in Tennessee, he had this to say: “I want the people of France to know the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow…”
The statements seem to hang out in mid-air, begging for something to follow like, “…therefore I will represent the United States in Paris and walk side-by-side with our oldest ally.” Granted, the President has a busy schedule and changing it at the last minute is kind of a big deal. The White House cited security logistics as a primary reason for skipping the march. The Secret Service says it was not consulted, however. The US was represented at the march by Jane Hartley, the US ambassador to France. Attorney General Eric Holder was also in France for a meeting on security but skipped the march. He did find time, however, to appear on talk shows later that day.
A chorus of voices from the Washington Post to the Chicago Tribune, to Jon Stewart expressed disappointment that the President of the United States chose not to attend an event highlighting a key principle of democracy and one of the principles named in the Bill of Rights, namely the right to freedom of the press. Even Rosie O’Donnell was upset. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest did finally admit, at the prompting of reporters, that the US should have sent someone with a “higher profile”. Kudos for admitting it.
Say what you will about Charlie Hebdo. They weren’t exactly exemplars of moral or journalistic excellence. Their frequent mockery of Christianity and Islam in particular was often crude and juvenile, but they certainly didn’t deserve to be slaughtered. Not. At. All. But the marches weren’t really about a newspaper and few cartoons, were they.
Demonstrating public solidarity anytime a community is attacked is important enough. But it is all the more so when the attack strikes out from an ideology that professes to stand in opposition to the very foundations of the community it attacks. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was not merely an attack on one paper that printed some cartoons. It was an attack on freedom of the press and free speech. But more than that, it was an attack on the existential freedom to wrestle with truth and with ideas that is at the root of the promise of democracy. It was an attack on the possibility for reason and dialogue and their ability to help us discern the truth about ourselves and our place in the world. Remember that a kosher market was also the object of violence that day. Freedom of press…freedom of religion, core principles of democracy. It was, without a doubt, an attack on the very foundations of the West. In this way it was in some sense more shocking even than the horror of 9/11, because it aimed for the heart. Perhaps this is why so many who had never even heard of Charlie Hebdo before January 7, 2015, were so quick to display the now famous “Je suis Charlie”. The Paris March then, and the others like it around Paris and around the world, were not merely a response to a particular event, crime, or random incidence of workplace violence. They were a reaffirmation of some of the very core principles of Western civilization; liberty, reason, human dignity, and solidarity. Every leader of every democracy should have been there. Ours was not.
One wonders in what sense the President suggests we “stand together” against an ideology not only at odds but at war with these principles? In an age of media omnipresence, visible presence means something a speech can only hint at in times like these. The image of presidents and prime-ministers walking arm in arm before a crowd of 1.6 million says more than the most carefully worded and masterfully delivered speech. Think about that for a moment…the prime ministers of Israel and Palestine walked together, separated only by the interlocking arms of the heads of state of France, Germany, and Mali.
The glaring absence of the leader of the Free World sent a message, to be sure, that we are not in fact, as united as we claim to be. “We stand with you…unless by ‘stand’ you mean actually stand. We metaphorically stand with you!” Sometimes standing up for something means actually standing up for it. One hopes that in metaphorically standing with France, the President of the United States actually stands for free speech and the core principles of the West—including…*ahem*…religious freedom.