Fraternité: Of the three great founding principles of the secular French state, it was the third, fraternité, that united France in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Fraternité: that healing warmth, born of human fellowship and empathy, without which the two other animating principles of the democratic republic – liberté and égalité – remain empty and impotent.
THE THIRTY THOUSAND PARISIANS who braved the mid-winter cold in the Place de La République last Wednesday declared they were “not afraid”. I didn’t believe them. Horror, fear, and anger clamped hard around my heart as I absorbed the news of the deadly attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and the equally deadly sieges that followed. Had the French people not been gripped by very similar emotions, they would not have been human.
Especially unnerving was the Parisian demonstrators’ silence. Clustering protectively around the towering statue of Marianne, personification of the French Republic, they gave no audible expression to their feelings. Instead there was an intense stillness. People lit candles. Some carried hand-lettered signs. Many read, simply: “Je suis Charlie.”
I am Charlie.
Of the three great founding principles of the secular French state, it was the third, fraternité, that bound this vast crowd together: that healing warmth, born of human fellowship and empathy, without which the two other animating principles of the democratic republic – liberté and égalité – remain empty and impotent.
It was the violation of fraternité that took France’s breath away. The coolly proficient murderers who gunned down two gendarmes, a janitor, and the core of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial team, spoke in accentless French. It was this chilling fact that punctured the nation’s heart. That these young men, nursed at Marianne’s breast, felt not the slightest tremor of brotherly feeling as they gunned down twelve of their fellow citizens.
The killers’ pure and utterly merciless manifestation of religious outrage was as shocking as it was, perversely, awe-inspiring. Their absolute certainty about doing God’s work freed them from every social obligation and legal restriction. In a world made luminous by the eternal and unchallengeable injunctions of the divine, they’d turned themselves into holy instruments: as impervious to remonstration and remorse as the cutting edge of the Prophet’s sword, or the 7.62mm rounds of their AK47 assault rifles.
If there is a design fault in the human animal then, surely, this is it. Humanity’s ability to conjure itself into the dissociative fugue state of religious and/or ideological rapture. A state in which all awareness of personal responsibility falls away and we are driven to the most extreme acts by the conviction that, in hastening the arrival of the heavenly – or earthly – paradise, we are doing good.
To bring the whole of humankind into the body of the faithful. To advance social justice through the dictatorship of reason and virtue, Aryan genetics, or the proletariat. To establish the sovereign individual within a perfectly free and unfettered market economy.
In the name of perfecting humanity, everything is permissible.
The West is delusional if it believes itself immune to this deadly condition. We may congratulate ourselves that the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition lie safely in our past and that, as heirs of the European Enlightenment, we have moved beyond the reach of religious extremism. But this is to overlook Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s death camps. Or, if these seem too far away, the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes and George Bush’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”.
Charlie Hebdo itself falls squarely into the long European tradition of exposing the rank hypocrisy of those who set themselves up as the inerrant judges of human frailty. From Chaucer to Boccaccio, Voltaire to Swift, the failure of individuals and institutions in authority to live up to their own moral precepts has inspired artistic works of satirical genius.
The French, in particular, have an historical aversion to “clericalism” – i.e. the unwarranted interference of religious institutions in education and politics. Indeed, “anti-clerical” French republicans have been doing battle with the French religious authorities since at least the Eighteenth Century. The French Left is, accordingly, forever on its guard against any threat – be it Christian, Judaic or Muslim – to the cherished principles of the French Revolution’s secular republic.
France is also the home of the expression “épater la bourgeoisie” (shock the middle classes). Alarming and/or outraging the fatuous and far-too-comfortable beneficiaries of the political status quo has been a favourite sport of iconoclastic and revolutionary French artists and writers since the mid-Nineteenth Century. In this, too, Charlie Hebdo is as French as frogs-legs.
A curiously symmetrical symbolic relationship thus embraces both the holy warriors who gunned down the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and the latter’s militant secularist mission. On either side of this tragedy stand fervent believers in, and unflinching defenders of, compelling religious and political traditions.
Perhaps the great mass of Parisians in the Place de la République remained silent in conscious acknowledgement of the deadly consequences that follow when we make ourselves captive to the battle-cries of uncompromising conviction. A charge upon which both the slayers and the slain, fused now forever in death, must – tragically – stand convicted.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 January 2015.