In the light of the atrocious attack at the office of Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, where twelve died and others were seriously injured, I have been thinking about fear quite a lot.
All of us have different things we are afraid of, though I acknowledge that I have the luxury to be afraid of lesser things, like falling off my bike or not having enough money to buy lunch as often as I might like. My fears are a world apart from those of someone living in a war zone or receiving death threats for their work.
The journalists at Charlie Hebdo knew their lives were in danger but didn’t let fear of this prevent them from continuing their work and expressing their commitment to freedom of expression. Tragically these fears were realised when armed gunmen stormed their building and took the lives of so many, devastating the lives of even more.
I have been thinking about what it was these violent fundamentalists feared so much about that magazine that they felt compelled to carry out this attack. Yes, the magazine was well known for its frequent displays of irreverence, irreligiousness and indecency but if those killers were so sure of their faith why should something they found offensive frighten them so much?
I have also thought about the fear that those who lost their lives and those who survived must have felt as the attack took place. I thought of Stephane Charbonnier, editor of Charlie Hebdo, and the interview he gave to Le Monde in 2012 where, when questioned about death threats he’d received, said ‘I am not afraid of retaliation, I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.’
Whilst it isn’t necessarily the case that these murders were orchestrated by a well-known terrorist outfit this was an act of terrorism, designed to bring people to their knees by instilling an overwhelming sense of fear.
Of course people are frightened by what happened, that’s a perfectly natural and shameless response. Yet in spite of this, support for the murdered cartoonists and others has been overwhelming. Yesterday evening, even though the fanatics who perpetrated this act were still at large with their deadly weapons and deadlier mindsets, thousands of people did not let fear prevent them from coming together to express their solidarity with those killed at Charlie Hebdo and affirm their commitment to the principles that publication upheld.
What frightens me most about acts such as these is that some noxious groups and individuals would take the seed of fear sown by these unwarranted attacks and intensify this into a frenzy of terror that would enable political parties to increase racial and religious prejudice and to curb the rights of their citizens*. Whether deliberately or not, they try to achieve what the terrorists have yet failed to do and bring us to our knees.
And recently, across Europe, there has been a large swing of voters to far-right-wing parties and increasing evidence of intolerance to others. There has been an increase in active support for anti-Islam groups in Europe for those too lazy to take the time to acknowledge that not all Muslims are terrorists. However there are also people, like those at Charlie Hebdo, who wont give into this acceptance of intolerance and hatred. For every anti-Islam or National Front march there are usually a sizable bunch of counter-protestors.
It is easy to look at the world around us and despair at the acts of violence and evil that are committed across the globe, to smaller and larger scales, on a daily basis. It is easy to look at the faces of strangers and find ourselves questioning whether or not they pose a threat to us. It is easy to give in to the fear that these acts of hate strive to generate and scaremongers muster for their own ends.
What is remarkable is that most of us chose not to. That in times of tragedy people gather together to share their candles and overcome the darkness. The global reaction to what happened has, on the whole, been a wonderful show of resilience and love in the face of evil. It has been a positive reinforcement that people are essentially decent and will not stand for such acts of violence against individuals and against principles that they hold dear.
Hate is ugly but rather than allowing the fear it engenders to breed it into something insurmountable it’s much more effectively held at bay with love and with laughter.
“I love you so, I have no time to hate
Even those wolves without. The great winds move
All their dark batteries to our fragile gate:
The world is very strong, but love is stronger.”
To Olive V – Lord Alfred Douglas