Extremists operating under the banner of Islam have breached the norms of civilization so often that maybe we shouldn’t be shocked anymore.
They killed 132 children and 13 adults in a school in Pakistan last month. They abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria last year and most of those girls are still missing. They have videotaped the beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers and slaughtered religious minorities and thousands of fellow Muslims in Iraq and Syria. They work without pity or creed, and their numbers and atrocities seem to be increasing.
But the world is still capable of shock, and that is a good sign. When three masked gunmen slaughtered 12 persons at a newspaper office in the heart of Paris on Wednesday, and said they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad, people responded first with disbelief and then defiance.
While some acts of terrorism — flying planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for example — are intended to indiscriminately kill civilians, this one was more personal. The Paris gunmen went looking specifically for Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that refused to remove Islam from the long list of issues and public and religious figures it considered ripe for ridicule.
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“Where is Charb? Where is Charb?” they shouted, as they raced through the building. They found him, according to accounts by survivors, at a U-shaped table in a second-floor office, discussing the weekly paper’s next edition with cartoonists and other staffers.
Charbonnier died in a blast of gunfire, as did four cartoonists, three other journalists, a visitor, two police officers and a building caretaker.
If the purpose of the attack was to teach the world a lesson about the perils of satirizing Islam, it has failed. People flooded the public squares of Paris and other cities, many of them holding pens in the air. In one location in Paris, they held up signs to deliver a message: “Not Afraid.”
With their hateful act, the Paris gunmen elevated satire to a new level of esteem.
Salman Rushdie, the writer who spent a decade in hiding because the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran found one of his novels offensive and targeted him for murder, expressed it just so.
“I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity,” he said in a statement. “Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
Solidarity and defiance are the appropriate immediate responses to the attack in Paris.
But the threat of Islamic extremism is ongoing, and most of its victims don’t have celebrity status. They are children and women and men who live hard, anonymous lives in unstable parts of the world. They are being terrorized and murdered by people who have claimed the cloak of a particular religion to consolidate and wield a brutal form of power. Just since Saturday, 2,000 villagers in northern Nigeria are feared killed in attacks by the Islamist Boko Haram group.
Defiance and condemnation won’t stop the extremists, and neither will brute military force. The struggle is ongoing, and must be countered in a variety of ways.
Governments in African nations like Nigeria must become functional enough to stop people who audaciously kidnap schoolgirls and raze villages. European nations must address the problem of homegrown Muslims taking up with extremists. The United States must hone its intelligence. Terrorist attacks happen here, too; the trial of the surviving brother accused of bombing the finish line of the Boston Marathon is just getting underway.
None of this is easy. It is the challenge of our time. But extremists don’t get to shut down ideas, or stop girls from attending school, or darken the city of light. Beyond shock, there must be resolve.