I’m a journalist but was only by chance in the vicinity of the massacre at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. I was en route to visit a friend. This took me past the paper’s office and thus put me at the heart of the bloodiest attack France has seen in the past 50 years.
On my approach, it was immediately obvious that there had been a massive terrorist attack. Such attacks have a characteristic signature. Swarms of ambulances. Police vehicles and mobile labs. Grim-faced cops. Crime-scene tape stretching for blocks. A very particular expression on the faces of dazed and bewildered onlookers.
I asked the first cop I saw what had happened. She was in no mood to explain: “You’ll see it on the news.”
“How bad is it?”
“Grave.” Not quite translatable, but “as bad as it gets” will do.
France is in shock. The attack killed 12 people and injured several others critically, as of press time. The number of fatalities may rise. Masked gunmen attacked the paper’s office. But their object was not merely to terrorize. This is obvious, and let no one tell you otherwise. This was an attack on France. It was an outright declaration of war.
It was an attack on press freedom in particular–on journalists, writers, cartoonists and intellectuals who were as well known here as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are to Americans. They were known above all for their willingness to say whatever they damn well pleased–no matter whom they offended or how many death threats resulted. While their publication was best known for its parodies of Muslim extremists, they were more than happy to say whatever they pleased about Jews and Catholics too–and never were that respectful, either. But only radical Islamists thought the proper rejoinder was simply to kill them all.
In December 2011, the magazine’s office was firebombed following an issue it claimed was “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad. Shortly before the latest attack, it tweeted a mildly amusing cartoon of the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
The cartoonists who died–Charb, Cabu, Tignous, Wolinski–were household names. Bernard Maris, known as Uncle Bernie, was an economist to whom the French have listened every Friday morning on the radio since the 1990s.
Le Monde, Radio France and France Télévisions have lent their staff to keep Charlie Hebdo going, but France is not a big enough country to replace such figures readily. They were literally irreplaceable. This is true of every human being, of course, but they in particular filled a role no one else in France can fill.
In 2012, in an interview with Le Monde, Stéphane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s director, was asked if he was tempted to tone down the publication’s inclination toward the inflammatory.
“It may sound pompous,” he replied, “but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
It hardly sounds pompous at all. Especially given that this is precisely what he did.
Berlinski, an American journalist and biographer, lives in Paris
This appears in the January 19, 2015 issue of TIME.