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What I learned from Charlie Hebdo

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Bob Edme/AP

(Read caption) People light candles as flowers, pens, and placards reading, 'Je suis Charlie' [I am Charlie] are placed to show solidarity with those killed in an attack Wednesday at the Paris offices of the weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Bayonne, France, on Thursday.

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Je suis Charlie.

I wrote those words in an e-mail to a friend in Paris within hours of the news that masked gunmen had killed 12 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday. The dead included 10 journalists – some of whom the shooters had called for by name and then executed – and two policemen also at the scene.

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Having lived more than eight years of study and then work in France – five of them as a correspondent for this newspaper – I have many friends and indeed family in France. I thought of them as I learned more about the Charlie Hebdo attack and the ensuing manhunt for the escaped gunmen that was gripping Paris.

But as I saw how quickly the phrase “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” was blossoming on Parisian streets and on social media into a call of solidarity and defiance before the forces of hate and barbarity, I thought of this one friend in particular.

In September, he had e-mailed me to express his horror and sadness over the murder of Steven Sotloff, one of the American journalists whose beheading was recorded on videotape by the Islamic State in Syria.

My friend said he’d thought of me because he had read that Mr. Sotloff at one time had done some freelance work for The Christian Science Monitor. But whether I knew Steven or not – indeed, the fact that he, of course, did not know Steven – did not matter, he said.

“In a situation like this and before such absurdity,” he wrote, “to paraphrase J.F. Kennedy [in 1963 at the Berlin Wall], all people from democratic countries must say, 'We are all American.' ”

Recalling that e-mail, I wrote to him, “And today we are all Parisians – and Je suis Charlie.”

I was first introduced to Charlie Hebdo as a 17-year-old exchange student living a dream-come-true year in the south of France. With its gross and irreverent cartoons, often skewering the Catholic Church, and over-the-top headlines and commentary, Charlie Hebdo was nothing like the publications that came into the French home where I lived for a year. Nor was it like anything I’d known back home in California.

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But this was the 1972-73 school year, and my French friends at the lycee I attended explained how important Charlie Hebdo had been to the social movement, begun in 1968, that had turned France upside down and thrown off limits on speech and expression. Sure, Charlie Hebdo is offensive and exaggerated, I still recall one friend telling me, but that’s the point. Limit offensive speech, and where do you draw the line?

Over my years in France, I never took much interest in Charlie Hebdo. Its founders said they intended their publication to be “bête et mechant,” or “stupid and vicious,” a very different concept of journalism from the one espoused by my newspaper home: “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”

Americans wondering in the wake of the Paris attack just what is meant by a “satirical magazine” (the quickly accepted shorthand for defining Charlie Hebdo) might think what a news-minded Larry Flynt and the creators of "South Park" might concoct, if they decided to jointly publish a magazine. Think "Book of Mormon" – only way, way less respectful and sentimental.

Charlie Hebdo cartoons have forever had an odd fixation with male genitalia – some critics blast the publication as homophobic – and in recent years, the objective of being “stupid and vicious,” once focused particularly on the pope, has shifted with ferocity to Islam and the prophet Muhammed.

But even in that offensiveness an incisive poignancy would sometimes shine through – as when Muhammed, apparently contemplating the rise of barbaric extremists such as the Islamic State, was depicted lamenting what a pain it is “to be loved by so many idiots.”

We can argue the appropriateness of skewering and mocking others’ symbols of faith, we can even condemn Charlie Hebdo, as some already are as France mourns its fallen cartoonists, for crossing a line from vicious ridicule to disdain and racism. But remember that among Charlie’s dead were one Mustapha and one Ahmed.

And isn’t that the point – something I started learning decades ago from my lycee friends in the south of France – that we have that right to argue and condemn, in words and speech? And that to protect that freedom, we must even defend the right to be “stupid and vicious” with the pen?

In that sense, nous sommes tous – we are all – Charlie.