Sixty-one journalists were killed on the job in 2014.
Among the names you or I might recognize are American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both brutally killed by a militant Islamic group; but there are dozens of names I found doing cursory internet research that I’d never seen reported or memorialized in any major newspaper. The count of the dead climbs every year: journalists captured in war zones or killed while reporting for a story.
But 2015 started with something that seemed to pool in the cultural consciousness as altogether more sinister and more shocking for its occurrence on the soil of a country not usually embroiled in terrorist violence. Twelve people, many of them journalists, were killed at the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by militant Islamists, ostensibly in retribution for cartoons and other content that blasphemed Islam.
What strikes me – and what has likely created such a deep impression on the millions of people around the world talking about Charlie Hebdo, writing about Charlie Hebdo, hashtagging about Charlie Hebdo – is not just the large loss of life and the brute violence of the onslaught. It’s the unexpectedness of an attack on a magazine’s offices, on that publication’s home soil, in broad daylight.
The deaths of the journalists in Charlie Hebdo’s offices were exceptional because they were unusual. These people were not supposed to be in any danger. They were not reporting on global conflict, they were not traveling abroad. They went in to work like they did any other morning; they drew cartoons. Their death seems an especially flagrant attack on freedom of speech and expression, a threat to a magazine’s ability to print anything they want, offensive or blasphemous as it might be.
Those are the truest things about the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the deaths of the people in its offices. It was deeply shocking and sad. It has sparked movements in solidarity across countries and social media because it is terrifying to conceive of a world where you can be killed for doing your job at a newspaper protected by freedom of speech laws.
Glued to my computer screen and scrolling through articles and hashtags, I have felt that injustice acutely. And I thought about all of the other injustices, all of the other attacks on free speech and on people’s lives that have gone largely unnoticed by all of us.
In many ways, what happened at Charlie Hebdo was special, unusual, exceptional. In many more ways, it was part of a predictable and consistent pattern of violence against and restriction of the press.
Journalists are killed on a regular basis. Journalists are arrested and unjustly imprisoned even more often. And, as Charlie Hebdo showed us, those events are not restricted to far away places, transmitted to us in grainy, gory video.
This past August, 11 journalists were arrested by police officers in Ferguson, Mo. for reporting on the riots in the city after the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown. Here, in the United States, journalists were actively prevented from doing their jobs by agents of the state. And that’s not particularly exceptional news in itself, either.
When we think about the extreme violence of Charlie Hebdo, let’s think about that, too. Let’s think about the 61 journalists that died doing their jobs last year. The ones that are still being imprisoned for doing their jobs.
This happens, this is happening. Let’s not proclaim “je suis Charlie” and forget we did it when the sting of this most recent tragedy fades.