Understanding Charlie Hebdo: Was Obama’s Absence in Paris So Bad?

Source: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Source: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Twitterverse asked President Barack Obama Monday morning why the United States leader did not join the millions marching in anti-terrorism rallies across France last weekend. It spurred a trending hashtag, #ReasonsObamaMissedFranceRally, that underscored how conspicuous his absence was at the demonstrations. Jake Tapper of CNN’s The Lead expressed his surprise on camera, saying he was ashamed the United States was not adequately represented; the front page of the New York Daily News proclaimed Obama had “let the world down.”

French President Francois Hollande marched, as did British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. More than 40 world leaders joined the approximately 1.2 million to 1.6 million people who attended the Paris demonstration in a show of solidarity against the terrorist attacks that left 17 dead last week, including editor Stéphane Charbonnier of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Across the country, 3.7 million assembled. Never have so many French citizens taken to the streets since the liberation of Paris from Nazi Germany in 1944.

His absence sparked criticism, but the administration initially brushed aside those condemnations. Who was chosen to fill in for the president sparked even more criticism. In his stead, the president did not send Vice-President Joe Biden, or Secretary of State John Kerry, or Secretary of the Treasury Jacob, who is the United States’ most-senior Jewish official. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris that day attending a summit on combating terrorism, but he did not participate in the march. The only U.S. official in attendance was U.S. ambassador to France, Jane Hartley.

From India, where he was meeting with new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kerry defended the president’s choice not to attend, as well as his own. Kerry saw the criticism as merely partisan “quibbling.” Quibbling “in the sense that our assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was there and marched, our ambassador was there and marched, many people from the embassy were there and marched.” The United States may not have sent a high ranking official to the unity march, but the administration “has been deeply engaged with the people of France since this incident occurred,” he told reporters, and the U.S. government has offered both law enforcement and intelligence assistance. What level of understanding Obama and French leader arrived at during their private communications will never be public knowledge. But Hollande’s head of communications announced that Obama had already made clear he “supported France in their common struggle against terrorism,” adding that “Mr. Obama’s attentions have been very important to Mr. Hollande.”

So, if the French president has no problem with Obama’s absence, why the fuss?

Many heavyweights in American politics — from celebrity politician Sarah Palin to the Republican Senators and possible 2016 presidential candidates Mario Rubio and Ted Cruz to news correspondents — have been vocal about the president’s seeming negligence. But after initially dismissing the slowly-growing public outrage, the White House admitted the obvious, making a rare admission of regret. “It’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “Had the circumstances been a little bit different, I think the president himself would have liked to have been there.” And Kerry will travel to Paris by Friday, the earliest day he can leave his long-scheduled trip to India and Pakistan, where he was scheduled to visit the school bombed by the Taliban in December.

A persistent rumor painted Obama spending his Sunday watching NFL playoff games. And while he may have watched football, there were no public events on his schedule, the White House claimed security was the problem. “The security requirements around a presidential visit, or even a vice-presidential visit, are onerous,” as the Secret Service would have to secure a large outdoor area, Earnest said. He acknowledged that the security could have been set up in the narrow, 36-hour time frame, but “it would have been very difficult to do so without significantly impacting the ability of common citizens to participate.” But, presumably, the German Chancellor, and the British and Israeli Prime Ministers, the Middle Eastern royals, and the presidents of African nations also faced security risks by attending.

In a further effort to diminish the Obama administration’s short-term failure and highlight its long-term commitment to France, Earnest added that “there is no doubt that the American people and this administration stand foursquare behind our allies in France as they face down this threat.” And he insisted that pledge was evident throughout last week. On January 7 — the day after the initial attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Obama himself called France the oldest ally of the United States. More importantly, the president emphasized the importance of recognizing “these kinds of attacks can happen anywhere in the world,” not just in the United States. And so his administration will focus on “making sure that we stay vigilant in trying to protect them — and to hunt down and bring the perpetrators of this specific act to justice, and to roll up the networks that help to advance these kinds of plots.”

Does America’s pledge of counterterrorism assistance come as any surprise?

Radical Islamist gunmen targeted Charlie Hebdo for its irreverent depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (and more generally, for its racist depictions of nonwhites), pushing France to confront the threat of homegrown jihadists. Grappling with the aftermath of a domestic terrorist attack and the paranoia and pressure of preventing future destruction is a task with which the United States is well acquainted. With that task now before France, it is only natural that America be used as a comparison and be considered an ally. Because terrorism is still such an important foreign policy issue for the U.S., there is really no question the United States will be involved to some degree in coordinating, or at least offering advice, in France’s own crises.

Given that American assistance is pretty much a given, based in political necessity, for any western European or NATO country, Obama’s commitment to France does not compare to the show of solidarity other world leaders made. Even though, in his Monday morning address, Kerry said, the U.S. relationship with France was “not about one day, or one particular moment,” that sentiment was not widely shared by the American press or leading Republicans. After all, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not simply an attack on one magazine, but on the idea that in free and democratic societies citizens have the right to write (or to say) what the wish, even if they are irreverent or offensive. When the leaders of Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Greece, and France stood side by side they showed their unity, rather than speaking it, as Obama did. The image of those leaders standing not behind a podium, but together, touching one another, in the street with the assembled French citizens sent a far different message than a promise of intelligence assistance.

In his statement, Obama said: “And I think it’s important for us to understand, France is our oldest ally. I want the people of France to know that the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow.” But, by not standing with alongside the French on Sunday, Obama missed an opportunity to speak out against the destructive force of terrorism. Many countries have experienced terrorist attacks in recent years; many are dealing with blossoming anti-immigrant sentiment. In the United States, the Department of Justice is the midst of prosecuting Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his brother is suspected of setting off two pressure-cooker bombs at the finish line of the race in 2013 that killed three and wounded more than 260. And, to a small degree, anti-Islamic sentiments “have been building since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. and have in some quarters reached almost feverish proportions since the extremist group Islamic State seized large parts of Iraq and Syria last year,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

Did Obama endanger the United States?

Obama’s absence caused so much controversy because the rally served as an important moment in the global discussion on immigration, race, religion, basic freedoms, and terrorism. The tragedy has spurred many questions on the freedom of the press, about whether Charlie Hebdo really deserved this show of solidarity despite its often racists content, about the rising backlash against Muslim immigrants in Europe, about Islamist terrorism, and Islamic fundamentalism.

Circulating through the U.S. media is that idea that Obama — the de facto leader of the free world — missed an opportunity to show his commitment to the preservation of the basic freedom of speech. Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Global Public Square called the absence a mistake because France is the United States’ “deepest ideological ally” — a bastion of democratic values like its revolution-forged motto of liberty, equality, and fraternity; a bastion that needs protection of the United States. Or so politicians like Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) argued. In an opinion piece published by Time Magazine, he called American’s lack of leadership dangerous. “The attack on Paris … is an attack on our shared values,” he wrote. “And, we are stronger when we stand together, as French President François Hollande said, for ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity.’” Cruz was adamant that continuing “to respond to the attacks as if they are isolated incidents that we might be able to prevent if we would only stop somehow ‘provoking’” the perpetrators, as he claimed Obama has done, is a failed policy.

Cruz made no attempt to explain Obama’s absence. The Wall Street Journal did. An opinion piece published on January 12 postulated that the White House “didn’t think it mattered — a sentiment that ‘Mr. Obama’s generally dismissive attitude toward Europe.’ Obama was happy to use the symbolism of a speech before tens of thousands of adoring Berliners in 2008 to burnish his theme of restoring America’s image in the world. But as President he has treated foreign policy like a distraction from his work of, well, going to Tennessee to pitch ‘free’ college. America’s image has worsened.”

Other Obama critics put a different burden on the United States. The argument has been made that France should be careful when looking to the United States for advice in responding to jihadists. Where Cruz critiqued Obama for his failure to confront terrorist threats, John Cassidy of The New Yorker cautioned France against repeating the errors the United States made after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “In 2002 and 2003, the United States and its allies fell into Osama bin Laden’s trap by invoking the language of war, marching into Iraq, and occupying sacred Muslim sites,” he wrote. “The Holy War against Western invaders that [Osama] bin Laden imagined himself leading became a reality: in places like Syria and Iraq, it’s still going on.” Cassidy worries the French government could still “overreact,” but the fact Obama declined to participate in the march could give the country greater freedom to chart its own course. And, as a country, France has still to make some changes to its security.

Are there lessons to be learned from France’s response?

On Saturday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared, “It is a war against terrorism, against jihad, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” And his words speak to the underlying tensions that the peaceful protests cannot hide indefinitely.

Sunday’s peaceful march was eloquent in its simplicity. There were no podiums or pulpits, but only declarations of solidarity in the form of signs proclaiming “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.” In a press release, the French government said the marches were held not only to honor the dead, but to bring the nation together amid growing fear — fear among France’s Jewish community that they might again be targeted by extremists and fear among the country’s Muslim population that they be subjected to reprisals. These fears are not unfounded; France has a long history of both anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and religious intolerance. Not only have the incidence of both anti-semitic and racist attacks risen between 2007 and 2009, according to most recent report by the Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme (National Consultative Commission on Human Rights), but since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French Interior Ministry has reportedly received notice about at least 54 Islamophobic attacks. For example, the words “death to Arabs” was graffitied on the entrance of a mosque in the French city of Poitiers. And France declares itself to be a secular state. France — home to Europe’s largest Muslim population — also insists on assimilation. But the country has had a difficult time integrating its Muslim citizens, a majority of whom are native-born — including Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who attacked Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, who orchestrated hostage crisis on the kosher supermarket

The images and video from the French demonstrations chronicled an outburst of patriotism not unlike what took place in the United States after 9/11. And while this patriotism is by no means misplaced, it is important to remember that patriotism can quickly turn into nationalism, which can be used to justify many illiberal policies. France has already banned the burka form public places, and its explicitly anti-immigrant party, the National Front, won 25% of the vote in the past elections for the European Parliament. Medhi Hasan, the political director of the Huffington Post UK, recently explained his concern that this moment will produce a similar ultimatum to George Bush’s “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In this case, it will be “either vous êtes Charlie Hebdo… or you’re a freedom-hating fanatic.” Not only did he argue such a choice was absurd, Hasan also claimed that the attack was not really a bid to assassinate free speech. “It was a crime – not an act of war – perpetrated by disaffected young men; radicalised not by drawings of the Prophet in Europe in 2006 or 2011, as it turns out, but by images of US torture in Iraq in 2004.” In his opinion, the right to free speech is not absolute, and there are lines, for the purposes of law and order, that cannot be crossed. To him, Charlie Hebdo crossed that line by racists depictions of minorities.

Of course, the French see satire as sacred, a tradition dating back to before the French Revolution. Charlie Hebdo was excessive, but being excessive is the calling card of political and social satire. However, Hasan wrote, “Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic.”

While this situation is uniquely French, the influence of the United States own war on terror has left an indelible mark on global events. Like France, America too has problems with immigration and assimilation. And, of course, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has launched a debate on the freedom of speech, and of the press, that cannot be ignored by any democratic society, as such societies need to occasionally appraise how these basic rights are used and protected.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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