The thought Je suis Charlie races around in my synapses. It’s a cold rainy morning as I head for Albertine, the library at the French Consulate on Fifth Avenue. What I’m looking for is a novel by Michel Houellebecq, one of France’s most controversial and celebrated writers. It was his latest novel, “Submission,” a futurist vision about a clash of Western values with those of radical Islam, that was scheduled for publication the very day that cold-blooded terrorists massacred twelve people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The news of the atrocity was devastating, a shock that went round the world. That innocent men and women would be assassinated for publishing cartoons was inconceivable. After all, the principle of a free press has been enshrined in France for hundreds of years: I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it—Voltaire.
Indeed, our Founding Fathers felt free speech to be the cornerstone of a free and democratic society, so much so it’s encapsulated in the First Amendment to the Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the rights of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Within minutes of learning of this monstrous terrorist attack, the Twitter Feed around the world erupted with the heartfelt sentiment: #JeSuisCharlie. Meaning that if you attack the magazine Charlie Hebdo you attack me, you attack the right of free speech. It went viral. Days later came an unprecedented outpouring of 1.5 million citizens in Paris at the Place de la République.
Today, it's early and all is quiet as I approach the Consulate, where flowers stand to one side of the doorway. Leaning over, I read a hand-written note, not Je suis Charlie, but Nous sommes tous Charlie. Nous sommes tous Ahmed. Nous sommes tous France. We are all Charlie, We are all Ahmed. We are all France.
Then it all comes back, the pouring out of similar heartfelt messages after the bombing of the World Trade Towers. Once again I recall the pain, the heartbreak, and the anguish.
I leave my soggy umbrella half-opened beneath a coat rack, and wave to the guard. Entering the bookshop, I have the place to myself. Since the librarian isn’t very busy, I ask her about Michel Houellebecq's books. Her favorites in stock are Whatever and The Map and the Territory, which she says won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. When I ask about another author, Georges Simenon, one of her favorite “simenons” is Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. I adore librarians, the way they walk around with all that ready knowledge crammed in their heads.
With errands to do, I pick up a the following, along with Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. Three bedrooms in Manhattan? That will really cost you a chunk of change.
At this time of year, I don't mind the cold, not a bit, but I miss the sun. I don’t know how much “Frenchiness” I will find in the islands, but I will do my best to bring you back something of interest. This much I know: the master of cuisine on board is Jacques Pepin. Bon appetit! We’re off to a good start.
As I go to pick up my floppy umbrella, I notice that someone, most likely the guard at the desk, has closed and buttoned it for me, leaving it a neater trimmer version of itself. Exiting the building, another bouquet has magically appeared.
Oui, nous sommes Charlie. Do you agree? Let me know what you think, I would love to hear from you. And take a moment, will you, to share this post with others.