The attack on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris today aimed not just to silence a particularly noisy and outspoken critic of Islamic extremism but to intimidate people everywhere who value the right to freely express their views. The heavily armed, masked gunmen shouted jihadist slogans during the shooting that left 12 people dead, including the journal's top editor and four prominent cartoonists who worked for the paper as well as two policemen assigned to guard the building; four others were critically injured in the attack. The attackers then fled the scene and, as of this writing, were still at large as French authorities conducted a massive manhunt to capture them.
France was mocked by conservatives in America for being insufficiently committed to the cause of freedom when it refused to participate in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — witness the christening of "Freedom Fries" in the capitol cafeteria. But the French have clearly shown their unwillingness to be cowed by threats and intimidation when it comes to defending freedom of speech against attacks by terrorists. As German chancellor Angela Merkel put it in a letter of condolence to French President François Holland, "this horrible act is not only an attack on the lives of French citizens and the domestic security of France, it also stands as an attack on the freedom of expression and the press, a core element of our free, democratic culture that can in no way be justified."
Charlie Hebdo, whose name partly derives from the Charlie Brown comic strip, is part of a venerable tradition of insolent and satirical journals in France dedicated to lampooning the wealthy and powerful, including politicians, the police, bankers, the Catholic Church and religion in general. This week it printed a mock debate over whether Jesus existed, and in 2011 its offices were firebombed after it published an issue purportedly "guest edited" by the Prophet Muhammad praising the election victory of an Islamist party in Tunisia.
Apparently today's attack, carried out by two or three gunman carrying Kalashnikov automatic weapons and a rocket propelled grenade launcher, was carefully planned. It took place during an editorial meeting where the newspaper staff had gathered, and the paper's editor and four prominent cartoonists appear to have been specifically targeted; the attackers asked for some intended victims by name. Witnesses who entered the building after the gunmen described a scene of carnage, with bodies lying on the floor and people consoling each other on the street outside.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack yet, though French security officials say that the perpetrators could belong to one of more than a thousand radical jihadist groups around the world. Mr. Hollande visited crime scene and declared the shooting was "without a doubt" an act of terrorism similar to several plots authorities had succeeded in thwarting in recent weeks. He also announced the nationwide terror alert had been raised to its highest level and called for national unity in the face of the tragedy.
Whether the France can achieve that in the current political climate is unclear. In recent years increasingly influential far-right political parties have helped stir up fears over immigration and the status of France's large Muslim population. At the same time, nearly 1,000 French citizens have reportedly left the country or planned to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria over the last 12 months, heightening concerns about the threat radical Islam poses to France.
The American government has offered French authorities whatever assistance they need in tracking down the perpetrators of this brutal attack and bringing them to justice. Authorities first need to identify who the gunmen were and whether the attack was organized by self-radicalized, so-called "lone wolf" actors, whether they were people returning from the battlefields in Iraq and Syria or whether the operation was directed by the Islamic State or al-Qaida.