Walking onto Trafalgar Square the Sunday of the week of the attacks I was met with the symbolic French flag which boldly and ironically interrupted the resolute and neutral-toned square which remembers British supremacy.
Trafalgar Square, a monument to Admiral Nelson for defeating the French Navy at the battle of Trafalgar, instead became a bastion of unity and solidarity among French and English. The colours of red, white and blue were projected opaquely onto the National Gallery and were symbolic of the values so centric to French society and heritage: ‘liberté, egalité and fraternité. Around the square faces of people of all nationalities, religions, walks of life and ages could be seen scattered throughout the crowds, separate, yet coming together to make up one large body of people.
The rally was made up of a vast amount of French speakers, however a substantial amount were not and many different languages could be heard shouting out in the crowds. Most people, however, chose to stand calmly in a silent display of solidarity rather than speaking or chanting. The normally busy, tourist-trap location of Trafalgar Square was practically silent in a respectfully sombre display of grief. Signs were held up reading messages, varying from those of hope, such as ‘Freedom’, and those which focused on the sad truths of the events this week, such as ‘No to Terrorism’. Those who stood were resolute. As the sun set and darkness grew in the square, the homage to the people of France in the form of the projection of its flag, which is very much iconic, only became brighter, and it lit up the sky in a way that overshadowed the architectural prowess of the square itself.
As I walked over to the memorial which remembered both victims of the attack on Chalie Hebdo and the Kosher Supermarket in Paris, the memorial lights dispersed a warm glow across gatherers. The memorial itself is incredibly captivating as the use of mixed media is so intriguing to the human eye. Pencils and pens heaped on top of each other lined in a circle around posters, candles and flowers all paying their respects in different ways to the atrocities which occurred this week. Stars of Davids, posters reading ‘Je suis Charlie’, ‘Je suis Juif’ and a giant cutout of a drawing pencil were among the items sellotaped to the floor, in defiance of the strong winds which threatened to blow the memorial apart.
I left the rally with a sense of unity with all decent human beings around the world. However, the evocative imagery and meaning of the memorial and the posters I had seen fiercely and sharply penetrated my mind as being representative of an issue far beyond requiring only the action of standing in a landmark in the center of London on a chilly Sunday afternoon. The pencils and pens placed on the memorial represent something incredibly important- the right of human beings to freedom of speech fully and absolutely, both in writing and in drawing, or however else they may wish. This right, which in France and broadly in the West is viewed as a fundamental component of society, was attacked by Islamist terrorists who wish to impose censorship across Europe. Debate after the attack revealed many clashing viewpoints, with some giving the opinion that freedom of speech should be limited when it comes to sensitive matters, such as religion. To me it is very worrying that, after an attack of such horrific proportions, so many media outlets and individuals have essentially immediately ceded to the aims of the terrorists making the attack, which was to place further limits on our freedom of speech. There has also been a great deal of talk about the importance of focusing on the ‘threat to Muslims’ and the issue of Islamaphobia in the aftermath of the attack. It is undeniable that any blaming of, or attack on moderate Muslims due to the events this week would be repugnant, however it is very unlikely to occur if we look at the usual repercussions of large-scale terrorist attacks.
The threat to Jews is an undeniably hugely more significant one, especially in France where anti-semitic attacks have been occurring at a shocking and extremely worrying rate in recent months. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to take the easy route out by either ceding to the wants of one particular religious group because we are intimidated, focusing on non-serious issues, or showing support lazily. The hashtag ‘JeSuisCharlie’ became the most used hashtag ever in Twitter history, and it is of course very heartening to see the world being more united than it ever has been so far in the history of the technological age in light of this brutal attack. However, virtual solidarity- no matter whether it may be significantly reported in the press or whether it may be a beautiful way of remembering the victims- will do nothing to actively defend the rights which are under threat from brutal terrorist assaults. Everyone who feels that freedom of speech is something that they value must take the steps to reevaluate exactly what it means to them and why they believe it is so essential, and must then act to ensure that not only do such atrocious acts of terror never occur again, but that the media worldwide stops allowing themselves to fall into a habit of passive cowardice. The right of Jews to live in peace, free from anti-semitism must post the Holocaust become absolute again and it is absurd that the seriousness of the threat of anti-semitism has been played down by Western media. Memorials to the victims of tragic attacks against the Jews and the journalists this week should continue to grow, but with that we must make sure that their legacy lives on by fighting for the rights they lost when they were brutally murdered.