France, we are with you

If the terrorist attacks in Paris last week shocked the world, the coming together of 40 of the world’s leaders accompanied by at least three million people marching on the streets of the city and across the country on Sunday was stunning. More importantly, the humongous response from civil society was heart-warming and a much-needed balm for the victims’ families and for a wounded France which prides itself as the originator of the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.  French President Francois Hollande aptly described Paris as the capital of the world on Sunday, vowing to rise up toward something better.

The march was intended to show those responsible for the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing eight of its employees including the editor, followed by other killings in France spread over three days, that nothing could come in the way of freedom of expression. The leaders who included British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were there to show solidarity with France and honour the 17 victims of the terrorist attacks. That such a large gathering spontaneously joined in the march was a clear indication that the attacks had touched a raw nerve which, if left unchallenged, could threaten freedom and the democratic way of life, wherever it exists.  For the marchers, and for many others around the world who could not join them but felt the same, nothing could justify the killings. Many asked “why, why the killings”  – a question that is going to haunt the world for a long time, answers for which civil society needs to look for urgently and engage as many people as possible in the project.

The French march brings to mind a similar response closer home in the wake of the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. There again, after the initial shock of the attacks had passed, Mumbaikars joined in by the rest of India and the world vowed that they would not be scared off by such attacks. Without much ado, people ensured that life in Mumbai quickly returned to normal and individuals on the street went about their work, defiantly signalling that no terrorist could derail life and the values they held dear - peace and liberty. The only discordant note is that the managers of the Mumbai attacks still roam freely in Pakistan, with successive governments in Islamabad showing no great resolve to get the guilty punished. The Paris attacks and the Sunday march should send a signal to Pakistan that terrorism can only be fought if petty differences are set aside and terrorists are seen as a common enemy.

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