There are at least three ways in which horrific events such as yesterday’s can affect even those of us who weren’t directly involved.
The first is the simplest: we are shocked by the recognition of what it was, a horrific moral outrage. The cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians is always deplorable, but how much more shocking to conduct such an attack in broad daylight, in the heart of a peaceful European city, as a deliberate assault on one of the most fundamental values of our civilisation, and in the name of a religion of peace.
Then there is the second connection. We recognise that the people who suffered are like ourselves. We are as vulnerable to random acts of evil as they were. The bereaved families, the devastated colleagues, the stunned Parisian citizens — these are people in every important way just like us.
But it’s the third connection that’s the most telling, and this is what struck me the most about the massive worldwide reaction to yesterday’s atrocity. It’s not just recognising that the affected people are like us — it’s that they are us. It is a fact about human emotional responses that we are more moved by things that happen to people geographically closer to us than further away, but it’s not just geography. An attack on freedom of the press is literally an attack on all of us. An attack on fellow European citizens is literally an attack on all of us. An attack on part of our community of allies and friends is literally an attack on all of us. If you assault one of us, you assault all of us, from all backgrounds.
It’s telling that the slogan and hashtag that emerged within minutes of the news breaking, spread like wildfire across the internet, and was prominent on the spectacular photos of spontaneous mass public gatherings around the world — including the one I attended in Brussels outside the European Parliament — was not just an expression of solidarity. It was an expression of identity and unity: Je suis Charlie.