After the Charlie Hebdo Murders, Can Journalism Really Cover Terrorism?

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A hooded police officer crosses the closed ring road that circles Paris near a hostage-taking situation at a kosher market in Paris, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015.Credit: AP

It has been a terrible week for journalists. And a terrible week for Jews.

In this line of work, you come to realize that journalists – not unlike urgent care medical personnel, fire, police, and military first-responders, clergy, and, oddly enough, many politicians – have something the rest of the public lacks, just when that public needs it most: a profession designed to process the horrific.

Journalism, like the others, is a profession which grants tools and skills and societal license to deal with the unspeakable, to get close to and, at the same time, become distanced from, the humanly unimaginable.

I had all that. But I lost it last week.

When two men gunned down journalists at the offices of a French magazine last week, I could feel all of it fall away in a second: the psychic armor, the professional distance, the journalist's essential, automatic, and also profoundly bogus sense of knowing what to do, how to take this, how to make this make a certain or a seeming form of sense.

Two days later, when a man slew four Jews shopping for the Sabbath in a kosher supermarket, I realized that I had a second set of defenses that had nothing to do with being a journalist, but everything to do with being a Jew in a place like this, defenses built of the sedimentary emotional walls that come with living in a place of man-made catastrophes and ancient hatreds reborn.

The second set of defenses went as well.

When I heard that in the wake of the attacks, the Grand Synagogue of Paris closed its doors for the first time since the Nazi occupation, I lost my sense of time.

When the secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress said the four victims of the supermarket murders were to be buried in Jerusalem Tuesday partly because of fears that burial in France might attract vandals, I lost my sense of place.

Somewhere along the line - between the BBC reporter who suggested to a woman whose parents were Holocaust survivors that "the Palestinians suffered hugely at Jewish hands as well," to the self-styled terrorism expert and Fox News contributor who indicated that militant Muslims had taken complete control of much of Europe – I began to wonder if journalists can truly cover terrorism any more. In an era of frequent death threats to journalists and actual dangers in the field, will they need to toe strict lines laid down by their news outlets, or by governments, or, in some sense, by terrorists themselves?

Oddly, it was because I was thrust back into the position of a civilian, as it were, that I began to see that the answer is yes, they can cover terrorism. As much as some people everywhere hate the news media, the public at large still knows the importance of journalists to the health of a society. In the end, journalists will not be silenced, despite everything, because the public everywhere needs to know what it is up against.

In the end, left by my own ignorance to fend for myself as one more member of the world public, I came across people who were able to provide the exact things a human being – as opposed to a journalist - needs at a time like this: meaning, inspiration, hope.

In particular, I listened to the words of the brother of the first police officer to arrive at the Charlie Hebdo offices, and confront the two gunmen making their escape. Officer Ahmed Mirabet was Muslim. And the terrorists killed him in something beyond cold blood, speaking to him as he lay wounded, before shooting him in the head.

"He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity," his brother Marek said.

“I want to make another point: Don’t tar everybody with the same brush, don’t burn mosques – or synagogues. You are attacking people. It won’t bring our dead back and it won’t appease the families.”

Ahmed's partner Morgane Ahmad, could have let bitterness have a final victory. But she had something else in mind. Looking ahead to the march the next day, in which millions paid unique respect to the dead, she declared:

“What the family and I want is for everyone to be united, we want everyone to be able to demonstrate in peace, We want to show respect for all the victims, and that the demonstration should be peaceful."

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