Events in Paris on Wednesday were beyond belief, indeed beyond words. The adjectives are simply not there to capture the horror unleashed by weapons of war in a civilian office.
But the murder of at least a dozen French citizens, including 10 journalists on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was beyond belief in another sense too.
Whatever faith-based or other objections there may once have been to the publication’s provocative content are now entirely beside the point.
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” runs the famous saying.
When men and women have gone to their deaths for nothing more than what they have said, or drawn, there is only one side to be on. The hooded thugs trained their Kalashnikovs on free speech everywhere. If they are allowed to force a loss of nerve, conversation will no longer be free, and liberty of thought itself will falter too.
While much remains to be established about the killers, some uncomfortable truths are plain. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” were heard, revealing an inspiration that appears to come from some warped version of Islam.
Two men were seen immediately and the authorities were soon hunting a third, so this was no act of a deranged individual. The targeting of a weekly editorial conference suggests the killers carefully planned the attack to kill the most people possible. The heavy weaponry, too, suggests frighteningly organised links.
All this points towards jihadi terrorism, which has been a rare but very real threat in the West in recent years. Mostly, as in the Madrid train bombings of 2004 and the London murder of 2013, attacks has been justified as revenge for Western war-making in the Muslim world.
More rarely, as in the murder of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, real-life violence has poured over from something more like a culture war. The targeting of Charlie Hebdo, which was followed by the cry “we have avenged the prophet Muhammad”, looks like another such case.
The publication has been subject to threats and fury for the best part of a decade, particularly after, in 2006, it reproduced Danish cartoons of Muhammad, which had already created a great storm around the world.
Such depictions are, of course, blasphemy to most Muslims. But far from relenting, the editors played double or nothing, going on to produce such provocations as a special issue “guest-edited” by the prophet.
To the devout, including very many that are peace-loving, all this was deeply offensive. And, in a way, that was the intention: satire has to shock.
Being shocking is going to involve offending someone. If there is a right to free speech, there has to be a right to offend. Any society that’s serious about liberty has to defend the free flow of ugly words, even ugly sentiments.
Radicals have always mocked Christianity, just as Charlie Hebdo did, and never seen any reason not to do the same to other faiths. Such secularism goes hand-in-hand with other French acts, like the banning the full face veil.
In the face of outrage, it is especially important that calls to defend the freedom of speech do not slide into any kind of backlash against France’s entire Muslim community, the largest in Europe. It cannot blame the peaceful majority for the unforgivable actions of a violent few.
Different societies may overreact to terrorism in different ways, just looked at the American Senate’s report on American torture for one example.
But more significant than any distinction between the societies battling the jihadi threat are the parallels. Poverty and discrimination at home may create conditions for the spread of extremism. And western wars abroad can certainly inflame the risks.
In the end, though, the responsibility for the sort of murders seen today lies squarely with the murderers. All those who are appalled by these crimes must use the free speech which the killers sought to silence – and use it to condemn them.