When the twin towers burned and went down on 9/11, the most prominent witness was the 151-foot-tall woman who guards New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty.
The gift from France to the United States was dedicated in 1886 and has come to symbolize both nations' devotion to freedom and their welcoming of immigrants. Those enlightened values were attacked by the terror strikes of Sept. 11, 2001.
And they were attacked again on Wednesday in Paris when gunmen suspected to be members of France's Islamic immigrant community struck the office of a satirical newspaper. The paper has often been the subject of threats and was firebombed in 2011 for publishing a special edition that included caricatures offensive to Muslims.
Hooded and armed with rifles, two gunmen killed 12 people, including two police officers and four cartoonists at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The paper had angered some Islamic fundamentalists by publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the terrorist force in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State.
A worldwide audience
The killings of the cartoonists and others will do nothing to silence freedom of speech. Indeed, they have brought the paper's satire to a worldwide audience and brought forth an outpouring of support for the paper that was struggling to stay open.
What the killings have done is deepen the ties between the United States and France and all nations that believe in freedom and tolerance and in welcoming those who, in the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, are "yearning to breathe free." The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were provocative and willing to insult. But in pressing boundaries, they displayed the breadth of freedom. They were threatened but but did not retreat. They died for their ideas and ultimately for their nation's ideals.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the slain journalists "martyrs of liberty." Kerry also told the French, "Each and every American stands with you today not just in horror or in anger or in outrage for this vicious act of violence, but we stand with you in solidarity and in commitment both to the cause of confronting extremism and in the cause which the extremists fear so much and which has always united our two countries - freedom."
Assault on freedom
It is disillusioning that the gunmen appear to have been Islamic immigrants or descendants of immigrants who benefited from France's freedom only to assault it. The shooters asked for cartoonists by name, witnesses said, and shouted the Muslim chant "Allahu akbar!" ("God is great") but spoke flawless French.
There is an instinctive desire to strike back by tightening immigration policy and cracking down on immigrant communities. But the lesson since Sept. 11, 2001, has been that while the towers fell in New York, the freedom represented by the gift from France did not. It was shaken, of course, by an unprovoked war in Iraq, excessive scrutiny of Americans and the CIA's use of torture in interrogating detainees with suspected ties to terrorism. But the United States realizes that its greatest power is its freedom and the rights that protect it.
So, too, will France stand by liberte` no matter the pain and anger of the hour.
Hatred weakens. The unbending break. But those people and nations sustained and joined by freedom grow stronger and endure.