‘I don’t hate them’: Charlie Hebdo survivor reflects on the massacre, 5 years later

Even though they slaughtered his colleagues, shot off the lower half of his face and caused him to spend nine months in hospital, journalist Philippe Lançon insists he does not hate Said and Cherif Kouachi.

The Kouachi brothers, who had links to the terrorist group al-Qaeda, attacked the office of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 — five years ago today.

Armed with assault rifles, they killed 12 people and injured 11 more. Lançon, who was a columnist for the paper at the time, was one of the survivors. 

“I know people who hate them and who hate people who are backing them. That’s not my case,” he told The Current’s host Matt Galloway. 

“Maybe because I don’t want to think about these guys, so I don’t hate them,” he said, clarifying that he was terribly saddened by what they had done.

“I suppose they were stupid people — morons,” he added. “But … we don’t know what is in the dark side, really, of these people.”

Lançon recently published a book about his experiences on the day of the attack and his long road to recovery, called Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo.

(Europa Editions)

That morning, he was in an editorial meeting when suddenly he heard shouting and commotion in the main office. He immediately knew that something was wrong.

The magazine needed armed protection because of repeated death threats following the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006.

Lançon saw the police officer assigned to protect publisher Stéphane Charbonnier move for his gun, an action that seemed like it was happening in slow motion, “like in a Western,” he said.

Lançon dropped to the ground. He never saw the Kouachi brothers’ faces, just a pair of black-clad legs coming towards him, closer and closer. 

Lançon didn’t realize at first that he had been shot multiple times, shattering his jaw and bursting open the flesh of both arms. He shut his eyes and played dead.

In the minutes before the two men left the building, Lançon was sure he would die. But at the same time, he said, there was another little voice in his head saying, “you won’t die.”

“Life is very strong, you know,” he said. “I was like the child who plays the dead guy, but he knows he’s not dead. Something in him knows he will not die.”

Charlie Hebdo’s publishing director Stéphane Charbonnier, one of the 12 people who was killed in the attack. (Michael Euler/Associated Press)

When he opened his eyes again, Lançon finally started to register some of what was going on around him: the dead bodies of his colleagues, the gushing injuries on his arms, the shattered teeth in his mouth. 

A young cartoonist grabbed Lançon’s cell to call his mother, and when he handed it to her, he saw his reflection in the phone. Only then did he see that the right side of his jaw was completely gone. 

“I remember perfectly that I thought, ‘well, now you are a monster,'” he said.

Philippe Lançon in 2018 at an awards ceremony in Paris, where he received the Prix Femina for his book Disturbance. (Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images)

The long road to recovery

Lançon spent months recovering in hospital, and has stopped counting the number of surgeries he has undergone (“more than 20,” he says).

He couldn’t speak or eat solid food, until doctors took the fibula bone from one of his legs and used it to reconstruct his jaw. 

Even five years later, “the recovery process in a way is still going on,” he said. “It’s not over.” 

‘We are in a democracy’

The Kouachi brothers were killed by police two days after the attack.

It’s believed they were driven to carry out the shooting because of a controversial 2006 caricature that Charlie Hebdo had published of the Prophet Muhammad, who many Muslims believe should not be depicted in images.

Many people deemed the cartoon offensive.

But Lançon said that, despite the huge toll, he still feels that publishing that cartoon was the right decision.

“It is a satirical newspaper … their job is to make fun about everything,” he said. 

“That’s why they decided to publish cartoons of Muhammad, not because they are good cartoons or not because they hated Muhammad or whatever, but only to remind people that we are in a democracy where every kind of thing can be published.”

Lançon said he believes there’s no such thing as balancing freedom of expression with what people find offensive. “[Either] you think freedom of expression is very important, or you think it’s not,” he said.

[Either] you think freedom of expression is important, or it’s not.– Philippe Lançon

But he also doesn’t buy the idea that an offensive cartoon could explain “why two brothers decided one day to take Kalashnikovs and to organize the slaughter of so many people who are cartoonists and journalists in a newspaper.”

“There is something deeper. And this [deeper thing] is linked with the … personal life of these two people,” he said.

“And this I don’t know. And nobody will know.”


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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