Personal Perspective: Cole Frost

Sports Editor Cole Frost shares his story of living in Paris at the time of the Charlie Hebdo magazine terror attacks and how that experience shaped him into who he is today.

The two men wore black body armor over dark blue uniforms with the words “Police Nationale” emblazoned on their chests. Automatic rifles, like ones I’d seen in movies, rested in their arms. They stood giant and motionless by my school’s gate, eyes locked on the Montparnasse Cemetery across the street. 

“They must be in a staring contest with the ghosts,” my classmate whispered in French as we entered the school’s cobblestone courtyard. 

The year was 2015 and Paris, my adopted hometown, was reeling from the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, which left 12 dead after Al-Qaeda gunmen opened fire at the headquarters of the satirical French magazine in the heart of the city. Overnight, police and soldiers were deployed around once-safe places – my school, the neighborhood crepe stand and favorite playgrounds. But within days, a stronger force filled the avenues: the French people, armed not with guns but with tricolor flags and homemade placards proclaiming, “Je Suis Charlie” – I am Charlie – a declaration of solidarity with the magazine targeted by the attack. 

From our sixth floor balcony, my little sister and I peered over the scrolled iron railing as thousands of chanting Parisians reclaimed the city. Their shouts filled the apartment and we begged our parents to let us join them. No luck – the threat was too new, too raw. So we painted our cheeks red, white and blue, made signs and stomped through the apartment shouting, “Je Suis Charlie!” At all hours, our house echoed with the sounds of breaking news on the TV. I was fascinated by the drama, the stories, the buzz.  

Whether or not I understood it then, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a threat to the values I had been taught to cherish: the necessity of a free press and the importance of debate across differing perspectives. The attackers hoped to silence those freedoms, but I was coming to see them as essential.

Eighteen months later, my family traded the boulevards of Paris for the beaches of San Diego. Paris had been my home for six years; I saw myself not as an American who lived in France but as a French kid born in Boston. But soon, I learned to embrace my American identity. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, joined basketball teams and learned from my new teammates and friends, seeing each as a window into American culture.

What a culture. The America we returned to in July 2016 was being made “great again,” or so some said. Once more, our TV was tuned to 24-hour news channels that captured the surreal drama playing out in public. It didn’t make sense to me at first, but I soon realized that norms and values were being upended: news was fake, speech was weaponized, divisions were stoked, dissent was denigrated and intolerance was encouraged.

I began to pursue the interests I had discovered that cold January in Paris. I chronicled a political brawl at the school board and detailed child poverty in downtown San Diego for the Falconer. Through the lens of my camera, I captured the everyday humanity of the people and places around me. 

Today, 17-year-old me understands what 10-year-old me didn’t: the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on free society. It was about silencing disagreement with deadly violence. 

Charlie Hebdo put me on a journey that continues today. Charlie represents freedom, truth, dissent and irreverence. He exists not only on the pages of a satirical magazine, but as a reminder of what must exist in a free and open society. He thinks broadly and goes beyond his comfort zone to seek, to challenge, to inform. Charlie is in my blood; I see him when I look in the mirror. Je Suis Charlie.
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