If there is anything more depressing about the attack on Charlie Hebdo than the attack itself, it is the fact that there is nothing new or interesting to be said about it. The context and apparent reasons for the assault are old news; as such, everything has already been said many times before.
Indeed, as I attempt to formulate my own response to this latest obscenity against human decency and the freedom of expression, I find myself merely repeating other people’s responses to other such obscenities over the last many years, both before and after September 11, 2001.
Charlie Hebdo—for the few of you who miraculously still do not know—is a French satirical newspaper operating out of Paris. It ran continuously from 1970-1981, and then again from 1992 to the present day. (“Hebdo” is French for “weekly,” and “Charlie” is an inside joke involving both Charles de Gaulle and Charlie Brown.)
Like The Onion here in the States, Charlie Hebdo operates on the principle that just about everything is fair game for parody and ridicule, including and especially organized religion. As a result, the publication has regularly come under fire for its treatment of such revered figures as the Prophet Muhammad, among others. In November 2011, such ire turned violent when the paper’s headquarters was firebombed by Muslim extremists, in response to an edition featuring a cartoon of Muhammad on its cover.
Further threats of violence against Charlie Hebdo have periodically surfaced in the three years since, and this past Wednesday, three would-be jihadists made good on that threat by storming the paper’s newsroom and murdering 12 people, including its editor-in-chief and several of its famed cartoonists. On their way out, the assailants were heard shouting, “We have avenged the prophet!” The killers have since been killed. They are believed to have been connected to al Qaeda, although many details are yet unclear.
For those of us on the sidelines—we who have taken it upon ourselves merely to make sense of senseless acts like this—there is a great deal to say: many principles to defend, many facts to establish. However, in doing so, we are forced to repeat ourselves rather than come up with anything new. It’s a shame we have to expend such efforts in the first place—we are, after all, applying reason to people who have none—but then again, it seems we have no other choice. Better to reintroduce ancient clichés than bear witness to barbarism in silence.
We could start, for instance, with the old trope, “Not all Muslims are terrorists”—an assertion that is invariably preceded and/or followed by its rejoinder, “Yes, but virtually all terrorists are Muslim.” The first statement is obviously true—only a complete idiot would argue otherwise—while the second is obviously false and yet is nonetheless, shall we say, a bit more true than most of us would like to admit.
In other words, the argument here is exactly the same one we had after the September 11 attacks—namely, “Is Islam the problem?” If Islam is truly “a religion of peace,” then why are there so many officially Muslim nations that traffic in violence and war, using certain Islamic doctrine as justification?
Alternatively, we could expand the question to encompass religion as a whole, since there is no shortage of Christian and Jewish extremists who also take the dictates of their faiths into their own hands. Could the root cause of ideological mass murder in the 21st century not be Islam but rather religious-based intolerance of every sort? Have we really made no progress in this debate since the Twin Towers fell?
Whichever side you take (there are more than two), perhaps the more salient point in the present context is the level of risk one assumes in broaching this subject at all. The way that Bill Maher’s old joke, “Never say Islam isn’t a religion of peace, because if you do, they’ll kill you,” manages to be funnier than it should be.
Because of course our primary subject of concern in the Charlie Hebdo assault is the inalienable right to express one’s views—yes, even when such views make some people uncomfortable, angry or—perish the thought!—offended.
As many of us well know, Charlie Hebdo is not the first Western publication to be physically targeted for printing provocative caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten similarly rendered Muhammad in cartoon form, in order to make a few points about free speech and religious prohibitions thereof, and within days all hell proceeded to break loose from one end of the continent to the other—an uproar that included riots, attacks on multiple European diplomatic missions and some 200 deaths, all told.
As such, because exactly this sort of thing has happened before—and quite recently, at that—we don’t need to wonder what it all means: We can just dig up what all the smart people wrote in 2005 and 2006.
As it happens, one of the smartest and sharpest of those reactions came from an old favorite of mine, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote passionately in favor of the right to insult organized religion at all costs. (“The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.”) And so we have a perfectly cogent analysis of the Charlie Hebdo situation penned by someone who’s been dead for three years.
As well, in case you need further proof of the dull repetitiveness of the West’s run-ins with theocratic loony toons, I would direct you to a wonderfully illuminating chat in 2010 between Hitchens and Salman Rushdie—a man who, despite radical Islam’s best efforts, is still very much alive. Their talk considers several key points about the Danish cartoon fiasco, and watching it today, one is taken aback by how perfectly it corresponds to the mess at Charlie Hebdo, as if the two events were completely interchangeable. In many respects, they are.
For instance, Rushdie proposes dividing the central question about free speech into two parts. First: Are news outlets duty-bound to reprint offensive cartoons out of solidarity with a publication that has been attacked? And second: Should that first paper have been more circumspect about printing those images in the first place, knowing the fuss that it would cause?
In other words, is the right to be offensive sometimes trumped by the wisdom to hold back? Is there a distinction between offending in order to make a point and offending for its own sake? Is the First Amendment not always as important as good taste?
By now, there has been exhaustive back-and-forth online and in print about these very important questions, including the charge that some of the folks at Charlie Hebdo are just plain racist. That the “I am Charlie” solidarity is a function of the relatively high level of anti-Muslim prejudice around the world today, and that a comparable paper that had published anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic cartoons would not enjoy such international goodwill following a terrorist attack. As many have said, it’s easy to defend free speech when you happen to agree with the speech in question.
My answer to this: Who cares?
The right to free expression should be defended regardless of the content, and the fact that we’re less likely to defend speech we don’t like is precisely why we have the First Amendment in the first place.
The question about good taste is an interesting one, but in this instance it’s also, finally, beside the point. The only reason we’re wondering whether the editors of Charlie Hebdo should have used more discretion is because their cartoons yielded a violent response. If satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad were not so radioactive—if they didn’t so predictably lead some people to go out and commit mass murder—then taste would be the only thing to discuss, and the First Amendment would hardly enter into it. We would talk about provocative religious images the way we talk about provocative non-religious images: With passion and indignation, but without the hysterical claim that they should not exist at all.
No, the real problem here is the lack of sophistication inherent in those who don’t have the stomach for ideas they don’t share, and who would rather such ideas not be uttered and are prepared to threaten and/or attack those who utter them.
And the problem behind the problem, like every other cliché I’ve noted, has been astutely espoused in the past, in this case by comedian Lewis Black. The central fact about al Qaeda and their ilk, Black surmised on his album The End of the Universe, is that they have no sense of humor. That they take their faith literally and without a whiff of irony or self-criticism, resulting in untold misery for millions of people.
“Patriotism is important, and religion is vital,” said Black, “But without a sense of humor, religion and patriotism can get crazy […] and we see that in our enemy.”
Black once wrote a memoir titled Nothing’s Sacred, and satire is founded upon that very notion: No subject is out of bounds, nor should it be. This means that so long as satirists exist, someone somewhere is going to be offended by what they have to say. There is no getting around this fact. Individual writers and publications are free to self-censor for reasons of taste, but it should be their decision alone, and they should never be compelled to restrict their content out of fear of violence.
The problem, you see, is not the people who offend. The problem is the people who (to quote Hitchens again) are determined to be offended and, paradoxically, will stop at nothing to prevent the rest of us from offending them.
Maybe I could explain this phenomenon better, but it would just be one more cliché.