In today’s Leaving Proof: We try to make some sense of the murderous attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical news-magazine.
It breaks our heart that we have to start the new year with something like this, but after some internal discussion, we at the Geeksverse are unanimous in thinking that the matter of the attack on the office of satirical news-magazine Charlie Hebdo is something we have to address, if not for our readers, then at least for our own processing of the event and the insights that we might glean from it.
The brutal armed assault—allegedly conducted by gunmen in retaliation for political cartoons featured in Charlie Hebdo that they found offensive to their extreme interpretation of Islam—left a dozen people dead and several more critically injured, and our hearts go out to all those who have been directly affected by this senseless tragedy.
Before the events of 07 January 2015, for many of us outside the Francophone world Charlie Hebdo was a historical footnote, something Jeopardy! fans kept in their mental repository of current event facts and trivia (“I’ll take ‘controversial French periodicals’ for $600, Alex”). For those unfamiliar with Charlie Hebdo and its contentious history, it helps to think of it as something like a particularly mean-spirited hybrid of The Onion and MAD, a highly irreverent news-magazine that uses crude cartoons and caustic comic strips to skewer any and all public personalities and institutions, although in recent years, it is its satirical portrayals of figures associated with the Muslim sphere that has generated the most discussion and controversy, and at the time of the attack, editor Stephane Charbonnier was under police protection due to the death threats he had received from Islamist radicals based in France and elsewhere. The news-magazine’s office was actually firebombed a few years ago after it published cartoons featuring naked depictions of the prophet Mohammed.
Originally launched with a left-wing pluralist editorial stance, the publication has continuously pushed against the boundaries of what is considered acceptable political humor. It has been accused at times of inciting hatred and of being sensationalistic, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist, sexist, and just about everything else. Some of Charlie Hebdo‘s critics have decried it for giving voice to the very worst aspects of French left-wing populism and hiding behind the shield of satire to spread a xenophobic and aggressively anti-clerical agenda while its supporters claim that it is upholding France’s tradition of secularism and living up to the legacy of the obscene scandal sheets that date all the way back to the French Revolution. (I haven’t read enough of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons and comic strips to have a particularly informed opinion regarding this debate, but it has occurred to me that its contradictory reputation—it seems to have almost as many critics and detractors from the moderates and the Left as it does from the conservative Right—might partially be due to the difficulty of pulling off good satire: crude satire may actually end up reinforcing the attitudes and ideas it purportedly aims to lampoon and criticize.)
Still, however one views the publication’s politics and its methods, there can be absolutely no reasonable justification for the murders of Charbonnier, cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut, Philippe Honore, and Bernard Velhac; columnist Elsa Cayat, contributor Bernard Maris, proofreader Mustapha Ourrad, maintenance worker Frederic Boisseau, police officers Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet, and visiting editor Michel Renaud. And far from being just cold-blooded mass murder, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was also a terrorist offensive against the ideals of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
My first reaction to the news of the Charlie Hebdo murders was outrage, followed by sorrow for those killed and their friends and families and then a general feeling of helpless distress over the state of the world. I hesitate to describe the work I do for the Geeksverse as journalism, even though I’ve covered multiple events and conducted interviews for the site as a credentialed member of the media. I write about comics and the people who make them for a recognized media outlet, so I guess that makes me a “comics journalist” in some respect, and the fact that Charlie Hebdo was apparently targeted specifically because of its journalistic remit made the news of the deaths hit very close to home.
I spent the next several hours after initially hearing about the attack reading reactions from news sites and blogs, major and minor, even those from organizations or people who don’t normally cover current events. There was universal condemnation of the killings—there’s no surprise in that—but I was also taken quite aback by some of the opinions expressed regarding journalistic responsibility and the role Charlie Hebdo‘s deliberately inflammatory material may have played in the lead-up to the tragedy.
More than a few thinkpieces rolled out that old chestnut about how “freedom of expression does not guarantee freedom from repercussion” or a similarly-themed aphorism. It’s a phrase I’m familiar with—I’ve used it myself to describe how public statements and online posts can come back and haunt their sources—but its use to describe the Charlie Hebdo tragedy almost makes it sound like the authors were partially blaming the victims for their deaths.
It did make me take pause and think, though, about our little corner of the media world and how over the past year, concern over repercussions in the form of public backlash has become something of a hot topic among both comics creators and the comics press. (Now, before we go any further, let me just make it perfectly clear that I am in no way equating rancorous online scuffles with censorship or worse, terrorism.) There were the disgusting rape threats lobbed by irked fans at former DC Comics editor Janelle Asselin after she wrote a Comic Book Resources review feature criticizing how artist Kenneth Rocafort portrayed teenaged girls on the cover of a DC superhero comic (the whole thing was so damned toxic that it led to Comic Book Resources having to “reboot” its popular public forums). There was the hullabaloo over Milo Manara’s Spider-Woman #1 variant cover. And in his 2014 National Book Festival address, the acclaimed graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang talked about how fear of an Internet backlash could be pushing some writers to play it safe and stick to what they know instead of stepping outside of their comfort zone and creating a more diverse creative landscape.
Again, I’m not saying that these situations are especially (or even slightly) comparable to what happened to Charlie Hebdo or that they’re even all that similar to each other. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the underlying threat of mob reprisal that ties these episodes (and others like them) together. Increased access to technology means that more than ever, the public can hold the people involved in the production of media accountable for what they’ve created and published. That’s unequivocally a good thing. But the democratization of networked communications also means we will have to reconsider what it means to have freedom of expression (and the responsibilities and yes, the risks, that go with it) in a world where ideas and messages can be amplified and stripped of context in no time by the mechanisms of New Media, and where violence—physical, psychological, economic, and virtual—is unfortunately still too-easily available as the ultimate argument ender for those who have no compunction about using it.
I am haunted by one of the eyewitness accounts of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. If you’ve been following the online print news coverage of the event, you’ve probably read it: Ahmed Merabet, the first police officer to respond to the scene, is lying on the street outside the magazine’s offices, wounded but alive. One of the gunmen casually walks up to him and shoots him in the head.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking of freedom of expression in the abstract. We talk so casually about protecting it, fighting for it, even dying for it, without knowing what it really means to sacrifice one’s life for a principle. Replaying the mental image of the eyewitness account in my mind, I ask myself if dying for freedom of expression is something I can actually do. I’ve always thought of myself as a staunch supporter of free speech and the free exchange of ideas, but I can’t come up with an answer—all I can think about when I consider the question is my family and everything else I still want to do in life. But what I do know is this: We have to continue working to create a world where no one has to make that impossible choice.