In fact, if we did all agree on the French satirical weekly, those who died there — those who died for an idea that begins with the right to offend those who most insist on being offended – wouldn’t have done their job.
(Just as one example, Catholic League president Bill Donahue said in a statement that “Muslims were right to be angry” about Charlie Hebdo. He called murdered editor Stephane Charbonnier “narcissistic” and said he “didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.” Now that is offensive.)
Charlie Hebdo was born of the ’60s — after its predecessor, Hari-Kari, closed in controversy for having mocked the death of Charles de Gaulle — and is tied to a French tradition that, I’ve read, goes back at least as far as the lampooning of Marie Antoinette. You can see a collection of covers here if you want to understand how the newspaper glories in offending governments and religions and popes and politicians and priests and writers and actors and anyone else.
It has regularly offended Jews and Christians and Muslims (according to the New York Times, it has been sued 14 times by the Roman Catholic church). It had been cautioned — about being incautious — by the French government. But the Islamist who threatens to kill because a cartoonist has drawn Muhammad would naturally be irresistible to those who draw cartoons — often sublime in their vulgarity — at Charlie Hebdo.
The target was not just irresistible, it was dangerous. Great humor is always dangerous, although not, you’d hope, in this way.
But if the editor and other cartoonists who died — among the 12 who died in the attack, including two policemen — were heroes, they could hardly have been anything else. This is what they did. It’s who they were. One, Georges Wolinski, was 80; Jean Cabut was 76. They were both famous for their work. They both had worked at Charlie Hebdo forever. They weren’t about to give up what they do.
You know by now the story of how the magazine’s offices were firebombed in 2011 — after announcing that the prophet Muhammad would be editor in chief of the next edition — and how the magazine responded to the threat with a cover cartoon of a male cartoonist sharing a big wet kiss with an Islamic man, the office in ruins in the background. The caption read “L’amour: Plus fort que la haine,” which translates as “Love: Stronger than hate.” But it’s not about forgiveness, of course. It’s about the same-sex kiss and homophobia. Perfect.
And you’ve read by now the quote from editor Charbonnier, who said he would “rather die standing than live on his knees.” And so he struggled to keep his smallish, 30,000-circulation weekly alive and lived with a cop outside the office for protection.
All the jokes about so-called French cowardice — or freedom fries — don’t seem quite so funny now. But at Charlie Hebdo, I’m sure they still would be, which is the point. My favorite cartoon reaction — the Washington Post printed many of them — is from Dutch cartoonist Joep Bertrams, who shows a terrorist looking in dismay at the cartoonist he has just beheaded. Why the dismay? Because the cartoonist is somehow still sticking out his tongue at the killer. This is what the great cartoonists do.
No one can be surprised by the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo. We live in a time of Islamist terrorist attacks, and France is at the center of Europe’s inability, or unwillingness, to deal with its Muslim population. But I don’t see how yelling “Allahu Akbar” will convince anyone that this is about religion. And it’s certainly not about labeling a billion people for the acts of three or 300 or 3,000. Most of those killed around the world by these terrorists are, of course, Muslim.
Terror, as it is often said, is about the use of terror, which is its own kind of sick religion. As Ross Douthat wrote in the Times, we have a need for Charlie Hebdo-like blasphemy in a liberal society. “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something,” he writes, “then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said …” You don’t give veto power to terrorists, or you might as well give up everything.
But the point, I think, is that no one gets to define blasphemy for the rest of us. We each get our own shot at that. There’s nothing inherently good or right or funny or wrong about mocking someone’s religion. This was about the right, and the need, to mock that which says it cannot be mocked.
Every edition is a French lesson in the essence of our own First Amendment, which is entirely unnecessary to protect inoffensive speech or, for that matter, inoffensive cartoons. That same lesson should apply to our own government finding the need to apologize for someone’s offensive video.
The journalists weren’t killed for drawing cartoons. They were killed for insisting on their right to have ideas and to express them.
That’s my idea of blasphemy.[Paris graffiti: “Let ink flow, not blood.”]