In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, I’ve been scanning furiously for as much information as I can find, as well as educated opinions on the subject. Among the news stories and comments, I’ve found one piece that scares me more than the rest. Journalist and blogger Catherine Monroy, appearing in The Independent, wrote an impassioned piece about how this tragedy, and others like it, scaffold a public image of a common enemy. She wrote,.
“The human need to identify enemies is creating real enemies over the world. It is dangerous to play with fire.”
There are two tragedies here. The first is painfully evident. Twelve people were brutally killed simply for drawing cartoons, voicing an opinion. Vigils have been held, and the attack has already been magnified to be an attack on the French, on all of Western culture, on the very concept of national identity and freedom of speech. But that’s all up in the political, philosophical stratosphere; twelve people lost their lives, and their lives should be remembered, and their work honored and celebrated.
The second tragedy is more nebulous. For instance, Muslim authorities are urging people to not give in to abject Islamophobia, and France is being criticized for not being able to protect their citizens from terrorist attacks. An attack such as this one immediately conjures up every excuse to be militant, and to renew the witch-hunt against those who threaten national security and national freedom.
Within a short while of this incredibly sad event, politics has already cranked out agendas and criticisms, the terrorism issue bubbling madly. The scary truth is that it was an act of terrorism, extremist Islam was an inspiration for the heinous act–almost every paper has cited the gunmen saying Allah was being avenged–and, as some, including U.S. News, have pointed out, a well-orchestrated attack. And the political powers, as well as militant opinionists across the net, are having a condemnation field day. It’s all nastily complicated. I’ve read comments that can simply be translated to, “I hope Europe kicks them all out,” referring to Muslims as one ghoulish unit, and, “We’ll make them have their own memorials,” an incredibly violent sentiment written, no doubt, from the safety of nowhere too close to a single Muslim.
Let me be clear, religious extremism is highly dangerous. Islamic extremists, it seems, are praised for enacting great violence in the name of their deity. On the flipside, political extremism is wishing an entire race exterminated for actions perpetrated by a few who’ve taken warped and dangerous citations from their particular religion. The insanity of it is right there in front of us, but the problem remains. So far, there’s no real solution to the problem of extremism, but militarizing nations and creating a bloated us vs. them image can’t really be that helpful.
In terms of free speech, satire should be the right of any writer, artist, or occasional joke teller. Publications should be able to write what they please, and the viewing world should have a sense of humor about themselves and others. If a particular piece of media is offensive, there’s always the non-violent approach. What I’ve seen, though, is a flood of criticism against journalism outlets not publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoon that garnered such hate filled violence. According to critics, cropping that image, and other supposedly offensive drawings, from coverage of the attack is letting the terrorists win. That, to me, is uninformed hysteria. If you are responsible for a staff just like the editorial team that fell victim, fear is a pretty natural response. Putting people in danger to send a message, even if its a message of freedom, is still stoking the fire and feeding into the idea that there’s an identifiable enemy that needs to see such a paramount stand of defiance. Also, not every newspaper and publication necessarily enjoys satirical art. It’s everyone’s right to not only speak but to hold back.
Where does this all leave us? The useful reaction, to me, is genuine empathy for the victims, their families, and their readers that look to them for humor and guidance. The entire political and ideological machine that slogs on right at the heels of mourning is part of a vicious battle that stokes violence. It may sound crazy, but wouldn’t a more universal understanding, bolstered by an intelligent critique of where violence originates and why, without condemning entire populations and complex religions, be better than the continued narrative of heroes and enemies? I don’t think we’re born with hate, but there are those who’ve become very impressive at engineering it.
At this point, there’s not really a high horse to stand on.
*Note: If you don’t particularly find the cartoons pleasant, or actually believe them to be incredibly racist and offensive, that’s your right as well. A few colleagues of mine brought up that freedom of speech should go right along with freedom of criticism. Some of the cartoons I’ve seen from Charlie Hebdo are highly evocative in gross ways, but at the end of the day, the endgame of publishing them shouldn’t be death by those offended. But now that it’s happened, it’s not the best idea to stomp about toting freedom of expression by posting more and more satirical cartoons about a group of men who’ve just killed cartoonists. Satire is a right, but not something to be weaponized; freedom is one thing, but being highly insensitive toward a tragedy is quite another. So when I say that the lives and work of the fallen should be honored, it’s not because because they are martyrs, not because their lives are more valuable, but because empathy is more useful than piles and piles of defiance against an idea of an enemy that takes away from the grit of what’s really going on.